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Preventing Cold-Weather Damage

While heavy winter accumulation is not as commonplace in the Midwest as in the northern States, cold weather can still be the bane of many homeowners in the Midwest. Side effects of cold weather, such as burst pipes and ice dams, have the potential to cause serious and costly damage to a home. Homeowners can help prevent cold-weather damage by following some simple, DIY steps.

Burst Pipes

Burst pipes occur when water-filled pipes are exposed to extreme and prolonged cold. Typically, pipes that are susceptible to freezing include uninsulated pipes against exterior walls, garden hose bibs, and water supply lines to unheated areas inside basements, crawl spaces, attics, and garages. Pipes inside the house can also freeze if the temperature inside the house gets too low. As the water inside the pipes freezes and expands, the pipes are put under a tremendous amount of pressure. If a pipe bursts, water can flow rapidly into other parts of the house, damaging drywall, carpet, ceilings, and furniture.

Insulating Your Pipes

Here's how to effectively insulate your pipes:
  • ,Choose the Right Insulation Material: Pipe insulation comes in various forms, including foam, fiberglass, or polyethylene. Foam insulation sleeves are popular because they are easy to install and can be cut to fit. For pipes with small diameters, tubular sleeve insulation is ideal, while larger pipes may require insulation blankets.
  • Proper Installation: Insulation must be properly installed to be effective. This means ensuring that it fits snugly around the pipe without gaps. For sleeves, the seam should be sealed with duct tape. If using wrap insulation, it should be wound tightly around the pipes and secured with tape.
  • Insulate All Exposed Pipes: It's important to insulate all pipes that are exposed to cold air, not just the ones outside. This includes pipes in garages, basements, attics, and crawl spaces. Even pipes under kitchen and bathroom cabinets can benefit from insulation.
  • Inspect and Maintain Insulation: Over time, insulation can degrade. It's important to inspect your pipe insulation annually and replace it if it's wet, damaged, or not adequately covering the pipes. Wet insulation can freeze and does not effectively insulate the pipe.
  • Professional Help for Hard-to-Reach Areas: If pipes are in areas that are difficult to access or if you're unsure of the best way to insulate them, it may be wise to hire a professional. They can ensure that the insulation is applied correctly and offer advice on the best materials for your particular situation.

Sealing Cracks and Holes in Walls and Foundations

Sealing cracks and openings in the areas where pipes enter and exit your home is a crucial. These gaps can allow cold air to sweep in and chill the pipes, significantly increasing the risk of the water inside them freezing and expanding, which can lead to bursts. To address this, homeowners can use caulk or expandable foam sealant to fill these openings. This not only helps in insulating the pipes but also improves the overall energy efficiency of the home by preventing warm air from escaping and cold air from entering.

First, identify all the potential points where pipes penetrate the walls or floors. Common areas to check include where the water supply line enters the house and around sink plumbing, especially if they are on an exterior wall. Once identified, homeowners should carefully apply the appropriate sealant, ensuring a tight seal that leaves no gaps. It's important to choose a sealant that is appropriate for the material of the wall or floor and the climate conditions of the area.

Open Cabinets and Vanities

This allows the warmer air from your home's heating system to circulate around the plumbing fixtures and pipes that are often housed in these enclosed spaces, particularly those against exterior walls, which are more susceptible to freezing. The increased air circulation can help to raise the temperature in these confined areas, reducing the risk of water within the pipes freezing and potentially bursting, a small act that can prevent significant damage and costly repairs.

Trickle Water Through the Pipes

This tactic is particularly crucial for pipes that traverse areas lacking insulation or heating, such as basements, attics, or exterior walls. By letting the water flow, albeit minimally, it relieves the pressure that can accumulate between the faucet and any ice blockage that forms inside the pipe. Since it's the pressure from expanding ice that leads to pipe bursts, not the ice formation itself, a consistent drip can keep this pressure from reaching critical levels. It's a balance of water conservation with protective action; even a slight drip can provide enough flow to prevent the pressure from rising to a point where a pipe could burst.

Ice Dams

In areas with significant snowfall, ice dams can form along the eaves of a roof when heat rising out the house melts the snow and ice on the roof. When the melted snow flows down to the unheated eaves, it re-freezes at the edge of the roofline, creating a thick barrier of ice and icicles. Without proper prevention and removal, an ice dam could grow large enough to prevent water from draining into the downspouts or off of the roof. The water then trapped behind the dam may over time break through the shingles and leak into the exterior walls, the attic, or even the rooms below.

To help keep ice dams from forming, install insulation in the attic floor and make sure that the attic is well ventilated. Also seal all the places where air can flow from the living areas to the attic, such as exhaust fans, chimneys, attic doors, and light fixtures. The insulation and seals will prevent heat from the living area from rising into the attic, while allowing fresh air to come in will lessen the difference between the temperature inside the attic and the temperature outside. These steps help prevent the melting and refreezing cycle that causes ice dams to form. Before the snows come, also clean out all the gutters and downspouts so that any melted snow will drain way instead of refreezing in the gutters.

When it comes time to replace the roof, look into installing a water-repellent membrane between the subroof and the shingles. This membrane, though it does not stop ice dams from forming, will act as a barrier to any water that works its way under the shingles, and will prevent the water from damaging the subroof and leaking into the attic or exterior walls below.

If snow has already fallen and there’s no time to insulate the attic or provide more ventilation, the roof can be cleaned off to prevent refreezing and a channel can be cut through the ice to allow the water underneath to drain. Heating cables can effectively “cut” a channel by running the heat cables from higher up on roof to the gutters and downspouts. A draining channel can also be cut through an ice dam by pouring a thick line of calcium chloride perpendicularly across the dam. Homeowners should ensure that they use calcium chloride, not rock salt, and be aware that any vegetation on the ground below or near the downspout could be damaged or killed.

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