Frozen Water Pipes - What Causes Them & How Do I Fix?

Every winter we inevitably get calls from homeowners who complain about their water pipes being frozen and need help figuring out what caused it.  There are a variety of reasons why water pipes freeze in the winter time, but most of them are due to poorly insulated and air-sealed houses.  But it’s not always the insulator’s fault, as I’ll explain shortly.

To help our customers diagnose what may be happening, we first need to know the construction type and age of the house, as this will help us eliminate certain possibilities and lead us to other ones.  Here are some of the things we will ask to help identify what the problem(s) may be:

·       How old is the home and how long have you lived there?

·       What type of foundation do you have? (Slab, basement, crawlspace, or a combination)

·       How many floors above ground are there? (1, 1.5, 2, or 3)

·       Do you have any rooms above a garage or rooms that extend away from the house (cantilevers)?

·       Do you have any bulkheads in your kitchens or baths, or areas where the ceiling changes height?

The answers to these questions can help lead us in the right direction before we even step foot inside the house and save time in recommending the solution(s).

So, now that we have a better idea of what may be occurring, we need to schedule the onsite inspection and determine whether or not diagnostic testing is needed, such as an air-leakage test and thermal imaging with an infrared camera.  Most of the time these two things will make it very quick and easy to locate the areas causing the pipes to freeze.  Other times a trained inspector can find the source of the problems with a visual inspection and diagnostic testing may not be needed.

Frozen water pipeGenerally speaking, the older a house is, the leakier it tends to be.  Air-leakage pulls in cold outdoor air through any hole, crack, or gap throughout the house.  If there are water lines located in basements or near exterior walls and there are also holes nearby where air can get inside, this colder air will often cause the water lines to freeze as a result. 

In addition to holes and gaps in exterior walls, many times the way the house was framed is actually the bigger issue.  Cantilevers, bulkheads, rooms over garages, and changes in ceiling height are all created by the framer, and the way these features are built can make a huge difference in the air-leakage of your home.

This is where it becomes important to use the right materials to air-seal the problem areas you find, otherwise you may be wasting your time and money.  You may be tempted to stuff some fiberglass insulation into these areas, but remember this – fiberglass is a porous material and air can freely move through it.  For holes generally less than a couple inches wide, you want to use expandable foam, like “Great Stuff” foam that comes in cans from your local hardware store.  

Great Stuff Foam

For smaller holes that are less than ¼ inch wide, you may be able to use expandable foam, but silicone caulk or “fire-caulk” may be easier to apply and will typically fill the gaps easier.  If you find large openings that are created by the way the house was framed, you will first need to use a solid material to block it off, like ½” thick foam board, drywall, wood, or sheet metal to cover the opening before attempting to air-seal the blocking material to the surrounding framing.  Once these you find have been completely blocked and air-sealed, then you can add insulation to the areas to help prevent heat loss from your home.

If you’ve looked around your house for these things and tried to make some repairs on your own, but are still having issues, please contact us to set an appointment and we’ll be happy to help you solve your problem with freezing water pipes.

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