9 Tips to Avoid a Costly Winter Plumbing Leak

Mariel Loveland
Written by Mariel Loveland
Updated October 26, 2021
home exterior in the winter
Shannon Workman - stock.adobe.com

These steps can help you reduce stress on your plumbing, prevent frozen pipes, and chill out with the weather

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As the weather gets colder, a frozen pipe is like a boogeyman for homeowners. But chilly temperatures aren't the only thing that stresses out your home’s plumbing. As families gather for the holidays, so do the potential plumbing problems. The truth is that winter and visiting guests can be hard on your home’s pipes, but there are some things you can do to help prevent a costly plumbing leak.

1. Insulate Your Pipes

man installing insulation for pipes
bildlove - stock.adobe.com

When temperatures dip below freezing, pipes can potentially freeze and burst. This can lead to flooding and water damage, especially if you’re not home to immediately turn off the water. To prevent frozen pipes, insulation is key. It traps in warmth and helps shield your pipes from frigid winds. 

Fiberglass insulation is a champion at trapping heat, so it works best for pipes that transport hot water. Many homeowners opt for rubber or foam because it’s easy to install. If you’re handy, insulating your pipes can be a simple DIY. All you have to do is:

  • Purchase foam, rubber, or fiberglass tubes at your local hardware store

  • Put on protective gloves

  • Cut the tubes to length

  • Pull them open (they should have a slit on one side)

  • Push them around the pipes

  • If they’re not self-adhesive, use duct tape to secure them in place

Pipes in attics, crawl spaces, and outdoor walls are the most vulnerable, so make sure they’re well-insulated. The risk is particularly high when temperatures drop below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Wind chill also plays a role.

2. Fix Home Plumbing Leaks Now

During the winter, we spend a lot of time away from our homes, gathering with friends and celebrating the holidays. That’s when a small drip can spiral into a potentially much bigger problem. To avoid any issues down the line, get your plumbing leaks fixed now.

Most plumbing leaks are visible if you know where to look, but some can be incredibly sneaky. Scan your utility rooms, kitchen, and bathrooms for drips, puddles, and moisture. Be mindful of under-the-sink plumbing where leaks may go unnoticed. If you spot a problem, you may want to hire a professional plumber to address it.

3. Drain Your Water Heater

Your water heater is probably going to get a lot more use during the winter, so you’ll want to make sure it’s in good shape. This is particularly important if you live in an area with hard water, where sediment can build up in the tank and make it rust from the inside out. Nobody wants rust seeping into their drinking water. Nor do they want a rusty water heater to fail and flood their home.

To prevent a problem, drain your water heater and check it for rust. If your water heater is showing significant signs of wear, consider having it fixed or replaced. Always pay attention to signals that your water heater is about to fail.

4. Pack Away Your Garden Hose

A garden hose is a pathway into your home’s piping. If you leave your hose outside during the winter, any water that’s left inside can freeze and expand, potentially affecting the connected pipes and faucets. Hello, cracks and burst pipes.

To prevent a problem, disconnect your garden hose and pack it away for the winter once temperatures start dropping below 32 degrees Fahrenheit (the temperature at which water freezes). You can reconnect it when temperatures rise above freezing in the spring.

5. Close and Drain Any Shut-Off Valves That Lead Outside

Sealing off extra lines that go outdoors is one of the best ways to protect your home’s plumbing during the winter. Water sits in the pipes, and if the pipes are away from your home’s heating system and insulation, they can freeze and burst. A small leak can quickly become a much bigger problem. 

If you have interior shut-off valves that lead to outdoor faucets—and you don’t need to use the faucets—turn them off for the season. Even a line going to a water feature in your garden can pose an issue.

6. Clean Your Home’s Sump Pump

When a sump pump is exposed to extreme cold (temperatures below 20 degrees Fahrenheit), it can freeze or stop working. A malfunctioning sump pump is a one-way ticket to a flooded basement, especially if it’s been raining. To avoid problems, make sure you clean and inspect your sump pump before the cold weather hits. If you live in an area with winter storms that tend to knock out the power, you may want to consider a sump pump that runs on a generator.

7. Leave a Slow Drip

If you’re expecting extreme cold, an intentionally leaky faucet is actually a good thing. When temperatures dip below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, leave your faucets at a slow drip. This keeps water moving (making it harder to freeze) and alleviates pressure in the lines (reducing the stress that may cause a pipe to burst).

8. Consider a Smart Thermostat If You’re Spending Time Away

woman controlling home temp from car
juanma hache/ moment via Getty Images

During the winter, many homeowners lower the temperature on their thermostats when they’re not at home. In theory, using less energy saves you money—but not if it causes a burst pipe. Winter cold fronts can be unpredictable, which can be a big issue if you’re not home to raise the temperature.

If you’re traveling a lot for the holidays, you may want to consider investing in a smart thermostat. You’ll be able to adjust it through a mobile app when the next polar vortex strikes.

9. Keep Your Outdoor Drains Clean

In the autumn, leaves and debris tend to clog outdoor drains and block gutters. This poses a problem when winter rolls around because if water can’t properly drain, it’ll freeze. To protect your plumbing, clean outdoor drains periodically through autumn and winter. Excess standing water probably means you have a clog, and you might need to bring in a professional.

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