Throughout the winter, plumbers repeatedly get calls for one thing above all others: burst pipes. The problem is that as the environment gets colder, pipes start to get colder. Eventually the pipes chill to the point that they’re below-freezing. Once this happens, burst pipes are all but inevitable.
Water’s Expansion Problem
As materials change temperature, they change states. As states change, their volume, the space they take up changes. When water freezes, it’s molecules change from an energetic, freeflowing state to a rigid crystal structure. This causes the water to take up more volume. It’ll expand in every direction. Unfortunately, the excess material won’t push out through a relief valve or anything non-destructive. Once it becomes solid, it just is solid. There’s no in-between, gelatinous phase where excess material can still be squeezed out.
If you freeze water in any rigid container, it’s going to get destroyed. This can be demonstrated at home with a simple, disposable water bottle. If you freeze it, the bottle swells out to take on the shape forced on it by the water. If you have a drinking glass you want to destroy, freezing that would destroy it as well.
The copper pipes in your building are exactly like the glass. Although copper is a very flexible and malleable material, it will be more brittle when its cold. It will be less flexible. With high heat, you could expand the copper pipe by pushing it into a near-liquid state. With high cold, the copper will not be flexible. It’ll try to resist deforming and stretching from the water turning ice inside.
The copper’s resistance will lead to only one outcome: a burst pipe. If you’re lucky, the ice will freeze over in just the right way to block any further flow and leakage of water. If you aren’t, you’ll be in for a fun mess to clean up.
Why doesn’t ground water burst the pipes?
– Common Sense Questioners
Science makes fools of us all. The water underground is actually pretty warm compared to water above ground. Individuals using well water generally don’t generally worry about their well pipes freezing over. The ground in your area tends to stay at that location’s average temperature. There is so much mass to the dirt and rock that the weather doesn’t effect it much deep underground.
For my corner of South-East PA, the ground water temperature sits around 55-65 degrees year-round. The Earth insulates it from temperature extremes. There isn’t much risk of freezing until that water has been pumped out of the ground and into the cold environment above.
Stopping the Problem
There are a number of solutions to this problem. In most cases, we need to use a combination of techniques to resolve the problem once and for all.
Just as you insulate the walls of your building, you need to insulate the pipes. This will actually save money in the long term. Insulated pipes will maintain their temperature for extended periods of time, whereas exposed pipes are essentially low-efficiency radiators. Insulating the pipes will reduce the frequency your furnace needs to run to provide heating and reduce the wait time for hot-water. In uninsulated setups in cold climates, the hot water pipes cool down, and put out cold water until hot water is re-supplied.
- Pipe Heating Tape
In some situations, insulation is not a viable solution. Trailers and certain commercial arrangements have pipes that need to carry water beyond the warm confines of a building. For these situations, we use flexible heating element often called Heating Tape. It’s wrapped around the pipes and energized to keep the pipe and water above freezing.
- Increasing the Ambient Temperature
In uninsulated, indoor cases, the next best thing is to ensure that the building’s coldest areas stay well above freezing. If your pipes are in an unheated basement, you need to set the thermostat high enough for the basement to state above freezing. Even when the building is unoccupied for days or weeks at a time, the thermostat must keep everything above freezing.
- Increasing Water Flow
The last significant line of defense is to keep water flowing. Standing water such as lakes and ponds will freeze relatively quickly. Flowing water sources such as creeks and rivers however, don’t freeze as easily. In order for water to change states, the molecules need to start forming a crystal structure. They cannot do this easily when they are in constant motion. Indoors, a temporary solution would be to turn on a trickle of water at various faucets throughout the building. As long as water moves in every pipe, it will be that much harder for it to freeze.
- Drain the System
For installations such as pools, garden sprinklers, and other exposed piping, the only option is to remove all water. This needs to be near complete. In many cases, compressed air and vacuum systems will be used to ensure those pipes are as dry as possible. In times of desperation, this is doable to the internal piping of a building as well. You shutdown all water-based equipment, the pumps, boilers, and everything else, then drain down the interior piping until it is all dry. This won’t guarantee safety from pipe-bursts during prolonged periods without heat or use, but it greatly reduces the chances.
Fixing the Problem
BOOM! A pipe has burst. There’s water everywhere. What do you do? You are responsible for knowing your plumbing system, so long as you know what you’re doing, you would:
- Remove anything immediately sensitive to water from the area.
- Locate and close the nearest valve responsible for the leak.
- Call your Plumbing Specialist
Read on only if you are skilled with soldering, pipe cutting, and other elements of plumbing repair. Procure Inc. is not responsible
- Cut out the damage section of pipe.
- Use pipe couplers, replacement piping, and any other necessary fittings to replicate the component you are replacing.
- Solder together the new assembly except for the couplers.
- Slide the assembly onto the pipes carefully, ensuring the couplers and all are in place before you begin soldering. The new part will be bigger than the old one with the couplers, so they will almost always need to be soldered once everything is on the pipes.
Remember, if in doubt, call your HVAC or Plumbing Contractor. If you’re a renter, call your landlord, it’s probably their problem, depending on the contract and your local laws.