Free Guide: How to winterize pipes in a vacant home?

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In this blog post, I will discuss with you some useful tips and tricks to save your home’s plumbing from the damage that extremely cold weather can cause when you are away during the snowbird season.

You must upgrade to a frost-free hose bib and cover your hose bibs. You must close your foundation vents and insulate all your plumbings. You must also winterize your outdoor sprinkler system.

Scroll on to read the detailed method to winterize your pipelines.

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When to winterize pipes in a vacant home?

When the temperature of your pipelines drops just below thirty-two degrees even for a short while you may face the risk of pipeline bursting, cracking, fracture or leakage. You must make sure the areas that have indoor pipelines are kept well above eight degrees Celsius. If you live in Alaska then you need an all year round winterization.

If you live in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia or Washington DC then you need winterization from 1st October to 31st March. If you live in Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Islands, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin or Wyoming, then you need to winterize your pipelines from 1st September to 30th April. If you live in Hawaii, Guam, Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands then you don’t need to winterize your pipelines ever.

“The purpose of winterization is to make sure that all of the water is out of the pipeline, so the system does not freeze,” said Aaron Knepp, owner of a Conserva Irrigation franchise in Columbus, Ohio. “You have to get all of the water out of the pipeline. The main plumbing or the backflow device is typically outside on ninety-five percent of the jobs in our area, and that is the first thing which freezes.”

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When the plumbing systems are not properly winterized or winterized at all, Knepp said they can show signs of damage later on in the spring, and if the water is left behind in the pipelines during the winter, it will expand and freeze, which will cause the pipes or fittings to burst.

“You get what you pay for on this,” he said. “I have seen a lot of properties where we get there in the spring and they are not winterized correctly, and we end up having to do hundreds of dollars of repairs. And if they had been winterized carefully, they would not have that.”

It is recommended that you start this process once you have experienced three or more days at three degrees below freezing, but Knepp notes that landscapers in areas that experience mild winters can wait until the beginning of October or even into November before it is necessary to perform this job. For people with more intense winters, Knepp said it is probably a good idea to go ahead and start the process in September.

The size of your property will determine the length of time it takes to complete this task. Knepp said it should not take very long to properly get the system taken care of if you are using the proper air compressor.

“We are seeing it take about twenty minutes to winterize the system,” he said. “On larger properties and ones with older systems, it can take longer, maybe forty-five minutes. But on average, it takes about twenty to thirty minutes total.”

In many cases, Knepp said winterizing an irrigation system is bundled into a fall service package that also consists of aerating, overseeding or inter-seeding. Since the seeding process is typically followed by deeply watering the turf, it is not recommended that you perform the winterizing process immediately after seeding.

Knepp said his team visits the people and offers a “fall tune-up,” which consists of his team marking each sprinkler head, aerating, overseeding and setting up the irrigation controller to water the turf enough to stimulate growing conditions. Thirty to forty-five days later, Knepp said his team comes back and winterize the whole system.

“A lot of times, companies will just hook the air compressor up and either put it on a small timer and just hang around the shop until they shut it down, whereas I train my technicians to check every single sprinkler head and make sure there are no leaks,” he said.

Knepp also said that the winterization process is straightforward, and it needs to be completed before the first frost if at all possible. Winterizing the pipelines is most commonly achieved by manually draining them, the automatic drain method or by the blow-out method.

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Tools needed to winterize the pipes in your vacant home:

  • Air compressor with an operating gauge
  • Air compressor hose fitting to connect it to the faucet or spigot located in your washing machine sink
  • Antifreeze
  • Basic cleaning products and supplies
  • Clear winterization film to cover your toilet and sinks.
  • Extension cord
  • Generator
  • Plunger
  • Shop vacuum for draining water from your sinks and toilet bowl
  • Zip ties for securing the shut off valves at your water meter

During the winter season when the temperature drops below the freezing point, it puts a frozen pipeline in the danger of bursting. You can prevent your pipelines from freezing by trying to keep them hot. If you are planning to leave for the snowbird season then you should drain your pipelines.

Here is a comprehensive step by step guide that will help you winterize your pipelines for the coming winter. You can wrap the heater tapes around your pipelines. A UL-endorsed tape with a built-in thermostat is easily available from any hardware store.

The tape will prevent overheating. You can either run the tape along the length of your pipelines or wrap it around them, both of these methods are equally effective. Some tapes allow you to lay the insulation on top of them.

Or you can use a heated reflector lamp in a dry enclosed place, but you will have to check the lamp at night to see if it is working. You must then insulate all your pipelines from the air. Use a foam rubber insulation to wrap your pipelines properly.

You must make sure that there are no gaps between the insulation and the pipeline. You must miter the strips of insulation which meet at the corners of your pipelines. Then secure them using duct tape.

Make sure the foam is dry when you insulate it. You must also heat your drain lines. Use foam rubber insulators in the same way as you insulated your pipelines.

Don’t forget the drain lines and pipelines in your basement and crawl spaces. On cold days and nights, you must direct a heat lamp on your drain P-trap. When the temperature drops below the freezing point, you must leave the doors of the closets and cabinets beneath your bathroom and kitchen sinks open to allow the warm air to circulate around your plumbing and prevent them from freezing.

Always open your taps without power on cold days. When you lose the electric power, allow the water to run not faster than a steady constant drip. This is more affordable than replacing a broken pipeline.

You must start a slow constant drip first on the hot side faucet, later start a faster drip on the cold side faucet. But don’t waste too much water. To use electricity, you can use a thermal convection powered hot water recirculation valve.

It will bypass your drain and constantly circulate the hot water through your plumbings. Before installing, you must turn the water off at the main source. Use a mini hacksaw to remove the valves under your sink.

Now you can use the included connecting joints to join the valve to the copper fitting from your wall. Use a wrench to secure the fittings to your pipelines. You can turn off this valve when you need the hot water to circulate.

But this method is a bit costly, as non-stop circulation of the hot water can increase your water heating expenses. Moreover, it requires the valve to be installed higher than your water heater, ideally your second or third storey. You must also make sure that any cracks or drafty gaps around your pipelines are filled with caulk.

You can use a device called RedyTemp which is an internal water contacting temperature probe. It can monitor the water temperature within your pipelines. You can use it by disconnecting one end of the existing faucet supply lines.

Now you can attach them to your RedyTemp. Then you must connect the two faucet supply lines that come with this device. Then plug this device into a wall socket and adjust the temperature that you need.

Check the effectiveness of your chosen temperature by opening cold water faucet and feel how cold or hot the water is running out of the tap. Adjust the temperature until it is optimized. You will get an optimized point when cold or hot water remains inside the cold water pipes or the part of the pipe that needs protection.

If yours is a tankless on-demand water heater, then you will need the TL 4000 series model instead of ATC 3000. You must adjust the temperature of your thermostat to at least thirteen degrees Celsius or fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit. This will let the hot air circulate behind the walls and the attic where your pipelines are located.

Before leaving your Northern home for the snowbird season, you must fully drain all the pipelines in your home. Locate the main water supply which has two parts. One part is always on the street side of your home near the meter.

The location of the second part varies from house to house. If your house is located in a cold region, then it will be in the basement, in contrast to it, if you live in a hot region then it will be located in an underground box or on an outside wall. You must turn it off.

You must then open all the faucets in your home. Then you must shut down both parts of the valve. The water running from the faucets must stop within a few minutes.

If it does not stop, then you will have to recheck both parts of the valve and tighten it as much as possible. 

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How to unfreeze a pipeline in your vacant home?

Tools needed to unfreeze the pipelines in your vacant home:

  • Electrical heat tape
  • Heat gun
  • Hairdryer
  • Infrared thermometer
  • Keyhole saw
  • Rags
  • Space heater
  • Water

Most North American houses have taps on their external walls either on the front side or on the backside. The pipelines located outdoors are prone to freeze as soon as the temperature drops. To unfreeze them follow the below-given step by step guide:

Search for the pipeline that has a problem with it. You must turn on all the taps in your home to find out which ones are working. If you find that the water is running from one tap but not another then the problem is located with the pipeline between these two taps.

Always leave all the taps in your house slightly open as small droplets of water dripping from them will prevent further freezing of the water inside your pipelines and also help melt the ice inside them. You must also leave the blocked taps slightly open to minimize the pressure on your pipelines. Before planning to tear apart your walls, you must search for the problem in the most likely and easily accessible areas.

Mostly the pipeline system of your home is designed to keep the stagnant water out of your outdoor pipelines, so to locate the problem check the uninsulated areas first of all. Check the pipelines located in or near your attic, basement, crawlspaces, cold concrete, and cold air vents. Then check your outdoor spigots and valves.

To look at the backside of your pipelines attached to your walls, you can use a dental mirror. If you find a crack along the length of your pipeline or in their joints, then you must repair or replace it at once. Seek the assistance of a professional plumber if you are not up to the task.

You must close your main shut-off valve when you find a leakage. To locate the frozen pipeline, you must use an infrared thermometer to help determine the areas colder than the other areas. You can use the handle of your screwdriver to listen for a more solid and less hollow sound.

When you find the frozen part, you can use a heat gun or your hairdryer to melt the ice. The heat gun is suitable only for the metal pipes. The PVC pipe cannot withstand the temperature even as low as sixty degrees Celsius or one hundred and forty-degree Fahrenheit.

If you are using your hairdryer then keep running it back and forth along the length of your pipeline. Never place your hair dryer directly on your pipeline as the sudden or an uneven heat will rupture it. You must heat your outdoor valves cautiously and slowly as they have fiber washers and non-heat safe things inside.

You may buy some electrical heat tape and apply it in a single layer along the length of your frozen pipeline. Now plug it into your wall outlet. It will warm up your pipeline.

Never overlap the electrical heat tape, only apply it once in a spiral pattern. Place heat lamps, bare incandescent light bulbs and space heaters near the frozen pipeline but not touching it. Hang up a few blankets or tarps to trap the heat near the pipeline.

You must also sprinkle at least fifteen milligrams of salt down the drain to help melt the ice. Leave it for some time. A towel soaked in hot water is also helpful in thawing your pipelines.

Boil some water. Put on a pair of rubber gloves. Soak the towel, ring it, wrap around your pipe and replace every five to ten minutes.

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Safety Precautions to observe while winterizing the pipes in your vacant home

Aaron Knepp advised keeping detailed notes while inspecting your plumbing. You must note down the details of any issue you might see while inspecting your pipelines. If your system has seen some damage for whatever reason, Knepp said unless the damage is severe, you should still easily be able to perform the winterization process and repair the damage come spring.

If the damage is major, he said, it is important to go ahead and make the necessary repairs as quickly as possible before attempting to winterize the system. As a next step, you must be sure to drain all of the water and pump down or drain the underground pipes. A lot of underground pipes will be located far enough down that they will not receive much freeze damage, however, they will still require pumping or draining enough water from them to ensure the upper portion of Z-pipe risers and pump manifolds are empty, to do this, purge the system with air or by modifying a fertilizer pump, to pump the system at its lowest outlet or inlet point.

Before taking apart the drain or taking off a cleanout, stop and ask yourself if it is possible that the contents of your pipeline will splash in your direction. Mostly drains are not under pressure. But a blockage or clog in your drain will build maximum pressure because of the gravity and weight behind the blockage or clog.

When you will be using a drain machine, you must wear a pair of latex gloves under your leather gloves to protect your hands from the germs found in drain lines. You must also be extra careful and cautious when soldering or heating your pipelines. You must use a heat shield to protect any nearby flammable things while using a heat gun or hairdryer.

Use a pair of safety goggles, when snaking a drain, hammering the nails, drilling, reciprocating a saw, and also while working underneath your sink looking upwards. Contaminants like the drain gunk or sewage can splash into your eyes. When winterizing your system, keep in mind that you will need to wear ANSI-approved eye protection, as compressed air could cause serious injury to your eyes.

You must avoid standing over any components of the system during the blow-out process. Do not exceed eighty pounds per square inch (psi) when using an air compressor, and try to avoid compressed air on the backflow device because the rubber seals on a pressure vacuum breaker could potentially melt due to the heat of the air.

You must use a disposable face mask to protect your lungs and prevent the inhalation of dust particles. When the pipes have been blown out, avoid exposing them to more compressed air since this can cause friction and heat that will cause damage to the system. Do not run the compressor unless at least one of the control valves is open.

Never break through your drywall until you are a hundred percent sure where the location of the frozen pipe is. Make sure the ground and the surrounding area is fully dry when using electrical equipment to melt the ice. Don’t use a torch or a flashlight to heat your frozen pipeline, it will cause damage to the pipe and start a fire.

Never pour acid, chemical detergents or a drain opener down the frozen pipeline. They will create too much gas and heat and thus burst the pipe. Warm water not boiling water can be used in a very small quantity but it can be risky.

Never use a battery charger or an electric welder to thaw your frozen pipelines. A battery charger is hazardous, while a welder will weld your pipe shut permanently.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is antifreeze?

Antifreeze is used to lower down the freezing point of any water-based liquid. It is a mixture that is used to get freezing point depression for the colder regions. It increases the boiling point of any fluid which allows the higher coolant temperature and prevents overheating.

RV antifreeze is a non-toxic material. It is used for pumping into your plumbing system. Automotive antifreeze is an entirely different thing.

Some types of RV antifreeze are toxic and can only be used in an engine cooling system. There is a difference in their formulas. Propylene Glycol is a non-toxic and the safest of all types of antifreeze.

An RV antifreeze will protect your engine against corrosion. It helps in heat transfer. It will also prevent the scale from building up inside your engine.

If the water is not draining down your bath, sink or washing machine then you must pour some household salt down your drains to lower the freezing point of the water.

Why do the hot water faucets freeze even before the cold water faucets?

The two main reasons are that your hot water pipelines are more exposed to cold breeze by being located closer to your external wall than your cold water pipelines. A second possible reason is that some ionic impurities are discharged from your water heater. The ionic impurities will decrease the freezing temperature of the water by a degree or more, making it more prone to freezing, depending on its concentration.

If your local weather is expected to warm up within a day or a couple of days, using bottled water until then will save your effort, money and time, then using electric equipment and energy to thaw your frozen pipelines.

How long will it take for a pipeline to thaw using a hairdryer and the water to get hot again when the pipes unfreeze?

The efficiency of your blow dryer and the length of the pipeline will determine the exact amount of time needed to thaw them. Heating from the water source first is the quickest way to thaw them, especially when there are bleed valves to open slightly. Keep checking your progress when heating to find out if the water has started to flow again.

The efficiency of your water heater and your outside temperature will determine the exact amount of time taken to heat the water after your pipes unfreeze. An average household water heater will take half an hour maximum to fully replenish the hot water again.

In order to conclude this blog post, I would say that you must follow the winterization guidelines every winter before leaving your house for the snowbird season. It will save your plumbing from expensive repairs and also increase the resale value of your property. It will also help save a lot of time, effort and energy when you come back in the spring.

Always observe the necessary safety measures while winterizing your pipelines.