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10 Tips to Preventing Frozen Pipes

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EMC Senior Risk Improvement Representative Pat Birkett can recall some horror stories of burst water pipes: There was a hotel in Wisconsin with a stairwell at the end of the building. The heat source in the stairwell was not sufficient to keep the water pipes from freezing, and water flooded everywhere after the pipe burst. Another building had sprinkler system riser pipes installed too close to the loading dock, where the doors were left open during extreme cold weather. Of course, those pipes froze and caused a real mess, too.

Some of the most insidious issues result from poor craftsmanship and are difficult to discover before a problem occurs, Pat says. That’s because pipes are often out of sight behind finished walls, in basements, and in attics. If the pipes do not have adequate heat or aren’t well insulated, it’s likely you won’t discover the problem until it’s too late to prevent it.

Preventing Frozen Pipes

Regular inspections and preventive maintenance provide the short answer to problems. Pat recommends taking these preventive steps:

  1. Visually inspect all water pipes periodically, looking for any sign of leaks or damage. If you can’t see some pipes because they are behind walls, you can still look for clues that there’s a problem, such as leaking, and check those same pipes farther up or down the run.
  2. Identify pipes exposed to the elements, and drain and purge them before cold temperatures arrive. This includes lawn sprinkler systems, outdoor hose bibs and water pipes in unheated buildings such as storage facilities.
  3. Maintain dry fire suppression systems on loading docks and other unheated areas. If the system trips or you have a faulty compressor, it’s critical to drain and purge the water lines right away, or water will fill the sprinkler lines and freeze.
  4. As part of your regular pre-winter maintenance, seal cracks and any penetrations into the building, as well as windows and doors. Checking insulation annually and adding more as needed protects against frozen pipes, as does maintaining your heat sources to avoid shutdowns.
  5. Keep a close eye on water lines that travel against exterior walls and make sure there is sufficient heat supply in those areas to keep the interior pipes warm. Short-term solutions may include keeping interior doors open so heat spreads evenly throughout the building and turning faucets on to allow water to drip, lowering pipe pressure. Longer-term solutions include adding insulation to the walls or pipes, and adding heat tape to pipes in areas that may benefit from the temperature boost.
  6. In times of extreme cold, be proactive and inspect potential problem areas, such as riser rooms, attics, basements and piping located against exterior walls. As an extra check, have someone touch the pipes periodically to ensure they are staying above the freezing point.
  7. Even better than just having staff keep an eye on vulnerable pipes, a monitoring system can check the building temperature and your heating system, and an automatic excess flow switch on your water line can let you know if a pipe or valve breaks. These can either be checked remotely or may notify you if a problem arises.
  8. A backup power source may keep pipes from breaking if the power goes out or your HVAC system stops working.
  9. Monitor building temperatures making sure they are at least 50 degrees during freeze conditions. Keep in mind that the temperatures along exterior walls will be several degrees colder than the interior of the building.
  10. Keep good records. As Pat says, “If your maintenance supervisor knows your building’s heating and cooling balance and what it takes to prevent problems in your building, he or she should document the locations and processes. If weak spots are identified, those can be the first areas to protect and to check in the future, even if a new staff person takes over the job.”

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