Top 5 Winter Plumbing Myths

If you are new to the North Texas area, you may not be prepared for the temperature extremes we experience here. Most people think of hot weather when they think of Texas. But when the winter crises of 2021 made national news, it made many people aware that Texas can get very cold, very quickly.

The erratic nature of DFW’s weather is the most damaging aspect of it. There are plenty of ways to protect against the damage freezing temperatures can cause if people are prepared for it. It’s all about being prepared with accurate knowledge of how cold affects pipes and how to protect them.

In this article, we’re going to dispense with some of the more common myths or misconceptions people have about their plumbing during the wintertime.

1. I need to drip all my faucets when temperatures are below freezing.

Like most myths, there certainly is a component of this that is true. Dripping faucets does help prevent frozen pipes, but you don’t need to drip every faucet in your house.

The principle behind leaving faucets dripping is that it constantly replaces the cold, near-freezing water in the most vulnerable pipes with fresh, warm water from the pipes below the ground.

Pipes installed below the ground have to follow plumbing code that dictates how deep they must be buried. This isn’t just for protecting the pipes from accidental damage; it is for keeping the pipes below the frost line so that they don’t freeze. (See section P2603.5 of the International Residential Code.)

So if you drip all of the faucets in your house, you are just wasting water. The pipes that come up in the interior walls are already kept warm by the heat of your house’s furnace. It is the pipes that run through the vulnerable exterior walls that you want to protect.

Therefore, when the weather is going to dip below freezing for an extended time, open the cabinet doors under all faucets on the exterior wall and slowly drip them by turning on BOTH the hot and the cold handles. You want water flowing into both hot and cold pipes. It can be tricky with a single-handle faucet, but after some trial and error you will figure out the correct spot.

Picture of Dripping Faucet Instruction

The only caveat I would give to this is when your home has a very drafty crawl space with a pier and beam foundation. In this situation, all of the pipes running through the crawl space are vulnerable. You may drip more faucets in this situation, but the best solution would be to properly treat the crawlspace so that it can stay above freezing during the wintertime.

2. I don’t need to worry about “frost-proof” faucets because they are designed not to freeze.

Believe it or not, we repair far more outdoor frost-proof faucets damaged during the winter than any other freeze-related plumbing problem. In a practical sense, the term “frost-proof” is very misleading.

The most common scenario is that a frost proof faucet freezes and bursts internally in a place where it won’t leak until the faucet is turned on. Many people don’t even know they have an issue until they go to turn the water on during the spring and a compromised frost-proof floods their house by leaking inside the wall.

The term “frost-proof” refers to the special way these garden faucets are designed. Instead of shutting off the water outside the wall where the handle is, they have a long stem that shuts off the water back inside the wall where it is warmer. Theoretically, with this design there shouldn’t be any water present where it gets cold enough to freeze.

Unfortunately, if there is water that remains inside the faucet because a hose is left connected or it was installed incorrectly, then there is a much higher likelihood of it bursting because the excess pressure of the expanding ice has nowhere to dissipate.

We’ve written extensively about how to protect outdoor, frost-proof faucets from freezing and how exactly they freeze here in a separate blog article, so we won’t go into it much here. The long and short of it is:

Picture of Disconnecting hose and installing freeze protection cover

  1. Disconnect all hoses and attachments from your garden faucet before it gets below freezing.
  2. Cover all of your outdoor faucets with an insulated faucet cover or something similar.

3. Tankless water heaters can’t freeze because they are designed to protect themselves.

Again, there is a part of this statement that is true. All modern tankless water heaters have some form of built-in freeze protection. This may consist of strategically-placed electric heating elements and freeze mitigation programming for the gas burner. All good, right?

Two main overlooked points about this concept put it on our list. The first is that there is no way tankless waters can protect the plumbing pipes connected to the unit itself.

Many times tankless water heaters are installed in vulnerable, unheated areas like attics, garages, and exterior walls. This is also known as outside of the building envelope. It is especially common to see exterior tankless cabinets recessed into the brick walls of newer homes built in Frisco and McKinney neighborhoods. While the tankless unit may protect itself from freezing, a freeze can easily still occur in the pipes directly under that unit.

The second misconception is that gas-fired tankless water heaters are reliable because gas service is more reliable than electric service.

Actually, tankless water heaters rely on both electricity and gas service to run, unlike tank-style gas water heaters. If the electricity goes out to the home and there is not a battery or generator backup for the tankless, then it will simply not work to heat water or protect itself from freezing.

Find out more about how freezing weather affects tankless water heaters on our Frozen page’s tankless section.

Picture of an external tankless water heater recessed in the brick

4. A frozen pipe always results in a burst water pipe leak.

If you turn on your faucet in the morning after a deep freeze and find that water doesn’t come out, then the pipes have probably frozen. This may result in a leak, but not necessarily.

A lot depends on what type of piping you have. There are two main materials for water pipes in homes throughout Dallas Fort-Worth: copper and PEX. Copper was used from the 1960s up until the mid-2000s when it was gradually replaced with PEX (cross-linked polyethylene), a type of plastic pipe.

Copper cannot expand much before it splits. PEX, on the other hand, can expand up to 3 times its size without splitting and then relax back into its manufactured shape. While it certainly is possible to get a freeze break in PEX (especially at the fittings), it is much less likely than copper.

Even copper often will freeze without breaking. To back that up, there are even specialty plumbing tools designed to freeze pipes on purpose to make repairs in water lines without shutting down the system.

It depends on how much of the pipe froze and how much pressure got trapped by the expanding ice. You won’t know whether the pipe burst or not until it thaws out. That is why it is very important to either shut off the water entirely or carefully monitor the frozen area as it starts to thaw. If one or more frozen areas have split the pipe, it won’t start leaking until the ice melts again.

Image of Frozen Pipes

5. Drain pipes can’t freeze.

Many people think the PVC drain pipes will not freeze during the winter because the only time they have water running through them is when someone uses a faucet.

What they don’t factor in is the existence of p-traps. These are u-shaped bends installed in the drain of every faucet, tub, and shower that allow water to collect without fully draining out. The purpose behind these p-traps is so that every fixture has a liquid seal that prevents nasty sewer gas from the septic or city sewer system from coming up into the house.

If you’ve ever smelled a foul, sour smell in a bathroom that hasn’t been used in a while, it is probably because one or more of the p-traps in that bathroom have evaporated dry to the point where it is letting sewer gas into the house.

Because water sits in these p-traps all the time, they will certainly freeze if they aren’t properly insulated. Fortunately, the majority of p-traps are either under the slab and are kept warm or are under the cabinets and are kept at room temperature.

However, if the house has a pier and beam foundation with a drafty crawlspace, this puts the p-traps at risk as well as the water lines. There are also p-traps in the wall behind clothes washing machines. If the wall was poorly insulated, there is the possibility these could freeze solid.

If you need to run a load of laundry directly after a deep freeze and your clothes washer is on the exterior wall, pay close attention to when it starts a drain cycle to make sure it’s not backing up.

Image of P Trap In The Wall

What’s Next?

If you want to learn more about how to properly prepare for freezing temperatures in DFW, check out our Frozen page for a bunch of great tips!

If you would like to learn more about how freezing weather affects gas systems and gas appliances, we have a recent blog article on that topic. We are an award-winning gas line plumber in the north DFW area, and our reputation for integrity, craftsmanship, and upfront pricing speaks for itself.

To find out pricing and schedule availability, give us a call today at (972) 632-5412

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