Preventing Water Leaks And Bursting Pipes This Winter: A Guide

Old rusty pipes that have burst and have icicles coming out of them

With the holidays right around the corner, many of us are busy preparing for guests, parties, and traveling. Before you start planning where to put the Christmas tree and how to hang up your stockings, you should also consider preparing your home to prevent seasonal water leaks and frozen pipes. 

The best way to avoid water leaks and burst pipes before they happen is by taking preventative measures. After reading this guide, you’ll have the confidence to locate and operate water shutoff valves and know the steps to prepare your home for freezing weather.

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Understand How Your Home’s Water Supply Operates

The first thing you should know is how to locate and access your water shutoff valves. If you have never used a shutoff valve before, don’t worry – we’re here to give you a breakdown of where and how you can turn off the water to your home. You are likely to find both a main shutoff valve, as well as smaller shutoff valves to shorter water lines like sinks, toilets, and washing machines.

Outdoor pink water wheel with some rust

Main Shutoff Valves

The main water shutoff valve cuts off the water supply to your entire home. The most common places to find the main shutoff valves are in the basement, outside the home, in the garage, or in a crawl space. It's important to know where your main shutoff valve is located and how to use it in case of an emergency. Typically, the valve is installed near the location of the water meter, which is accessible from the outside of your home.

To find the shutoff valve on the interior of your home, basement, or garage, look for exposed pipes near the location of the water meter. You can identify the shutoff valve as either a round shaped “gate valve” or it may be a “ball valve”, which resembles a lever. Often, your main shutoff valve will have a colored handle or be labeled. To turn off a gate valve, remember “righty tighty, lefty loosy” and you can rotate the handle several times clockwise to turn the water off, or counterclockwise to turn the water back on. To turn the water off on a ball valve, you will turn the handle perpendicular to the water pipe. If the handle is in line, or parallel, with the pipe, that means it’s on. Remember to turn the water either completely on or completely off, otherwise you can wear down the valve and it won’t function properly. 

As a last resort, you can also shut the water off at your meter. The meter may be located on the side of the home or in a labeled cement pit in the ground towards the edge of your property line. To shut off the water at the meter, you may need to use a meter key or a wrench. The homeowner is responsible for anything between the meter and the home, so do not touch the shutoff valve if it is between the street and the meter. If you need to shut off your water at the meter, it is best to contact a licensed plumber, property manager, or local utility company to avoid causing any damages or breaking any local ordinances. In many areas, you must call the utility company to disconnect your water at the meter. 

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Other Interior Shutoff Valves

In addition to the main shutoff valve, you will also have “isolation valves,” which cut off water supply to smaller areas like sinks, toilets, water heaters, dishwashers, and washing machines. These valves are generally easy to locate behind or underneath the fixture that they are supplying water to. It is a good idea to periodically test isolation valves around the home to ensure that they are working properly. 

To turn off the isolation valve, simply rotate the knob clockwise until it is secure. You may have to turn an isolation valve to both the hot and cold-water supply depending on the fixture. If it is connected to a sink, turn on the faucet to relieve pressure and check that the water is completely off. 

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How to Prevent Frozen and Burst Pipes

Now that you know where water flows in your home and how to turn it off, how do you keep your water lines from freezing?

Some white PVC pipes indoors

How to Prevent Indoor Pipe Freezes

The best thing that you can do to prevent frozen pipes is to allow heat to reach all plumbing areas in your home. You can do this by weatherproofing any cracks or drafty areas, opening cupboards and closets, and insulating your pipes. You can insulate your pipes with various types of pipe wraps and pipe foam covers that can be purchased at most home improvement stores. Make sure that your pipes are clean and completely dry before you insulate them. If the pipe has any remaining moisture, mold can grow or the insulation may come loose. 

When cold weather arrives, find the furthest faucet away from your water heater and allow it to drip once every hour or two, but leave it dripping only enough to form a drop about every 15-30 seconds. This prevents your pipe from completely freezing and allows you to capture any water for future use. 

If you are going to be away from your home for a long period of time, remember to open all doors, cupboards, and closets, and allow for a few faucets to drip while you are away. It is also a recommended to keep your thermostat above 55 degrees.

How to Prevent Outdoor Pipe Freezes

If you have an outdoor faucet called a “hose bib,” start by disconnect and draining any hoses. Water left in connected hoses can travel up to the hose bib, freeze, and burst the pipe. You can insulate the hose bib with a foam pipe insulation or wrap a dry towel around it if you are in a pinch. Another option is to install a “frost proof” hose bib. This device has a mechanism that opens when the water is turned on but drains water back towards the home when the water stops flowing. This ensures that water is not trapped on the cold exterior side of the faucet. 

Some other measures you can take to protect the exterior of your home are to check that all covers and vents are secure and functional, protect any outdoor electrical pumps, and check your gutters. 

Outdoor vents should be covered properly to prevent freezing. The same is true for grills and other equipment on your deck or patio. If you have an outdoor water fountain or water pump, take steps to protect it from freezing weather. You can insulate the pump with a cover, thermal blanket, or foam pipe casings. Check that your gutters and home drains are clear and free of leaves or other blockages. Water should be displaced at least 10 feet away from the home. 

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Simple line drawing of a gauge and shutoff valve

Devices to Detect and Prevent Water Leaks and Frozen Pipes

In addition to all the actions you can take, there are many different devices that can help detect and prevent water leaks and frozen pipes.

Outdoor intelligent electromagnetic leak detection meter

Water Flow and Leak Detectors

These handy devices can alert you to any problems before they get out of control, saving you thousands of dollars in repairs. Water flow detectors work by measuring the amount of water flowing through the pipe; if there's suddenly more or less flow than usual, it's will indicate that there's something wrong. Leak detectors can send an alert or sound an alarm when moisture is detected in the area. Some of the newer devices come with remote monitoring capabilities so you can receive an alert even if you're not at home at the time.

Temperature Sensors

Temperature sensors protect your home against frozen pipes and water leaks during the winter season. They work by either turning on the heat or sounding an alarm to alert you if the pipe temperature drops too low.

Backup Batteries for Sump Pumps

A battery backup for your sump pump will ensure that even if the power goes out, the pump will still run long enough to drain water out of your basement. This helps keep your basement dry and prevents any damage to the rest of your home. Not only does a battery backup add protection against frozen pipes and water leaks, but it also provides additional security against flooding in a heavy rainstorm. Even if you have a newer sump pump with an inbuilt battery backup, you should still have an extra battery on hand in case of emergencies.

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Still Overwhelmed About Preventing Burst Pipes This Winter?

If the idea of doing all this preventative maintenance is still overwhelming, don’t panic. You can call a local plumber to do a walkthrough and help insulate or set up any additional devices. If you are in California, Modesto leak detection can help detect any leaks as well as assist with any questions you have regarding your home’s water system. We also specialize in gas and pool leak detection to better protect your home and safety.  

Key Takeaways:

  • Preventing water leaks and frozen pipes can save thousands of dollars in home repairs.
  • Main water shutoff valves are usually found in the basement, crawlspace, garage, or beside the water meter.
  • Check with your local utility company, plumber, or property manager before attempting to shut off water at the meter.
  • Periodically test your isolation valves under sinks and other appliances. 
  • Allow faucets to drip and open doors, cupboards, and closets to prevent frozen pipes. 
  • Install devices to detect and prevent water leaks and frozen pipes.
  • Call Modesto Leak Detection or contact your local licensed plumber for any questions or assistance.
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