Protect Pipes from Freezing
Richard Trethewey has some solutions for frozen pipes
Every winter, we turn up the heat in our old house to keep the pipes in the cellar from freezing. We’ve added insulation, but it hasn’t helped. What else can we do?
—Betsy Buxton, Olmsted Falls, OH
I assume all the exposed pipes, including the elbow fittings, are covered with foam insulation. That’s a good start, but have you also plugged all the cellar’s above-ground holes? Cold air leaking in around the openings for electrical service lines, dryer vents, phone lines, and oil-fill and gas pipes can turn a cellar or basement frigid in no time. Spray foam makes a good hole filler, as long as the surface being sprayed is 40 degrees F or higher.
On cold days, try running a big box fan or two in the cellar. It will eliminate the cold pockets that often lead to pipes freezing.
Automatic electric heating cables, like the ones made by Frost King, are good insurance against frozen pipes, as long as there’s power. A sensor turns the cable on only when the pipe temperature drops below 38 degrees F, saving a bit on your electric bill. If you have plastic supply pipes, wrap them in aluminum foil to ensure the heat distribution. For both metal and plastic pipes, run the heating cable along the pipe’s underside and hold it in place with electrical tape. Do not wrap the cable around a pipe. Once the cables are in place, re-cover the pipes with the thickest foam insulation you can find. Taken together, these quick fixes should let you rest easier this winter.
For the long term, consider insulating your cellar walls with foam panels, the way that Tom Silva did on Ask This Old House. Then look for a way to feed more heat into the cellar. Insulation slows a drop in temperature, but if it stays below freezing for days on end, insulation alone can’t stop indoor temperatures from falling, too. I don’t know what kind of heating system you have, but an extra forced-air register or hot-water radiator or two, combined with box fans to circulate the air, should keep your pipes safe.