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7 Ways To Protect Your Building From Frozen Pipes

7 Ways To Protect Your Building From Frozen Pipes

Frozen pipes are pretty much the bane of any facility manager. There are few things worse than not having any water, repairing a burst pipe, and cleaning up the water damage afterward. The good news is, this kind of disaster is usually preventable, as long as you take a few steps to avoid it.

How do pipes freeze?

Pipes freeze when stationary water inside them is subjected to very cold temperatures. Since water expands when frozen, this creates a lot of pressure inside of the pipe, which may then burst. When temperatures drop to at least 20°F and remain so for six or more hours, there's a danger of pipes freezing. If the pipes are poorly insulated, freezing may occur in as little as 3-4 hours. This can happen in areas of a building that may not be easily seen or accessed frequently, like crawl spaces, closets, storage areas, lofts, or roof spaces.

What are the dangers of frozen pipes?

The biggest danger of a frozen pipe is the lack of access to water. If a pipe freezes in an apartment building, for example, tenants won't be able to bathe, wash dishes, or use the restroom. Even if a frozen pipe just causes a hairline crack instead of bursting, this can result in a leak that encourages the growth of black mold. Leaking water can also cause water damage to floors, ceilings, and any furniture or other fixtures. If water seeps into a light fixture or electrical socket, it may even cause a fire.

How can you prevent frozen pipes?

There are a number of ways to keep pipes from freezing:

  1. Keep water running. Moving water won't stay in contact with cold temperatures long enough to freeze. Even just allowing taps to trickle is enough.
  2. Thoroughly insulate pipes that run through unheated spaces or exterior walls. These are the most in danger of freezing.
  3. If there are any pipes that won't be in use during winter, drain them. Pipes only burst when water expands as it freezes. They'll be safe, as long as they're dry.
  4. Keep interior spaces at least 40°F.
  5. If a building has anti-freeze sprinkler systems, ensure that there is a proper concentration of antifreeze in the lines.
  6. Where possible, use UL-listed electric heat tracing products to keep pipes warm. These use an electrical current to provide heat to pipes when temperatures drop too low.
  7. Open the doors to any enclosed spaces with pipes running through them. This allows warm interior air to mix with the cold air in the space, raising the temperature.

What should you do if a pipe freezes?

If you notice that a pipe has frozen, there are a couple of strategies to try.

First, turn off the water to the frozen area to keep it from leaking more than necessary. Next, use a hot towel, heating mat, or space heater to warm the pipe, or wrap it with thermostatically-controlled heat tape. After that, use a fan to direct warm air into the room to raise the ambient temperature above the freezing point. Lastly, if you don't have any leaks, open faucets to a trickle to keep water moving when you turn it back on. If you do, call a plumber to have them repaired before restoring the water flow. Following these steps should help unfreeze pipes and keep them from freezing again.

What should you do if a pipe bursts?

If a pipe bursts, you'll need to act quickly to minimize the damage to everything in its vicinity.

First, shut the water off. You'll have to deal with a flood as it is, so cutting off the water supply is the most important step. After that, contact a plumber to replace the burst section of the pipe. While you wait for the pipe to be replaced, remove as much water as possible by whatever means necessary -- siphons, pumps, buckets, mops, or a wet-dry shop vacuum.

Afterward, use fans and dehumidifiers to dry the area as much as possible. The walls and flooring will likely have absorbed a lot of water -- even hard materials, like tile, can allow it to seep in through tiny cracks and spaces. This increased moisture can encourage the growth of mold if it isn't dried quickly and completely.

Dealing with frozen or burst pipes can be a headache, but there are ways to keep them from seriously damaging a building or inconveniencing its occupants. Make sure pipes are thoroughly insulated or kept warm, act quickly to thaw frozen pipes, and have a strategy in place for quickly dealing with bursts and leaks. You'll be able to keep the building safe and your clients happy all winter long.

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