The Most Common Wintertime Plumbing Issues and How You Can Handle Them

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Residents of Cincinnati aren’t strangers to frigid winter weather. During the coldest months of the year, homes are naturally more vulnerable to plumbing problems, especially if pipes are older or run within the exterior walls of your home. However, quick troubleshooting and routine maintenance can help you prevent many seasonal problems.

Thomas & Galbraith Heating, Cooling & Plumbing is always ready to step in and help homeowners resolve top winter plumbing issues. Learn how to take control of your home and make necessary changes so your plumbing never catches you off guard. Use this convenient guide to discover the most common wintertime plumbing issues and how to resolve them. If you find yourself in need of a plumber, please contact us. We are always available for quick, reliable plumbing repair and new plumbing installations.

Wintertime Plumbing Problems You May Face

When the temperature outside drops, some plumbing problems are more common than others. Here are a few winter plumbing issues you may come across this season, and how to fix them.

1. Frozen Exterior Pipes

Exterior water lines that supply outdoor spigots can be damaged when they aren’t winterized properly. Since pipes typically run under the home and may not be used all season long, water damage may go unnoticed for months, flooding crawlspaces, harming foundations, and fracturing plumbing lines. Here are a few steps to take to keep outdoor pipes safe.

Prevent Problems

  • Winterize hose bibbs in the fall. Disconnect any hoses attached to spigots, drain them of water, and coil them up for wintertime storage. Open the water spigot so it lightly trickles, and then go inside your home to locate the valve that supplies the spigot. Turn the valve off and allow the spigot outside to remain open to drain any remaining water in the line. Use a foam bib cover outside to insulate the area and prevent freezing.
  • Upgrade to frost-free bibbs. If you can’t find your indoor water valve, or if you have had problems with freezing exterior lines before, work with a plumber to upgrade to frost-free hose bibbs. These special bibbs are designed to be installed at a downward angle to improve drainage from spigots in case of a freeze and have shutoff valves closer to the home’s interior to help prevent freezes.
  • Insulate water lines. Purchase pipe insulation to add a heat barrier between these water lines and the cold. Insulation covers can be installed quickly and easily around pipes and should be placed anywhere pipes could be exposed to the cold.

Find and Repair Issues

Take these steps if you suspect that your water line or hose bibb may be frozen.

  1. Open the valve on your hose bibb if it isn’t already completely open.
  2. On the wall behind your hose bibb, try to insulate the base of the bibb with towels or rags. These towels will be heated to thaw the line.
  3. Pour boiling water over the towels and cloths to warm the hose bibb. Check outdoors to see if water starts trickling from your spigot, which indicates frozen water is thawing.
  4. A hair dryer or heat gun may also be used to heat hose bibb bases. Keep in mind that heat guns can become very hot very quickly, so exercise caution to prevent damage and burns.

If you have ongoing problems with water freezing inside your spigots, consider upgrading your bibbs with frost-free varieties. This upgrade is helpful in areas prone to cold winters, such as Cincinnati, and can help you to rest a little easier on those cold nights.

2. Pipes Frozen Inside Your Home

Since metal is an excellent thermal conductor, cold air can freeze the water inside of pipes. Unfortunately, since water expands when it freezes, it can break or burst a plumbing line, spelling disaster inside your house. Indoor flooding or major water leaks can occur, or you may notice that washing machines don’t drain, faucets don’t turn on, or showers aren’t working properly. Here are a few tips for preventing and resolving this common issue.

Prevent Problems

  • Let those faucets drip. During the coldest months of the year, or anytime the weather is projected to be especially cold, leave your faucets open slightly to allow a small drip to continue overnight. This simple step alleviates pressure in the lines to prevent bursting, and keeps water moving instead of sitting stagnant and freezing in place.
  • Open cabinets. In areas like kitchens and bathrooms, leave cabinets open below sinks to help warm air to circulate around pipes.
  • Insulate pipes. Place pipe insulation around water supply lines, especially in uninsulated areas.
  • Install pressure relief valves. Prevent pressure buildup inside your water lines by having pressure relief valves installed. If the water inside the lines does freeze for some reason, these valves help prevent pipe bursts.

Find and Repair Issues

Use these steps to spot where pipes are frozen and to thaw the clog.

  1. Find where the line has frozen by checking the faucets and plumbing fixtures throughout your home. If all of your faucets seem impacted, your main water line may be frozen. If only a few faucets are unresponsive, you can assume the supply lines that feed those faucets are impacted.
  2. Open the faucets to alleviate pressure as you work to thaw the frozen water.
  3. Heat up the frozen line by using a hair dryer, space heater, or heat lamp. Pipes can also be wrapped in a heating pad, electric blanket, or special conductive insulation that is attached to an electricity source and warms the pipe slowly.
  4. Watch the faucet carefully to spot when water starts flowing again. When water has thawed and water is moving normally, shut the faucet to avoid excess water use.
  5. If water starts leaking when you thaw the line, shut off the water at the main valve immediately. Have a plumber assess the line and repair or replace damaged segments.

If your pipes are prone to freezing, plumbers may need to reroute or replace lines to prevent the problem down the road. These upgrades prevent home flooding and can save you time and money in the long run.

3. Kitchen Drain Clogs

During the winter, many families use their kitchens heavily as they prepare meals and entertain. However, when the wrong things are put down drains or garbage disposals, clogs can occur quickly. Avoid this common inconvenience by doing what you can to keep your drains in good working order.

Prevent Problems

  • Don’t put certain foods down garbage disposals. Never allow cooking oil, egg shells, melted fat, grease, coffee grounds, pasta, meat bones, vegetable peels, or corn husks into your garbage disposal. Be diligent about keeping improper items out of your garbage disposal. You should also keep any dense foods that can swell when exposed to water out of your disposal, such as large amounts of rice. Instead of using your garbage disposal, ask family members and guests to scrape their plates into the garbage.
  • Flush your disposal after use. After you use your garbage disposal, run cold water into the drain for 15 to 30 seconds to get rid of any food particulates. This step keeps your disposal cleaner and eliminates odors.
  • Clean your disposal regularly. Clean your garbage disposal by using drop-in cleaning tablets designed for your disposal, or by placing several ice cubes into the covered basin. When you run your disposal, the friction will wipe the blades clean. Cover the disposal entrance before you flip on the switch to keep ice or cleaning tablets from popping up and out of the drain.

Find and Repair Issues

If your garbage disposal stops responding, follow these steps to clear the clog and prevent damage.

  1. Shut off the power to the disposal. As a failsafe, unplug the disposal from underneath your sink, or turn off the breaker that controls the circuit.
  2. Check the interior chamber of the disposal for obstructions. Use a flashlight to illuminate the inside of the disposal to find debris easily. If you spot obstructions, remove the item with a pair or tongs or pliers. Never put your hand into the disposal.
  3. In some instances, your garbage disposal may have jammed. Your system has a protective feature that halts the disposal and trips an internal breaker if too much rotational force is needed to chew through debris. To clear the debris, you will need to turn the gears of your disposal manually. Find the Allen wrench that fits into the small inlet on the underside of your disposal, and turn the wrench slowly. If you feel it catch, rotate the gears back and forth to free the debris.
  4. Give your disposal 15 minutes before attempting to turn back on the motor. This gives the system the chance to cool down.
  5. Turn the power to the disposal back on, and press the red “RESET” button on the bottom of the appliance. The disposal should turn back on and operate normally if no other obstructions are present.

4. Water Heater Not Performing Well

Like all home appliances, water heaters typically see a lot more use during the winter, when people fill their homes with friends and family. When your water heater isn’t keeping up, you may need to order repairs or request a full replacement. Here are a few ways to ward off problems or troubleshoot your system when you experience common plumbing problems in the winter.

Prevent Problems

  • Maintain your water heater. Most tank water heaters should be drained annually to remove scale and sediment that can build inside the tank. The pressure relief valve should also be checked to make sure it is working properly.
  • Insulate the inlet and outlet pipes. The water supply inlet and outlet pipes running into and away from your water heater should be insulated to keep them at the right temperature. Insulation keeps pipes from freezing if they get too cold in the winter, and prevents heat loss the rest of the year, so water retains a higher temperature as it is delivered to your home.
  • Use a water heater blanket. Consider using a water heater blanket to protect against heat loss. You can pick up a water heater blanket at a home improvement store, and install it in a few minutes to improve efficiency.

Find and Repair Issues

  1. Sometimes, water heater thermostats may be set too low, which can impact the amount of hot water your home has access to. If your water heater starts to struggle to meet demand, try turning up the thermostat. Never move the water temperature above 125 degrees to prevent scalding and excess energy consumption.
  2. If water heaters stop working, check to make sure the unit has access to gas and electricity. Utility outages or lack of power could be at fault for a system that isn’t heating properly.
  3. Check the limit switch. If the water inside the tank ever becomes too warm, it may trip the switch and require a reset.

Remember, anytime your water heater isn’t working properly and you can’t find the cause, contact a plumber to get to the bottom of the problem. Water heaters have an average lifespan of about 10 years, so if it is approaching the end of its usable life, it may need to be replaced.

5. Damage to Outdoor Drains

Freezing temperatures can make plastic and PVC brittle and prone to damage, which can affect outdoor drains. Here are a few ways to prevent drain damage when cold weather is in the forecast.

Prevent Problems

  • Upgrade to metal drains. Metal drains, especially varieties made from galvanized steel, stand up better to freezing temperatures than plastic drains. Consider having a plumber replace plastic drain covers to help the grates withstand the cold and the weight of ice.
  • Clean up yard debris. Prevent clogs in ground drains by clearing away debris like leaves, grass clippings, and dirt.
  • Clear snow and ice. Anytime there is snow or ice accumulation, clear the drain as quickly as possible.

Find and Resolve Issues

  1. If you see ice forming on outdoor drains, use hot water, ice melt, or a liquid deicer to melt the accumulation. Pour some deicer down the drain to prevent water from freezing inside the pipe.
  2. When heavy ice has accumulated on the drain, break it away by applying heat.

6. Backups from Sump Pumps

Sump pumps are designed to drain away extra water in low areas. However, heavy snowfall can quickly overwhelm these pumps, and the system may even back up if water freezes. Remember these tips to keep your sump pump in good condition and avoid common winter plumbing issues.

Prevent Problems

  • Keep your sump pump clean. In the fall, clean away any debris that could fall into the sump pit and cause clogs. Remove matter from the sump pit.
  • Test the sump pump. During the winter, test your sump pump by pouring water into the sump pit to activate the float. Ensure the pump turns on as it should when the float activates.
  • Heat your basement. Keep HVAC vents open in your basement to allow warmed air to circulate. Warm air can keep water inside sump pumps and pits from freezing and causing damage.
  • Keep water away from your foundation. Prevent excess load on your sump pump by reducing the amount of water that gathers around your home. Consider installing additional outdoor drainage or gutter systems to reroute water effectively.
  • Keep intake lines from freezing. Check your intake and discharge line regularly to check for frozen water or blockages. Insulate these lines to keep any liquid moved through the lines from freezing. Burying discharge lines could add another thermal barrier. Since larger discharge hoses are less likely to freeze, it may be necessary to upgrade your drainage line if it seems prone to freezing.

Find and Repair Issues

If your sump pump freezes, try these quick tips to correct the problem.

  1. Switch off the power by turning off the breaker or unplugging the unit from the wall.
  2. Check the outdoor discharge line for obstructions and remove anything that could prevent the flow of water. Snow, ice, dirt, or organic debris could be at fault.
  3. If the discharge line is frozen over near its exit, apply heat near the blockage for about an hour to thaw the water.
  4. Clean out the sump pit by scooping out water or using a submersible pump or a wet/dry vacuum.
  5. Disconnect your drain line from the actual body of the sump pump.
  6. Pour a small amount of boiling water through the drain line to melt the clog. When the blockage has thawed, reconnect the line and turn the power to the pump back on.

7. Frozen Septic Tank Components

When septic tanks are not protected by adequate soil coverage, pipes or even the tank itself can become frozen. When fluid or wastes inside the tank freeze, it can hamper drainage, expand and break components, or cause sewage backups into your home. Here are a few ways to avoid and resolve the problem.

Prevent Problems

  • Check for soil erosion. Before the first hard freeze of the year, check the area around your septic tank for soil erosion. Fill in any area that needs more coverage. Avoid compressing soil.
  • Insulate the tank with straw. Straw is a great natural insulator. Add a layer of straw to the ground above your septic tank and lines.
  • Pump your tank before winter. On years when septic pumping is necessary, have it pumped before winter.
  • Reduce the strain on your system. Take steps to conserve water so you don’t overburden your septic system. Take shorter showers and use your garbage disposal less.
  • Don’t drive or park over your septic field. Avoid parking or driving over your septic field to avoid compacting the soil. Compaction makes soil freeze faster.
  • Aerate the soil above septic fields. Prevent compaction by having the soil over the drainage field aerated regularly.

Find and Repair Issues

  1. Locate your septic tank and open the access cover.
  2. Use a hose and connect to a water supply. Attach a brass nozzle and a backflow preventer to prevent water contamination.
  3. Look for the T-shaped outlet that comes out from the tank and connects to your home’s main drain line.
  4. Place the hose inside the septic pipe outlet and turn on the water. Move the hose deeper into the outlet until you hit the blockage.
  5. Give the water the chance to melt the blockage. You will know the clog is melting when you can advance the hose further.
  6. When the blockage is clear, remove and clean the hose thoroughly, and replace the tank cover.

Unlike other plumbing clogs, you should never apply direct heat to septic pipes to thaw lines, since sewer gas is flammable. If you don’t feel comfortable resolving frozen septic lines on your own, contact a plumber.

8. Frozen Well Pump

Private wells give homeowners the chance to live off of the grid and enjoy clean, low-cost water to use inside or outdoors. Unfortunately, some well pumps can freeze, which can prevent homes from receiving an adequate supply. Jet well pumps are more likely to freeze than deep well pumps, since they are situated inside homes or basements and have water inside them at all times. Frozen components will need to be cleared before water can be restored to the home.

Prevent Problems

  • Choose well pump locations carefully. To prevent freezing, your jet well pump should be placed in a well-insulated, heated area.
  • Insulate supply lines. Insulation should be added around supply lines to prevent water from freezing inside the pipes.

Find and Repair Issues

  1. Since cracks can form in the cast iron body of the jet well pump if it freezes, always reach out to a plumber if you suspect the problem. Ignoring the crack could hamper efficiency and lead to ground flooding.
  2. If you are able to stop a jet well pump from freezing before the unit is damaged, turn off the pump and give ice the chance to thaw. Gently heat the area to eliminate ice and snow buildup.

9. Flooding Basements Due to Melting Snow

Ice and snow provide Cincinnati with much-needed moisture, but when those ice crystals melt too quickly, floods can happen fast. A large snowstorm followed by a warm day or a driving rain can cause flooding, especially in low-lying areas like basements. Prevent this common issue by taking these steps.

Prevent Problems

  • Inspect and clean outdoor drainage systems. Check and clean gutters, downspouts, and drainage systems to ensure water is routed away from your home as ice and snow melt.
  • Check your sump pump. Keep your sump pump clean and test it regularly.
  • Add a backup sump pump. If flooding has been a problem before, think about adding a second sump pump to provide backup in times of heavy snowmelt.
  • Create clearance around your foundation. Clear snow at least five feet away from your foundation perimeter.
  • Clear snow from your roof. Use a roof rake to gently scrape snow off of your roof. Push it away from your home, so it melts where it won’t flood your basement.
  • Check your foundation for problems. Check your foundation for signs of trouble, such as cracks, spalling areas, and signs of previous water damage.

Find and Repair Issues

  1. When your basement starts to flood, stay on top of the accumulation by emptying sump pump pits. Try to find the source of the leak and use towels to clean up additional water.
  2. Don’t let items sit in water in your basement. Remove and dry wet items.
  3. Mold can grow in as little as 24 hours, so dry your basement fast to prevent problems. Consider renting fans and dehumidifiers to remove moisture.
  4. After your basement is dry, check the area for water leaks and consider having a professional patch cracks with hydraulic cement or caulking.

Keep Winter Plumbing Problems at Bay

Don’t wait to call a professional if you spot plumbing problems. Here at Thomas & Galbraith Heating, Cooling & Plumbing, we understand winter plumbing issues, and we are available to help 24/7/365. With a team committed to doing the job the right way the first time around, we stand behind our work. Contact us today if you have a question or concern.

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