How to Wrap Your Pipes and Winterize Them Safely

11/11/2021

As you're preparing your home for wintry weather, make sure that winterizing your pipes is on your to-do list. A pipe that is filled with water and freezes in cold temperatures is expensive to repair if it bursts. It can also inflict considerable damage on your home. In fact, Home Advisor estimates that a burst pipe could cost you between $1,000 and $4,000 in water damage and repair fees.

The best time to take care of your pipes is in autumn, before the temperatures begin to drop, said Christian Fiore, an instructor at Granite State Trade School in Raymond, New Hampshire, which specializes in plumbing and HVAC instruction.

While it's not overly complicated to do, winterizing your pipes in order to keep your home safe does take some forethought and maybe a little practice, too. If you're unsure how to wrap pipes for winter, how to drain your pipes, or how to manage any of the other tasks required to prevent frozen or burst pipes, this article will help you get started.

Drain the faucets outside your home

If you have outdoor faucets, you'll need to drain the water from them so that they don't do any damage. "People don't realize that once ice expands in a confined space, it actually takes up more than its original space and volume," Fiore said. This means that if a pipe is filled with water, and the temperature drops to 32 degrees or less for an extended period of time, the water will freeze and the pipe will split and cause a water leak.

To drain an outdoor faucet:

  • Close the shut-off valve that controls the flow of water in the pipe to your outdoor faucet.
  • Head outside and disconnect and drain your garden hose (if you have one) so that it doesn't freeze and rupture.
  • Open the outdoor faucet, allow the water to completely drain out of the line and turn off the faucet when done.
  • Finally, head back inside to the shut-off valve, place a bucket or container underneath the drain plug (a small cap located on the side of the shut-off valve) and drain the remaining water inside the pipe into the bucket or container.

If this sounds like a lot of maintenance to do every year, Fiore said that you might want to consider investing in a frost-free spigot.

From the outside, a frost-proof faucet looks just like a regular faucet. But on a frost-proof faucet, the water shutoff valve sits on a long pipe much deeper inside your home's walls. (A traditional faucet that is not frost-proof has the important shutoff valve right behind the outside handle, which increases the chances that it will freeze, given that it's closer to outside temperatures.) As a result, there is less of a chance that the pipe will freeze because the shutoff valve is closer inside your home where it's warmer.

Fiore said that what this means is that on a frost-proof faucet, you're turning the water on 10 to 12 inches inside your home, where it's considered “conditioned" space and warm enough that the pipe won't freeze unless you lose heat in your home.

Blow out your home irrigation systems

If you have a home irrigation system, Fiore said it's worth the money to hire an expert every year to come to your home with an air compressor. This machine forces air through your valves, pipes and sprinkler heads in order to completely rid your sprinkler system of water.

Fiore said that some homeowners think their system is safe because it's buried underground. But unfortunately, many systems are not buried deep enough below the frost line (which can be several feet below the grass) and as such are vulnerable to damage from cold weather. This is why it's best to have an expert come and take care of it for you. If you're not sure whether your sprinkler system is below the frost line, Fiore said to call your installer. This is also why "it's better to blow it out seasonally so then you avoid anything freezing," he said.

In the spring, you can turn the system back on yourself if you're familiar with which valves will reintroduce water back in the system. If you're not sure, just call your maintenance person. Fiore said the water “won't rush from the source" at first, but eventually you'll get a steady flow, just like when you open a faucet for the first time.

Protect the pipes inside your home

One of the best and most cost effective methods for preventing frozen water pipes is to wrap your pipes with insulation. This is a common method of protection in the parts of your house that aren't exposed to heat, such as an attic. If you're wondering how to wrap pipes for winter, Fiore advises buying foam sleeves from your local hardware store to cover them. Doing so will keep the pipes warm enough so that the water inside the pipe doesn't freeze.

The Insurance Information Institute (III) says you should keep your home heated to a cozy temperature of at least 65 degrees. That's because your pipes are located inside the walls, and the temperature there is much colder than the rest of the house. Anything lower than 65 degrees, according to the III, may not prevent freezing from occurring inside those walls.

What to do if your pipes freeze

Fiore said one telltale sign that a pipe has frozen is if the pipe bulges out from its natural shape.

If the pipe has already burst, you'll see an incision in the pipe about three quarters to an inch long, he said. Sometimes, you'll find a leak and water damage, but it depends on the circumstances. If, for example, the water pressure is low in a forced hot water heating system and the temperature in the space drops rapidly, the water in the pipe can freeze quickly and split the pipe without any water seeping out, Fiore said.

If you're around when the freezing happens, you might hear a few small noises, but nothing "catastrophic" that draws your attention to the frozen pipe. "This process happens very slowly as it freezes hydraulically," Fiore said, "and then it just fractures the pipe."

If a pipe has frozen but hasn't burst, Fiore said you can try to thaw it with a portable heater.

In the event that your pipes do burst, the Insurance Information Institute advises calling your insurance company as soon as possible so they can inspect the damage, if there is any. In the meantime, remove nearby carpet or furniture that could be further damaged by the incident, make a list of any damaged property and save receipts for anything you spend to try and fix the problem so that you can get reimbursed.

What to do if you're going away for the holidays or a long period of time

Fiore said smart devices, such as Google Nest or ecobee, are great for keeping an eye on the temperature in your home when you're away. These devices are linked to your Wi-Fi network (be sure to keep it on when you're away) and can provide alerts on your phone if the temperature in your home falls unexpectedly. The device can also offer suggestions on how to be more energy efficient with your heating and cooling.

The Google Nest Learning Thermostat, for example, can use sensors and an app on your phone to monitor your location. That way, if you're not at home, the device can lower the temperature to save energy. It also can be used to keep rooms in your house at certain temperatures and can even send you a reminder to replace the air filter in your HVAC unit.

Still, accidents happen. And the good news is that your standard homeowners policy will cover most of the kinds of damage that result from frozen pipes, but by following these easy steps, you can minimize your chances of having an accident in the first place. If you have an older home that needs repairs, you may want to think of a more reliable solution to eliminate the risk of frozen pipes. This could include adding more insulation to attics, basements and crawl spaces to maintain higher temperatures in areas like these that aren't exposed as much to heat.