9 Tips to Prepare Your Plumbing for Winter

The chilly months are coming. The snow will fall, the water will freeze, the icicles will form – and possibly fall, as with many thousands of human beings. You’ll soon be coming home from work even more desperate for a shower, but that shower might not be there.

And you’ll be annoyed. And frustrated. And more irritated than you’ve ever been. Usually, this occurs simply because some water, somewhere, in some pipe, also somewhere – most likely unknown to you – has decided it’s going to freeze up. But what are you going to do?

Well, there are many solutions that don’t require the help of a professional, but may set you back a few dollars. However, it’s always better to pay a few now than pay a few thousand later for damages and repairs done to you or your property.

Do note, that when water freezes, it expands. If that water was in some pipe, somewhere, that pipe will also expand – you can’t fight nature with a pipe. That pipe will crack, and likely release a lot of very cold water all over your property soon after everything unfreezes, and the winter goes away.

So, not only do you not have cold showers anymore, but you’re stuck with thousands of dollars in repairs. How we dislike the winter!

The only people who enjoy winter with regards to plumbing are plumbers themselves. Their business skyrockets – and that’s not a bad thing, but it’s certainly costly for you.

So, what’s the solution? How can you go about preparing your own plumbing for the nippy winter? They’re all basic solutions – and solutions that anybody can do on their own, sometimes with the help of only a few dollars.

The simple solution is in one sentence – focus on the most vulnerable. And that means the outdoors, where ice is going to form first. That’s why we’re going to begin this article with information covering the outdoors, and then gradually shift indoors, towards the “more protected” areas, which likely won’t need any adjustments whatsoever.

Check your outdoor valves

Any tap that is outside of the boundary within the walls of your house is absolutely the most vulnerable, and can even, in some cases, act as a gateway – one that you will severely regret – into your home’s internal plumbing system, and that can cause pipes to crack, and rather badly, too.

This can be solved in two different ways. Firstly, ensure that all of your main shutoff valves leading to the outdoor tap are set in the “off” position. This is crucial, as it prevents any water from actually entering the knob, and freezing it up. It also prevents the cold from the outside travelling into your house as quickly as it could.

Secondly, simply install some coverings. After you’ve turned off the water, cover/insulate the outdoor tap to ensure it does not freeze.

Disconnect all of your hoses

This could save you hundreds of dollars in gardening and plumbing material.

When winter approaches, it’s absolutely essential that all of your hoses are disconnected. If they’ve got any water left inside them, and the frost and the ice come along, that water will freeze and expand, weakening or even cracking open the entire hose.

This can be incredibly expensive, when you consider that most hoses are about $25, and every household usually has an average of three or four. It’s not big money, but it could certainly be invested in other things, like days out with your kids, trips in the night, saving up for a holiday, etc.

A simple step such as disconnecting your hoses can also prevent icy water or cold slush from entering your house plumbing, preventing more freezing.

Install insulating faucet solutions.

These can be purchased incredibly cheaply from amazon or local stores.

Insulating devices for outdoor faucets can help massively with efforts to prevent ice from forming in the first place inside any plumbing system. As faucets (taps in the UK) are incredibly prone to freezing, and are more vulnerable than any other part of the plumbing system in your home, all should be done to protect them.

Through simple devices, usually made of Styrofoam and fur, you can cover your tap and ensure there is a tight seal between the wall the tap is protruding from and the tap itself, as well as the cold air and the general temperature and weather of the outside.

However, always ensure that when using this solution, you drain all the water from the outdoor taps first, otherwise they could just freeze anyway. This would be rather damaging too.

Purchase a temperature sensing (heat) cable.

This is an incredibly innovative solution that allows you to monitor the temperature of your pipes, whilst automatically adjusting the settings on your water heater to forbid the formation of ice, which as we already know causes great damage to plumbing systems either through cracks or simply breaking the pipe in many places, costing you not only the pipe itself, but any property surrounding the pipe, since it will likely get a large dose of cold water poured all over it.

These devices can be purchased in almost any local plumbing store, but if you can’t find any, you can always turn to amazon. Install the device by taping/adhering the cable of the device to your plumbing system, and connect the system through the instructions of the manufacturer to your heating system.

This will prevent your pipes from freezing – the device will automatically turn up the temperature of the water in the pipes to prevent it from freezing.

Install insulation around your pipes and home plumbing system

Insulation, insulation, insulation.

This is the solution to the cold. You’ve insulated your outdoor taps, but now it’s time to do the same with all your plumbing and water pipes.

Insulating material can very easily be purchased from the internet or local stores. This step is almost the most important if you don’t want your pipes to freeze up. Even if there’s no cold water pouring in from the outside, you should still insulate your pipes.

However, ensure that when you insulate, you take steps to do so in the right manner. Ensure that if you have installed a heat or temperature sensing cable which you can purchase anywhere (there are more details in the section above) that this goes underneath the insulation, with the control interface and LED screen (if you have one) left exposed. This will enable you to always check the temperature of the pipes and that within them during any time of day or night, and know whether or not your insulation and/or your water heater is actually working.

When sudden cold sets in, leave your indoor plumbing exposed.

What? Why would you leave your plumbing exposed in case it becomes cold outside? Surely we should be keeping it as well hidden from ‘the elements’ as possible?

Well, yes we should, but we do need to be careful with this approach. If our plumbing is exposed to the cold, it will freeze. But if it’s not exposed to the warmth of our homes, it will get cold instead, and freeze. For this reason, leave your indoor plumbing exposed, most likely by leaving cabinet doors open and leaving the door under the stairs slightly exposed to the heating of your home. This will guarantee strongest results.

Leave a faucet running – well, dripping.

Leaving a faucet open can allow pressure to escape from iced-up pipes. Of course, we’re trying to prevent pipes freezing up – and that’s understandable.

But sometimes, some ice may form somewhere and only begin to expand, increasing the pressure – force exerted – on your pipes. By leaving a tap or two running (only dripping) you create a pressure release valve for these pipes, and this allows them to avoid a crack.

By releasing pressure, you can save yourself thousands of dollars in major plumbing repairs. Sure, it’ll tick up your next water bill if you leave the water running all throughout winter, but it might just save you that extra couple thousand.

This is a simple solution to a big problem. A drip is enough to release pressure from a build-up of ice.

Seal up any gaps between your home and the outdoors, especially if there’s piping involved.

If you have a pipe running into your home from the outside, you want to make sure that there is no or minimal cavity in the wall that the pipe is running through. This not only prevents the cold air from getting in, saving you more on your heating bill, but also helps prevent the formation of ice inside your home.

This simple step – not allowing cold air to rush past your pipe and into your home when the wind blows – can literally, and I’ll say it again, save you thousands of dollars.

Ramp the heating up!

We’ve left the most obvious solution until last. If you don’t want your pipes indoors getting cold, keep them warm through heating!

Yes, again, this might rack up a few extra dollars on your heating bills, but it is certainly the most common sense based solution. If you keep your home warm, your pipes inside your home won’t get cold.

And after all, most families heat their homes all the time in the winter anyway, and we’ll assume that you do too. The only difference with this, is that you might sometimes need to heat parts of your home that you wouldn’t usually spend time in, such as underneath your stairs.

About the author

Steve Bates

Hi, I'm Steve and I currently reside in Chicago, Illinois. Although for most of the last 20 years I was a partner in a HVAC company down in Austin, Texas.

I understand the frustration involved with dealing with water heater repairs and replacing or upgrading to a new, more efficient model.

My aim is offer some basic advice on fixing home hot water systems. And if a repair isn't possible, then to make the process of selecting a new water heater – be it gas or electric - as simple as possible.

So that you can save money and have a safe and reliable hot water system in your home for many years to come.