How to prevent pipes from freezing as cold approaches

Carson City residents will kick off the new year with the mercury dropping into the low 20s. With a spate of storms predicted by the end of the week and continued cold fronts bombarding the area into mid-January, one resolution may trump them all:

Protect your plumbing.

Local plumbers said they'll brace for a barrage of emergency calls if the upcoming storms in fact bring with them the first winter freeze of 2008.

There are still things homeowners, renters and businesses can do to prevent having to make that distress call when the kitchen is flooding in the middle of the night.

"It's a pretty simple formula really," said Ed Hart, owner of Carson-based Hart Plumbing Services. "There's no real secrets - just keep your thermostat on and any pipe that's exposed, they've got to be insulated."

Hart said he's been kept busy during the holidays with all kinds of calls, but two of the more common are from people who may have made a mistake when they winterized their irrigation system: "They'll shut something down wrong and flood out a little bit" as well as occupants of some of the city's older buildings: "The majority of those (old) structures have tree roots wrapped around water and sewer mains - that can create some havoc."

For the time being, Hart said he's still waiting for the "big one."

"Usually that first hard, big freeze, that's when you get hit," he said. "But, I think most people who've lived here for awhile know what to do and what not to do."

Last winter's first extreme cold came over the last week of December, causing pipes to burst throughout the area and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage to home owners.

Making the same mistake twice is a scenario Hart said he hopes to avoid.

"The people who generally have the most problems are those who are brand-new to the area," he said. "If you've been through it once - you don't generally have the same problem the next go-around."

Property owners should know that even a cursory check now can avoid trouble ahead.

According to State Farm Insurance, "an eighth-inch crack in a pipe can spew up to 250 gallons of water a day."

The insurance providers' tips for quick and easy measures to protect homes from flooding during the winter:

- Find the water shut-off in the home, learn how to turn it off and on.

- Insulate pipes, focusing on any exposed pipes in the attic and crawl spaces of your home.

- Check for air leaks around electrical outlets, dryer vents and pipes. Seal these leaks with caulk or insulation to keep cold air away from your pipes.

- Disconnect all garden hoses and, if possible, use an indoor valve to shut off and drain water from the pipes that lead to outside faucets.

- If you have to leave your home unattended for several days, keep the thermostat set at 55 degrees or higher.

...And, of course, one last piece of advice from a local professional:

"If something goes wrong, it's probably best in the short- and long-term to call a plumber," Hart said.

How to prevent frozen pipes

- Keep garage doors closed if there are water supply lines in the garage.

- Open kitchen and bathroom cabinet doors to allow warmer air to circulate around the plumbing. Be sure to move any harmful cleaners and household chemicals up out of the reach of children.

- When the weather is very cold outside, let the cold water drip from the faucet served by exposed pipes. Running water through the pipe - even at a trickle - helps prevent pipes from freezing because the temperature of the water running through it is above freezing.

- Keep the thermostat set to the same temperature both during the day and at night. By temporarily suspending the use of lower nighttime temperatures, you may incur a higher heating bill, but you can prevent a much more costly repair job if pipes freeze and burst.

How to thaw frozen pipes

- If you turn on a faucet and only a trickle comes out, suspect a frozen pipe. Locate the suspected frozen area of the water pipe. Likely places include pipes running against exterior walls or where your water service enters your home through the foundation.

- Keep the faucet open. As you treat the frozen pipe and the frozen area begins to melt, water will begin to flow through the frozen area. Running water through the pipe will help melt more ice in the pipe.

- Apply heat to the section of pipe using an electric heating pad wrapped around the pipe, an electric hair dryer, a portable space heater (kept away from flammable materials) or wrapping pipes with towels soaked in hot water. Do not use a blowtorch, kerosene or propane heater, charcoal stove or other open flame device. A blowtorch can make water in a frozen pipe boil and cause the pipe to explode. All open flames in homes present a serious fire danger, as well as a severe risk of exposure to lethal carbon monoxide.

- Apply heat until full water pressure is restored. If you are unable to locate the frozen area, if the frozen area is not accessible or if you can not thaw the pipe, call a licensed plumber.

- Check all other faucets in your home to find out if you have additional frozen pipes. If one pipe freezes, others may freeze, too.

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