Here Are the Top 9 Most Common Winter Plumbing Problems and What You Should Do

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Winter weather can cause many troubles for residents throughout Indianapolis and the surrounding communities. Homes in the area are vulnerable to certain plumbing issues during this season, causing panic as homeowners try to solve problems and protect their homes from damage. Many of the most common plumbing problems in winter can be avoided by simple maintenance and proactivity or quickly corrected through plumbing troubleshooting procedures.

Williams Comfort Air’s licensed Indianapolis plumbing team shares top winter plumbing problems and what to do if they happen to you. We explain how to prevent these issues and what to do if and when they do occur. As always, if you find yourself in need of a skilled plumber to correct wintertime plumbing issues, call Williams Comfort Air for quick and reliable plumbing repair and installation.

Top Winter Plumbing Problems

During the cold season, some plumbing system issues tend to pop up more frequently than others. Below, find the most common plumbing problems in winter and how to solve them.

1. Frozen outdoor pipes

Water lines that supply outdoor spigots can freeze when not properly winterized. Because these lines don’t run into the home and typically go unused during winter months, devastating water damage can occur from burst pipes before a leak is ever noticed.

Be proactive

  • Winterize outdoor hose bibbs in the fall to protect against winter freezes. Disconnect hoses, drain water, and store them for the winter to avoid damage. Inside the home, turn off the valve on the water line that serves the spigot. Outside, open the hose bib valve, letting water drain and leave it open during the winter to alleviate pressure if freezing does occur. Use an insulating cover to protect the hose bib over the winter.
  • Consider upgrading outdoor spigots to frost-free hose bibs. These specially designed components help prevent the possibility of freezing, installed at a downward angle to allow for drainage and featuring a water valve sitting closer to the home’s interior.
  • Add insulation to the water lines serving your home’s outdoor hose bibbs.

How to fix it

  1. Open the hose bibb valve if it is not already open.
  2. Behind the wall where the hose bibb’s base sits, insulate the base with towels or rags.
  3. Add boiling water to saturate the cloth and warm the hose bibb. Add boiling water as needed and check outdoors to see if water trickles from the spigot, showing that the freeze is melting.
  4. Heat guns or hair dryers can also be used to apply heat to a hose bibb’s base.

Avoid hidden water damage this winter and have your plumber upgrade outdoor spigots to frost-free hose bibb models. This simple upgrade can provide great protection for your home over the winter months.

2.  Frozen indoor pipes

Water supply pipes in the home can freeze during the winter months – those in uninsulated areas and along exterior walls are especially vulnerable. Frozen pipes can cause pipes to crack or burst, leading to major water leaks. One symptom you may notice if pipes freeze is a light flow of water from sinks and showers, or no waterflow at all.

Be proactive

  • During cold periods when you expect pipe freezes may occur, leave faucets on at a very small drip to alleviate pressure in the lines and keep water moving.
  • Leave cabinets under sinks open during cold temperatures to allow heat from the home to circulate in the area.
  • Install pipe insulation to water supply lines, especially those on exterior walls and in uninsulated areas.
  • Have pressure relieve valves installed on water lines to help avoid the pressure buildup that contributes to pipe leaks and breaks when freezes occur.

How to fix it

  1. Identify where the freeze is located by checking faucets throughout the home. If all faucets are affected, the freeze is likely in the home’s main water supply line. If only one fixture or fixtures in one room are affected, the freeze is likely along the water line serving that area.
  2. Leave affected faucets open as you attempt to unfreeze the water line.
  3. Apply direct heat to the area that has frozen. Hair dryers, heat lamps, and space heaters can be used to warm the area. Electric blankets and heating pads can be wrapped around the pipe.
  4. Monitor the faucet to determine when water is flowing again, then shut off the faucet once the pipe is thawed.
  5. Shut off water at the home’s main shutoff valve to avoid flooding and water damage if pipes have burst. Repair or replace the damaged section of piping.

Temporary repairs can be made to repair pipe damage, though these repairs are not a permanent solution. Pipes should be professionally repaired or replaced as soon as possible to avoid water damage in the home.

3. Clogged kitchen drains

With holiday cooking and celebrations, kitchens get a workout, as do kitchen sinks. With more food waste being sent down garbage disposals, kitchen sink drain clogs are more likely to occur. To keep your kitchen sink in service throughout the winter, take care to prevent drain clogs and remove them quickly if they occur.

Be prepared

  • Be diligent about keeping improper items out of your garbage disposal. Fat, grease, cooking oil, coffee grounds, meat bones, and certain other items should always be disposed of in the trashcan rather than by using the garbage disposal.
  • Always run cold water while using the garbage disposal and continue to let it run for about 15 to 30 seconds after turning the garbage disposal off to move food waste through the drain.
  • Clean garbage disposals periodically by running ice through the unit. Cover the drain with a stopper before turning on the disposal.

How to fix it

  1. Shut off power to the garbage disposal at both the wall switch and the breaker to prevent accidents.
  2. Look into the disposal to identify obstructions. Use pliers or kitchen tongs to pull the obstruction out of the unit. Never put your hand into the garbage disposal to free a clog.
  3. Wait about 15 minutes before turning on the disposal, allowing the motor to cool.
  4. Restore power to the unit and press the reset button located on the bottom of the garbage disposal.

4. Water heater troubles

Water heaters often experience heavier loads during winter months, with homes filled with guests over the holidays. If your water heater struggles to keep up with demand or fails to deliver any hot water, repairs or replacement may be necessary.

Be proactive

  • Perform regular maintenance for your water heater. Most tank water heaters should be drained annually. Test the pressure relief valve to ensure proper functioning.
  • Insulate the water supply inlet and hot water outlet pipes running into and out of your water heater to prevent freezing and retain heat as hot water travels through pipes to fixtures.
  • Install a water heater blanket to protect against energy loss in tank water heater models. These are available at most home improvement stores.

How to fix it

  1. If your water heater struggles to meet hot water demand, you can try turning up the unit’s thermostat. Never go above 125 degrees to prevent scalds and preserve energy efficient operation.
  2. If your water heater does not work, check electrical power or gas supply, depending on the type of water heater you have.
  3. Check the water heater thermostat’s limit switch. When water is too hot, it may trip and needs to be reset.

If you cannot correct winter water heater troubles, call your plumber to inspect the system and make repairs if appropriate. If your water heater is more than 10 years old, it may be time to replace it, so consider high efficiency options that will serve your household with reliable, affordable hot water for many years to come.

5. Outdoor drain damage

During winter months, outdoor drains may freeze, causing damage. Plastic surface drains are vulnerable to breaking due to expansion and contraction as temperatures change. Avoid damage to these drains by taking good care of them when cold weather strikes.

Be proactive

  • Consider upgrading plastic drains to metal drains. Drains made of metal – galvanized steel in particular – tolerate freezing temperatures much better than plastic models and are less likely to crack in winter. They also withstand weight of ice buildup better than plastic models.
  • Remove leaves and yard debris from outdoor drains in the fall to avoid clogs and problems with drainage over the winter.
  • When we have snow or freezing rain, clear any accumulation off the drain cover as soon as possible.

How to fix it

  1. If ice forms on outdoor drains, use hot water with salt or a mixture of water and deicer and pour it through the drain.
  2. If ice cover is heavy, break up large pieces of ice by applying heat to melt it away.

6. Sump pump backup

During winter months, sump pumps can experience increased usage due to melting snow and ice. These systems may back up due to freezing or clogs.

Be proactive

  • Maintain your sump pump during fall months. Clean out the sump pit to remove debris and grime which could cause clogs.
  • Test the sump pump regularly throughout the winter to ensure functionality.
  • Keep heat on in basements where sump pumps are located to prevent the pit and pipes from freezing.
  • Reduce the load on your sump pump by redirecting water away from the home’s foundation. Installing effective outdoor drainage and rerouting gutter drains will be helpful.
  • Keep the sump pump’s intake and discharge line free of blockages. Insulate these lines to protect against freezing. It may be helpful to bury the discharge hose underground for added protection, adding insulation to the above ground portion. Installing a larger discharge hose can also be helpful to prevent freezing.

How to fix it

When sump pump lines freeze, follow these steps to correct this common plumbing issue:

  1. Turn off power to the unit by unplugging it or cutting power at the breaker.
  2. Inspect the discharge line outlet outside the home for obstructions. Remove snow, ice, or any other materials that block the exit.
  3. If the discharge line has a clog near its exit, apply heat near the drain opening for about an hour to melt the clog.
  4. Empty water left in the sump pit using a submersible pump, wet/dry vacuum, or a bucket.
  5. Disconnect the drain line from the sump pump.
  6. Pour boiling water through the drain line to melt the clog. Continue until the blockage is thawed and water freely flows from the discharge line outside. Reconnect the line and restore power to the sump pump.

7. Frozen septic lines or tank

Septic lines and tanks that are not well protected by soil coverage are vulnerable to freezing during periods of freezing temperatures. When freezing occurs in the main line that connects the home’s main drain line to the septic tank, the home’s drainage system can cease to work altogether. When septic tanks are full, contents can freeze and back up the system. Sewage leaks can occur, creating the potential for damage and water supply contamination.

Be proactive

  • Before freezing temperatures hit, evaluate the area where your septic system sits for soil erosion. Fill in areas with soil where erosion is found to better insulate septic lines. Do not compress the soil, as it can freeze faster that way.
  • To increase winter protection for your septic system, lay a layer of straw over the areas above the tank and its lines.
  • Have your septic tank pumped before the winter season to remove waste and prevent freezing.
  • Try not to overburden your septic system this winter. Take measures to conserve water and do not increase use of your garbage disposal more than what is typical for your household. However, make sure you still use your septic system regularly to flush it and add heat.
  • Do not drive over your septic tank or field, as it compacts soil or snow, leaving the septic system vulnerable to freezing.
  • Aerate soil in fall above the septic field to avoid soil compaction.

How to fix it

  1. Find the access cover to your septic tank and open it.
  2. Connect to a water supply. Use a garden hose with a brass nozzle attached as well as a backflow preventer to prevent septic backup into the hose, or PEX piping when using hot water supply.
  3. Find the outlet within the septic tank that comes from the home’s main drain line. This looks like a ‘T’ and is typically on the tank wall closes to the home.
  4. Insert the hose into the septic pipe outlet and turn on the water. Advance the hose until you feel resistance.
  5. Allow waterflow to melt the blockage. As it melts, you will be able to push the hose farther.
  6. Once the blockage is clear, remove the hose, replace the septic tank cover, and clean the hose thoroughly.

When frozen septic lines occur, do not apply direct heat in attempts to thaw the lines. If you are not comfortable troubleshooting septic freezes yourself, call a plumber to do so immediately. It’s important to solve the underlying cause of the freeze, so work with your plumber to make repairs and prevent future issues.

8. Frozen well pump

Many homes in the Central Indiana area use private wells to supply water for use indoors. In the wintertime, well pumps may freeze, preventing the home from receiving any water. Deep well pumps aren’t likely to freeze because they sit so deeply in the well, but jet well pumps are prone to freezing due to their location in the home or basement and the need to hold water at all times.. The pump must be thawed right away to restore water to the home.

Be proactive

  • Keep your jet well pump in a well-insulated area to keep heat around the unit.
  • Install insulation to all well supply lines to prevent freezing that blocks the home from receiving water.

How to fix it

  1. If the jet well pump freezes, it is highly likely that the cast iron body of the unit will crack due to water expansion. When this occurs, the only solution is to replace the pump.
  2. If you happen to catch a freeze before damage occurs, turn off the pump to allow water within it to thaw. Heat the area surrounding the pump to help with thawing.

9. Basement floods due to snow melt

When temperatures warm up after a large accumulation of snow, melting has the potential to flood basements throughout Indianapolis. Poor drainage and foundation cracks are likely issues that contribute to basement flooding due to melting snow.

Be proactive

  • Clean gutters and inspect outdoor drainage systems in the fall to ensure water moves safely away from the home’s foundation and does not accumulate during winter months.
  • Maintain your sump pump and test it regularly to ensure functionality.
  • Consider installing a backup sump pump to assist when your sump pump fails or is overloaded by heavy snowmelt.
  • When snowfall occurs, clear snow away keeping a five-foot area clear surrounding your foundation. This will help meltwater flow away from your home instead of towards it.
  • When snow builds up on the roof, clear it away carefully to avoid a heavy load on your gutters when temperatures warm up.
  • Inspect foundation and basement walls for cracks and water leaks in the fall, and patch them as necessary.

How to fix it

  1. If your basement floods due to snow melt, dry the area right away to prevent as much water damage as possible. Remove water that has accumulated using towels or pumps, depending on the amount of water you’re dealing with.
  2. Remove any water damaged items from the basement.
  3. Dry the basement right away to prevent mold growth. Dehumidifiers and commercial fans can be used to remove moisture and keep air moving throughout the space to assist with drying.
  4. Once the basement is dry, inspect for water leaks and patch cracks with caulking or hydraulic cement to prevent future leaks.

Avoid Common Winter Plumbing Problems

When these top winter plumbing problems occur, don’t wait to take action. If you need professional assistance to stop a leak, restore drainage, or solve sump pump problems, call Williams Comfort Air for fast, reliable plumbing repairs. We are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year to provide immediate response when you face a plumbing emergency.

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