How to Keep Your Pipes & Well From Freezing

Living in a cold climate means facing a number of unique challenges, not least of which is protecting water pipes and wells from freezing. Because water expands when frozen, this can lead to catastrophic problems with burst pipes and ruined equipment. While not many of us are on well water, we all have water pipes that are vulnerable to freezing temperatures if safeguards are not in place.

How to Protect Wells

There is no one type of well setup: some will have a submersible pump, others will have aboveground jet pumps. Pipes to the pressure tank and house can be aboveground, or buried beneath the freeze line. Some pressure tanks are located in the house, garage or a basement, some are located next to the well. Identify the water-carrying pipes and components in your setup that could be exposed to freezing temperatures, and experiment with the following tips to protect them.

  • Ideally, any exposed components of your well system are sheltered. Whether this is a "fake rock" or a full-blown well house, the housing needs to be well-sealed and insulated. Replace any missing/damaged insulation and weatherstripping, and seal any holes or cracks.
  • Bright Idea! Those without a proper housing, worry not: an effective, inexpensive alternative utilizes a couple garbage cans and some insulation. Line the exterior of a small garbage can (large enough to go over the well components) with insulation, then place a larger can over it. With enough insulation packed in between, this will provide the minimum of protection.

When insulation alone is not enough to keep things from freezing, a heat source is needed. There are many potential sources, depending on the temperatures you're facing and the quality/amount of insulation around the housing.

  • Heat lamps are typical, and effective in almost any situation. Some well owners can get away with using one or a few basic incandescent light bulbs (100w+), which do put out quite a bit of heat (especially in a small, insulated space). If more heat is required, a small ceramic utility (or "milk house") heater is your best bet.
  • One big benefit of heaters is the fact that they're designed to be heaters. Light bulbs primarily produce light energy, with heat as a byproduct. Heaters, on the other hand, primarily emit warming infrared energy. Although heaters use more energy, nearly all of that energy is dedicated to heating. A quality heater will also last longer than a typical incandescent bulb.
  • To save energy and prolong the life of the heat source, consider using a thermostat to control when the heat comes on. Some heaters will have a built-in thermostat, but if you're using light bulbs or a heat lamp, you'll need to use an external thermostat control.

How to Protect Pipes

  • Exposed pipes - even those in basements, crawl spaces or attics - are the most vulnerable aspect of any water system. At the very least, they should be insulated - even if there's only a small chance of freezing temperatures in your area. You're probably familiar with standard foam tube insulation (which is ideal) but even layers of heavy fabric or bubble wrap will provide protection. Whatever is used, the more the better!
  • Heat cables (sometimes called "heat tape") are a popular option for keeping pipes warm - by actually heating them. These cables are powered by electricity and radiate a small amount of heat. When properly wrapped around a pipe (and secured with electrical tape), they will keep the water flowing. Use automatic heat cable that's controlled by a thermostat for greater energy-savings and longevity.
  • Insulation can be combined with heat cable to provide even greater protection for pipes. If you're doing this in a well housing, be aware that you'll need an additional heat source to keep any other components warm; in some very well-insulated situations, it is possible for the cable alone to radiate enough heat to protect the entire well area, but only if the pipes are not insulated.
  • Pro Tip: Don't double down on heat cable: crossing the cable back over itself can lead to overheating and damage - especially with non-automatic cable and plastic pipes. Always follow manufacturer instructions and inspect heat cables annually.
  • Outside, disconnect garden hoses and store them for the season. If you don't have a freezeless hose bibb, we recommend investing in one. Otherwise, close the shutoff valve on the pipe that leads to your outdoor faucet and leave the hose bibb open to drain any remaining water inside.
  • If the pipe supplying the outdoor faucet doesn't have a shutoff valve, have one installed or try using a freeze cap. As a last resort, you can leave the outdoor faucet running at a trickle - moving water helps prevent freezing, and the open valve will give freezing water a chance to escape before bursting the pipe.
  • Leaving the house for an extended period of time? You can leave the house thermostat set to 55°F and open up any cabinets with pipes inside to fully disperse the heat, or you can shut off the home's water supply and open up faucets to drain what remains. Rather than let this water go down the drain, consider collecting it for another use.
  • Helpful Hint: If the house is going to go unused for some time, nontoxic antifreeze (the same used in RVs) can be poured into traps to prevent them from freezing.

Even when you do all you can to protect pipes and your well, you still need to be prepared for an emergency:

  • Always have an emergency water supply, or a means of getting water should the usual methods fail. Those on wells should have a generator (and plenty of fuel) that can run their pump for short periods when the power is out. Additional water storage (beyond the pressure tank) is always a good idea, since there are situations where the power could be off for several days.
  • If power is unavailable but the water supply is still functional, keep some faucets open to a trickle. As mentioned above, even a tiny flow of water can help prevent freezing and the open valve will give freezing water some place to expand to.
  • Know where your main shutoff valve is, and keep a temporary pipe repair kit handy. Should the worst happen, you'll at least be able to stem the flow and patch the hole until it can be better dealt with.

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