Why Your Water Lines Freeze in the Winter

Posted 2011-09-01
Written by
Category Community Visits

This article is directed to those of us who live in trailers in the North. Trailer living provides us with unique challenges. One of them is trying to convince water to retain its liquid state in freezing temperatures.

Most trailers are placed on top of an unheated crawl space for a variety of reasons we won’t go into here. What is important about this is that water, on its journey into and out of your place, passes through an unheated space which has the same temperature as outside. During winter that temperature may drop to more than -40 for extended periods of time. Therein lies the challenge – how do we keep water in its liquid state while passing through conditions meant to turn it to ice.

So what can be done? Long time trailer inhabitants and good house sitters know the following:
o Dripping taps (faucets) inevitably result in frozen pipes
o If your circ pump is not operating you will likely have frozen water pipes coming into your place
o If your water lines are not well insulated, you need to run water every day in very cold weather - flush the toilet, take a shower etc. – or your pipes will freeze
o Poorly insulated water pipes results in frozen pipes.
o When the power goes out for longer than an hour or 2 you may have frozen pipes due to loss of heat and no power for the circ pump.

Let’s look at how to address each of these items on the list above with a goal of not having to thaw your water pipes this winter. If you can’t do these things yourself, find someone who can. You will save time, money and stress.

Dripping taps, faucets
Start with those dripping taps and faucets. Don’t forget to check your toilet too. All of these add up quickly on your water bill and are a potential for frozen pipes in the winter time. A poor but better than nothing short term solution is to cover the drain with a plug that doesn’t leak. It’ll buy you some time, but if you forget to reinstall the plug, you will end up in the same boat - saying hi to the steam guys and bye to your money. Either fix it yourself or get someone to fix it.

Circ Pump
If your circ pump is not running, you increase the chance of water line freeze-up in the winter. Some people try to save a little money by shutting off their circ pump in the summer time. This might save you about $100, but if you forget to turn it back on, you may freeze your pipes and have to have the City dig up your front yard in the summer to repair the line. A $10,000 bill plus you won’t have water until the summer. Also, by leaving your pump running, it is continuously lubricating itself. If you shut it off, it may seize and you will have to spend $500 on a new pump and labour to install it. Make sure it’s working. Again, if you can’t do this find someone who can. If you do not have a circ pump, ask your local maintenance staff about whether these are an option in your community and how to get one. In larger centres, call your plumber or the Town or City.

Running Water Every Day in Very Cold Weather
We want to conserve our water. That’s a given. At the same time, if your water pipes are not well insulated, the water pipes freeze and we will end up using a lot of water in the form of steam to thaw the pipes.

Water collects in traps under sinks, tubs and toilets. Again, if the surrounding area is poorly insulated, the water in the traps will freeze and not allow the water above it to drain. Regular flushing of the water in the trap means less likelihood of freezing. This movement of water through the pipes also tends to protect against frost and ice buildup in the water pipes and again this means less chance of a frozen section.

However, running water every day in cold weather is a temporary solution. Proper insulation of floor and water pipes is a permanent solution.

Poorly Insulated Water Pipes
Assessing how well insulated your water pipes are means getting into the crawl space. Unfortunately for many of us, crawl space is exactly what it sounds like – less than a metre of space to slide along on your back through gravel and who knows what. If you can’t or don’t want to crawl on your back to check the status of your pipe insulation, you can remove some skirting on the side the water comes into the trailer from the mains – usually the kitchen side. Pile the siding neatly, ready to tack back on and gain reasonable access to inspect your water access and exit.

If you look underneath your trailer at where your water comes into your place, you will probably see two (2) insulated pipes emerging from the ground– this is your water coming from the main into your place. The reason there are two (2) insulated pipes is that the circ pump constantly circulates the water back and forth from the main into your place. This is an effective way of keeping water in its liquid state instead of freezing in wintertime – think of a fast flowing rapid that doesn’t freeze no matter how cold it gets. (The water pipes that bring in the water should look something like the photo above: if not, you need to either insulate them yourself or get someone to do it).

Sewer or drain pipes – this is your sink, toilet, washer and tub drain pipes, aka sewer pipes. More often than not when the steam truck is in the neighbourhood – it’s these pipes that have frozen up.

It isn’t hard to insulate your sewer pipes– you wrap the pipes with insulation and then use tape and either house wrap or plastic wrap to secure the insulation. House wrap may have an advantage as it protects from wind but does allow water to evaporate through it if you get a small leak or condensation forms. With plastic wrap if there is moisture, it will be trapped and it will freeze which makes it easy to see for future repair. Either choice you make, it is a time consuming job, whether you or someone else does it, but the benefits are certainly worth it.

When working with insulation the following apply:
o Protect yourself with mask, gloves, coveralls – insulation is itchy and should not be breathed into the lungs;
o Take the time to do it right. If you leave gaps you will allow freezing air to challenge the liquid state of water and your pipes will freeze.
o Check periodically to make sure there are no gaps and the insulation isn’t pulled too tight – insulation needs to be fit snugly - not squashed - around the pipes in order to work.

If this doesn’t appeal to you, find someone who is willing to do the work well and pay them well.

For now, if you can confirm that your water and sewer pipes are well insulated, eliminate all dripping taps including your toilet, make sure your circ pump is on and make sure you have enough insulation around your water lines (water pipes coming into and out of your place), you will be ready for winter and hopefully one of the few in your area who doesn’t have to call the steam truck.