The Top 9 Winter Plumbing Problems and What You Should Do

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Winters in Louisville, KY are beautiful, but the cold weather can be hard on plumbing systems. Freezing temperatures can cause problems as severe as frozen, burst pipes, and as inconvenient as an unresponsive water heater. Fortunately, many common winter plumbing problems can be avoided by homeowners being proactive and knowing how to troubleshoot new symptoms.

The entire team at Jarboe’s Plumbing, Heating & Cooling is committed to helping homeowners to maintain safe, comfortable homes all winter long. This convenient guide is made to help you to understand the most common plumbing problems in the winter and how to manage situations effectively. Remember, if you ever find yourself in a situation where you aren’t sure how to handle a plumbing problem, our team offers 24/7/365 support to help with everything from broken lines to new installations.

Plumbing Problems Cincinnati Homeowners Face

When the weather outside is chilly, water can freeze quickly, which can create plumbing problems. Here are a few things that could happen to your plumbing, and how to proactively prevent the issue or resolve it when it does occur.

1. Outdoor Pipes Frozen

Many homes have outdoor plumbing lines for spring and summertime irrigation purposes. However, since lines are outdoors and subjected to temperature fluctuations, they can freeze and burst. During winter, it can be difficult to spot frozen lines, especially if they supply spigots that aren’t used in the off-season. Water damage can happen fast and go unnoticed for days, causing flooding.

Prepare for winter

  • Winterize hose bibbs. Protect outside hose bibbs by removing hoses and draining any water that may be sitting inside the line. Close the valve inside your home that supplies the outdoor hose. Open the outside valve to let water drain in that segment of the line. Cover the outdoor bibb with an insulated foam cover.
  • Upgrade spigots. If you don’t want to drain hose bibb lines every winter, upgrade to a frost-free hose bib. These versions are angled downwards to keep water from pooling and freezing inside.
  • Insulate outdoor water lines. Insulate any piping that could carry water you can find outside. Pipe insulation is inexpensive and easy to install.

Spot and resolve problems

  1. Anytime you suspect a frozen hose bibb, open the valve if it isn’t already open.
  2. Find the hose bibb base and pack the area around the base behind the wall with towels and rags.
  3. While working slowly and carefully, pour boiling water over the towels to saturate the cloth and heat the bibb. When water starts trickling from the base, the blockage is melting.
  4. Use warmth from a heat gun or hair dryer to apply heat to the bibb base to give water the chance to melt.

2. Indoor Lines Frozen

Unfortunately, the interior of your home isn’t immune to damage either. Water supply lines that run within uninsulated walls or other areas are vulnerable to freezing. When water inside pipes freezes, it expands and can crack or burst the line. However, before that happens, many homeowners notice a sudden lack of water coming from taps, faucets, or showers.

Prepare for winter

  • Have faucets drip. On especially cold days or overnight, open your tap valves slightly to create a drip. Keeping the valve open can alleviate pressure inside the lines and keep water moving.
  • Open cabinets. Since many plumbing lines are installed behind cabinets, keep cabinets open on cold days to increase warm air circulation around the walls.
  • Add pipe insulation. Look for water lines within your home and insulate them where you can.
  • Add pressure relief valves. Have a plumber install pressure relief valves on your water lines to eliminate excess pressure during cold spells.

Spot and resolve problems

  1. If you suspect that interior water lines have frozen, the first step you should take is finding the impacted areas. Check the lines in your home by turning on faucets. If none of your faucets are supplying water, your main line may be impacted. If only some faucets are impacted, determine where the supply line is for those areas, and focus on that pipe.
  2. Open faucets impacted by a frozen line open while you work on unfreezing the line.
  3. Use direct heat from hair dryers, heat lamps, and space heaters to warm the area and unclog the line. Heating pads and electric blankets can also be draped on the wall or wrapped around the pipe to help.
  4. When water starts moving freely from the faucet, close the valve.
  5. If pipes have burst, turn off the main water shutoff valve to prevent further flooding. Plumbers will need to repair or replace the impacted pipe.

3. Clogged Drains in Your Kitchen

When the weather is cold, you and your family may eat at home more. Holiday gatherings can also be hard on your kitchen, especially if family members and friends chip in to help with the dishes. Since everyone does dishes a little differently, you may encounter kitchen sink clogs. Prevent inconvenient clogs by making a few changes now, and know how to resolve problems if they do pop up.

Prepare for winter

  • Keep hard, greasy foods out of your disposal. Keep fat, oil, grease, frosting, coffee grounds, egg shells, meat bones, corn husks, and pasta out of your garbage disposal. Encourage family members and guests to scrape plates before putting them into the sink to keep items out of your drainage system.
  • Flush disposals and drains after use. After you use your garbage disposal or pour juice, soda, milk or other beverages down the drain, flush the area with cold water for 15 to 30 seconds.
  • Keep your disposal clean. Deep-clean your garbage disposal by popping a few ice cubes into the chamber and allowing your system to grind them up. Cover the drain stopper during this process to keep ice from bouncing upwards towards you.

Spot and resolve problems

  1. If you do spot a kitchen sink clog, turn off the power to your garbage disposal. Make sure the wall switch and main breaker is off to prevent accidents.
  2. Check your garbage disposal for obstructions by peeling back the rubber cover and peeking into the area with a flashlight. Remove obstructions with tongs or pliers. Do not place your hand into the unit.
  3. If the system has seized because the blades hit something hard, use an Allen wrench to move the gears of the system back and forth. You may feel the gears catch on an obstruction. Repeat step 2 to clear the debris.
  4. Give your system 15 minutes or so before you try to turn it back on. This keeps the motor from overheating.
  5. Press “RESET” on the bottom of your garbage disposal, restore power to your system, and see if the disposal works like normal.

4. Water Heater Nonresponsive

Cold weather is a little more manageable when you know you can retreat to a hot shower or bubble bath at the end of the day. However, during winter, water heaters can be worked to the brink, and some systems can develop problems that require repair or replacement. Follow these steps to keep your system in good shape.

Prepare for winter

  • Drain and test your water heater. Drain your water heater tank every year to remove fine sediment, as long as you’ve done this regularly in the past. You should also test your pressure relief valve to make sure it’s working correctly.
  • Insulate visible pipes. Use pipe insulation to cover any pipes that run into or out of your water heater. This prevents heat loss and freezing to reduce damage.
  • Use a water heater blanket. Add a water heater blanket to your system to prevent heat loss stemming from your system.

Spot and resolve problems

  1. Anytime your water heater isn’t supplying enough hot water, check the thermostat settings. Systems may have been unintentionally turned down, decreasing your supply. Never set your system above 125 degrees, since it could cause excess energy loss and burns.
  2. If your water heater doesn’t appear to be working, start by inspecting the power or gas supply. Power outages, closed valves, and utility outages can prevent your system from turning on properly.
  3. Look for your water heater thermostat’s limit switch. If the water inside the tank gets too hot, it may trip and need to be reset.

Keep in mind that water heaters typically last about 10 years. If your unit is older than that, it may be more cost-effective to replace the device instead of repairing the unit. Consider investing in a high-efficiency option to save power while you enjoy a reliable source of hot water.

6. Outside Drain Damage

Outdoor drains can help your patio, deck, or driveway to stay dry and functional all year long. However, plastic surface drains can become more brittle in cold weather, and other components can expand, contract, and crack when temperatures fluctuate significantly. Take good care of your drains to prevent problems this year.

Prepare for winter

  • Keep the drain area clean. Clean the area around outdoor drains by raking up leaves, sweeping surfaces, and keeping children’s toys put away. This step prevents clogs from forming in the drain during winter.
  • Remove accumulations quickly. Clear ice and snow off of outdoor drains as soon as you notice accumulations.
  • Upgrade to metal drains. If you have plastic drains, ask a plumber to upgrade your system to metal components. Metal tolerates cold temperatures much better than plastic and can withstand more weight from ice and snow.

Spot and resolve problems

  1. Use hot water and de-icing agents ice melt to eliminate ice and snow buildup. Pour a small amount of deicer into the drain opening to keep the area from freezing on cold winter days.
  2. When a lot of ice and snow is present, clear the area manually with a snow shovel. Break up large ice sheets carefully and apply heat to the area to melt ice around covers.

7. Sump Pump Not Evacuating Water or Backing Up

Sump pumps are designed to evacuate collected water from low-lying areas of your home, and may be present in basements, crawlspaces, or garages. During the winter, these mechanical drains may freeze or back up due to low temperatures and clogs. Prevent this issue by following these steps.

Prepare for winter

  • Keep your sump pump clean. During the fall, keep your sump pump clean of any debris that could accumulate near the pit. Clean out debris, scale, and any foreign objects that may have fallen into the pit.
  • Test your system routinely. Test your sump pump by placing water into the pit and seeing if your system responds by draining it out. Test your pump every week or two during the winter.
  • Continue to heat your basement. Try to keep areas around sump pumps warm to prevent freezing. If your unit is in your basement, keep the heat on in the area.
  • Reduce sump pump load. Make your sump pump’s job a little easier by reducing the amount of drainage around your home. Check gutters and downspouts to ensure proper function, and don’t ignore land grading issues allowing water to pool near your foundation.
  • Clear sump pump blockages. Remove any blockages from the pump’s intake and discharge line. Use pipe insulation to cover above-ground pipes. Having a plumber install a larger discharge hose can also help to prevent freezing.

Spot and resolve problems

  1. When sump pumps freeze, turn off the power by unplugging the unit or switching the breaker.
  2. Check the discharge line outside your house for clogs. Remove ice, snow, or leaves that could be blocking the flow of water.
  3. If the discharge line is frozen, apply heat to melt the clog. Direct heat from a blow dryer or heat gun works well to unclog frozen water inside lines.
  4. Empty any water that may be left inside the sump pump. Start by using a bucket or large cup, and finish by removing water with a wet/dry vacuum.
  5. Disconnect the sump pump drain line.
  6. Pour hot or boiling water into the drain line to melt the clog. Continue pouring water until the blockage is thawed and moves freely through the outdoor discharge line.
  7. Reconnect the line and turn back on power to the pump.

8. Septic System Frozen

Septic tanks are buried underground, which provides insulation against cold winter weather. However, if there is poor soil coverage, the tank is full, or there are leaks present in the system, freezing temperatures can cause drainage problems or even backups. Here are a few ways to get your septic tank ready for winter, and how to ward off problems.

Prepare for winter

  • Check for exposed lines. Before the first hard freeze of the year, check your yard for any areas where septic tank sides or lines are visible. Replace missing soil to cover and insulate these components. Avoid compressing the soil, since compaction causes the ground to freeze even faster.
  • Add extra insulation. Add a layer of straw on the ground above your septic tank and lines to keep them warmer.
  • Have your tank pumped early. Septic tanks need to be pumped every 3-5 years. Have your system pumped before winter on the year yours is due for service. Pumping your unit before winter can prevent freezing and expansion that can break your tank.
  • Don’t overload your system. Watch your water use during winter. Take shorter showers, only run full loads of laundry and dishes, and scrape food into your trash instead of using the garbage disposal.
  • Never park or drive over septic tanks. Avoid any activity that could compact soil over septic systems. Never drive or park over your tank.
  • Keep soil aerated. Aerate the soil above the drainage field to avoid compaction.

Spot and resolve problems

  1. Locate your septic tank’s access door and open it.
  2. Connect a hose fitted with a brass nozzle and a backflow preventer to a water supply.
  3. Find the outlet within the septic tank that stems from the home’s main line. This T-shaped junction is typically located on the tank wall closest to the house.
  4. Push the hose into the septic pipe outlet and turn on the water. Move the hose into the segment until you notice resistance. Allow the water to melt the blockage.
  5. Once the frozen segment is clear, remove the hose and clean it carefully.

Unlike other frozen pipes, you should never apply direct heat to septic system pipes if sections freeze. Since sewer gas is flammable, clogs should be treated as delicately as possible with water. If you don’t feel comfortable freeing septic system clogs, contact a plumber for help.

9. Frozen Water Inside Well Pump

Water well pumps give homeowners throughout the greater Louisville, KY access to inexpensive, clean water. However, private wells can develop problems in the winter due to freezing temperatures. While deep well pumps aren’t likely to freeze, jet well pumps are prone to problems because they have to hold water at all times. Learn how to prepare your pump for winter and how to fix problems.

Prepare for winter

  • Choose jet well pump locations carefully. Select a well-insulated area to place your jet well pump. Areas exposed directly to the cold are not suitable for these devices.
  • Insulate supply lines. Well pump lines that run from your system should be insulated carefully to keep water inside the lines from freezing.

Spot and resolve problems

  1. If a jet well pump freezes, the water can expand and crack the cast iron body of the device. If this happens, the only resolution is replacing the entire unit.
  2. Watch your pump closely on frigid days. If you happen to catch a freeze early, turn off the pump to give the unit the chance to thaw. Heating the surrounding area can also help.

10. Basement Flooding from Fast Snow Melt

When snow melts too quickly due to rising temperatures or rain, it can flood the ground with water, which can leak into your basement. Flooding can also be caused by poor water drainage, cracks in your foundation, or overloaded sump pumps. Protect your home by taking these steps:

Prepare for winter

  • Clean and inspect drainage systems. Gutters and drainage systems need to be clean and functional to move water away from your house. Check outdoor drains and downspouts to look for problems.
  • Test your sump pump. Test your sump pump frequently during the winter by pouring water into the pit. If the system doesn’t respond properly, contact a plumber.
  • Install a second sump pump. The potential for large amounts of melting snow could warrant a second sump pump. Consider having a plumber install a second unit to help with overflow.
  • Clear snow away from your home. Remove snow within a five-foot area away from your foundation.
  • Remove extra snow from your roofline. Use a roof rake to remove extra snow from your roof. Push any fallen snow away from your foundation.
  • Check your foundation. Check your home’s foundation to look for cracks or areas where water could leak into the space. Patch them with caulk or expandable spray foam. Older homes may require professional basement waterproofing.

Spot and resolve problems

  1. Anytime you are faced with basement flooding, remove as much water as possible as quickly as you can. Using submersible pumps, wet/dry vacuums, or even a simple bucket can help to prevent significant water damage. Dehumidifiers and commercial fans can help to remove moisture from the air.
  2. Take any items that have sustained water damage out of your basement. Dry them carefully to prevent mold and mildew growth.
  3. After your basement is dry, check the area for new water leaks.

Don’t Hassle with Winter Plumbing Problems

When it comes to plumbing problems, don’t wait to give us a call. Here at Jarboe’s Plumbing, Heating & Cooling, our professional, licensed plumbers can spot leaks, thaw pipes, repair appliances, and correct drainage to make your home safe and comfortable. Give us a call 24/7/365 for immediate assistance you can count on.

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