Steps to Take Now to Prevent Frozen Gutters, Burst Pipes, More
In many parts of the US, winter can bring brutal cold, thick ice and deep snow. As tough as a long winter can be on people, it can be even harder for many homes.
Frozen gutters send water leaking into houses. Roofs may collapse under the weight of snow. Pipes burst as temperatures plummet.
Take these steps now to protect your home…
Install heat cables on gutters and eaves to prevent ice damming. One of the most important steps is to clear gutters each fall after lots of leaves drop into them. Gutter blockages increase the odds of ice forming when winter comes. If you can’t safely do it yourself, it’s well worth paying a pro to do it.
Even if you have cleared your gutters of leaves, thick buildups of ice along roof eaves or in gutters can prevent snow melt from running off the roof, leading to leaks that could cause costly water damage and/or mold inside your home.
Improving insulation between the finished areas of the home and an unfinished attic can limit ice-dam formation by making the inside of the attic colder and therefore less likely to cause the snow to melt (and later refreeze into ice). But ice dams can develop despite adequate insulation and if you want to prevent this, the best option is to install a “resistance heating” product called roof heat cable or roof deicing cable.
This electrical cable, which generates low-level heat, is narrow like a heavy-duty extension cord and comes with a large number of small clips to attach it to roof shingles, gutters and/or downspouts without causing damage. Expect to pay perhaps $75 for a 100-foot length. That, plus perhaps an extra $100 in electric bills to power it on snowy days, could save you ice-dam repair bills of $10,000 or more. The cable can safely be left in place all year. The companies that make heat cable also make sensors that allow it to turn on only when needed…or just unplug the cable when it’s not needed. You might be able to install it yourself if you are comfortable working on a ladder, but access to an electrical outlet is required.
Examples: EasyHeat Roof Heat Cable available at Lowe’s…Frost King De-Icing Cable at The Home Depot.
Caution: Heat cable can damage certain types of roofing materials, such as rubber-membrane roofs, wood-shingle roofs and tar-and-gravel roofs.
Remove overhanging branches. These could damage your roof if they break off from trees under the weight of winter ice. Even if they don’t, their leaves continually will clog your gutters, increasing the odds of ice dams.
Inspect chimney flashing. If you can safely climb onto your roof, take a close look at the metal flashing around your chimney (and around any vents, skylights or other places where holes are cut through the roof).
If you see nails backing out, replace them with hot-dipped galvanized nails one size larger than the ones originally used. If you see rust, scrape it off with a wire brush. If you see gaps or small holes, use roofing caulk to close them. If rust is pervasive or the holes or gaps significant, you might have to pay a roofer perhaps $300 to $600 to replace the flashing.
Protect exposed pipe. Water pipes should be protected against the risk for freeze-ups if they are located in unheated crawl spaces or attics or otherwise exposed to winter’s cold.
Home centers sell polyethylene pipe insulation for less than $2 for a six-foot length, but while this can help keep water warm in your hot-water pipes, it provides only minimal freeze-up protection for exposed cold-water pipes.
Much better: Attach heat tape to these pipes. Heat tape is similar to roof heat cable when attached to a pipe, it uses a small amount of electrically generated heat to prevent that pipe from freezing. Choose heat tape that has a built-in thermostat so that it heats up only when temperatures approach freezing. That way, you can leave it plugged in all winter without wasting electricity. It can be found in home centers for as little as $25 for a six-foot length up to more than $100 for a 200-foot length.
If your exposed pipes are in an unheated crawl space, also consider closing crawl space vents each winter, then cover these vents with insulating vent covers, available for around $5 at home centers.
Water pipes inside heated homes can freeze, too, if they are in exterior walls. And when pipes inside homes burst, they can cause many thousands of dollars of water damage. If a pipe in one of your exterior walls burst this past winter, don’t just have that pipe repaired also add insulation between the pipe and the outside of the home to reduce the odds that this will happen again, perhaps replacing standard fiberglass insulation with another kind of insulation, such as rigid foam insulation, that provides higher insulating value per inch of thickness. Do this wherever there are pipes in exterior walls if your insulation proved insufficient to protect your pipes in one spot, it easily could be lacking elsewhere as well.
If you can’t add this insulation without ripping open your walls—it might not be necessary to rip open finished walls if the pipes are located behind kitchen sinks or cabinets, for example—contact an insulation contractor. He/she might be able to add blown-in foam or loose-fill insulation without causing much damage. Alternately, you could call a plumber to discuss rerouting water pipes so that they no longer travel through exterior walls.
Place temperature monitors in poorly heated or unmonitored parts of the home that contain water pipes. These monitors will let you know if temps fall to near freezing in a space where water pipes could be at risk, such as a utility room accessible only from outside the home heated by only a small space heater…or a crawl space where the only source of heat is heat leaking out of ventilation ducts. As temperatures drop, you might quickly deploy a space heater or allow the faucets in the home to drip moving water usually doesn’t freeze.
If you have a home alarm system, you probably can add a freeze-up sensor for a modest cost that triggers some sort of warning when temperatures fall. Or just buy a digital wireless thermometer, available at Walmart for around $20, and position the temperature sensor in the unheated or poorly monitored space.
If you have a lawn sprinkler system, have it blown out each fall. Irrigation pipes often are not buried deep enough to ensure that they won’t freeze in extreme cold. A lawn-care pro or irrigation-system company can use compressed air to blow the water out of the system after the last lawn watering of the year for about $50.
PROTECT YOUR HOME’S EXTERIOR, TOO
To protect the outside of your home, take the following steps…
Guard against water damage where snow piles against the home. Snow piled against the side of a home can lead to peeling paint, deteriorating wood or mildew. To decrease the odds that this will recur during future winters, sand down damaged wood and other painted surfaces and apply a high-quality mildew-resistant primer before repainting. If the affected area is painted brick, power wash and then apply this primer before repainting. Example: Kilz Premium Primer (around $20 a gallon, Kilz.com).
If snow piles against windows or doors, carefully scan for signs that water from snow melt is trickling into the house. If so, add weather stripping or rubber gaskets to improve the seal. In future winters, also place towels just inside these doors and windows, and remove snow from these trouble spots.
Seal foundation cracks—from the outside. If water is trickling into your basement through cracks in your foundation, these cracks are likely to grow ever larger over time—particularly if water freezes inside the cracks.
Some products claim to seal foundation cracks from the inside, but these really only hide the problem temporarily. A far better solution is to apply a high-quality waterproofing product to the outside of the foundation. This will require digging down next to the foundation if the cracks are belowground.
Example: WR Grace Bituthene Waterproofing Membrane (around $200 for a 200-square-foot roll). www.NA.GraceConstruction.com