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How To Keep Pipes From Freezing At Your Cabin

The Family Handyman logo The Family Handyman 7/20/2021 Dawn Weinberger
© Kevin Kozicki/Getty Images

In climates with winter temperatures that frequently dip below freezing, the risks associated with frozen pipes are plentiful. That's why it's advisable to winterize your home's plumbing each year, before the first cold snap hits.

If you miss your opportunity, a frozen pipe may be just a cold windy night away. With any luck, though, you'll be nearby if and when a pipe freezes, and you'll get to it before it bursts or causes too much damage.

It a pipe bursts at your summer cabin — you know, the one that sits empty from October to April — the situation is problematic because nobody's there monitoring the plumbing. A frozen and/or burst pipe can easily go unnoticed for months, says Bret Hepola, owner of All City Plumbing in Minnestrista, Minn., leaving you with a big, expensive mess.

How big and expensive? We're talking mold, ruined appliances and water damage throughout (floors, cabinets, drywall, etc.). It may even destroy your entire plumbing system.

Cabins also tend to have poor insulation, insufficient heating systems and thinner walls. All can intensify already-unfavorable circumstances, according to professional engineer Vincent R. Christofora, Jr, owner of Woodstock Hardware in Woodstock, New York.

Not only that, changing wind and weather patterns leave some cabins more exposed to storms and freezing temperatures than in the past. Christofora says this makes them more prone to frozen pipes than the average house maintained year-round.

In the worst-case scenario, you'll need to hire a restoration company to come in and make the cabin safe and livable again. That's lot more expensive, in money and time, than the cost of just preventing the problem in the first place.

Nationally, the cost for water damage restoration ranges from $3.75 to $7 per square foot, according to Thumbtack, an app that pairs homeowners with home improvement experts in their neighborhoods. For a 1,000 square foot cabin, that adds up to $3,750 on the low end and $7,000 on the high end.

You'll save labor costs, of course, by doing the restoration work yourself. But the time you'll spend getting the place back into shape probably means less relaxing on your cabin's front porch next season. Plus, the work itself is sometimes hazardous to your health; water damage often leads to mold.

Does Homeowners Insurance Cover Frozen and Burst Pipes?

Don't assume your homeowners insurance will cover the cost of your cabin's frozen pipe fiasco. It may or it may not, says Terra Gross, an Illinois-based attorney who helps clients understand their homeowners policies.

Read your policy to make sure, she says — preferably before you sign up for the policy in the first place. Even if it does, she says the insurance company will likely make you prove that you took certain steps to avert disaster before they'll pay up.

What are the steps? Again, it depends on your policy. Fortunately, though, they're probably things you should do anyway. Here are a few actions you can take to keep the pipes at your summer cabin from freezing and bursting over the long, cold winter.

Insulate Your Pipes

Think of pipe insulation as a cozy blanket for your pipes. It's one of the best preventive measures you can take to keep them from freezing. "Any pipes that are exposed to air should be insulated before a freeze," says Mike Mushinski, president of bluefrog Plumbing + Drain.

Fortunately, insulating pipes is a straightforward task for experienced DIYers. If you're not sure what to use, Christofora recommends going with a high-quality fiberglass insulation wrap or a self-sealing polyethylene wrap. Another option is pipe heat tape (AKA heat cable). You may want to consult with a plumber and/or electrician to determine whether heat tape is a good solution for your cabin.

Keep the Heat On

Word of caution: Hepola says don't let insulation give you a false sense of security. "Insulation will help, but it will not stop a pipe from freezing," he says.

Hepola recommends leaving the heat on over the winter, if possible. It doesn't have to be super-toasty; 50 to 55 F should work. The added heating costs are nothing compared to the headache of dealing with a pipe that bursts.

Leave the Water Running

Speaking of added costs, allow the faucets at your cabin to drip ever so slightly over the winter. Don't turn them on full blast, though — they should be "dripping to a light stream," says Christofora. The reason this helps? "It takes much colder temperatures to freeze running water," he says.

Not that this is the perfect solution. Leaving your water running, even at a slow drip, can waste a lot of water over the course of a few months. To avoid this, consider giving the next tip on our list a try first.

Shut Off the Main Water Valve

Perhaps an even better option, because the cabin is going to be vacant anyway, is to turn the water off altogether at the main valve. If you do this, be sure to use an air compressor to blow all of the water out of the waterlines.

"This is helpful if you will be (away) for long periods of time during freezing temperatures, to ensure that there is no still water in the pipes that could freeze and cause damage," says Mushinski.

Leave Kitchen and Bathroom Cabinet Doors Open

These spaces are often along uninsulated outside walls and much colder than the rest of the space, leaving the pipes under kitchen and bathroom sinks particularly vulnerable to freezing. If you keep the heat on, leaving these cabinet doors open will allow that heat to keep the pipes a little warmer, too.

Winterize Sinks, Toilets, Tubs and Showers

All you need for this step is a jug of RV antifreeze and a good set of instructions to winterize cabin plumbing. (Do not use regular automobile antifreeze — it will damage your plumbing.)

Basically, you just pour some diluted RV antifreeze down the drain of your tub, sink or shower. That reduces the chance the associated pipes will freeze and/or burst. With your toilet tank, drain it first, then pour the antifreeze in the bowl.

Monitor the Temperature at the Cabin

Finally, even if you do all of the above, nothing is foolproof. To be on the extra safe side, consider installing a WiFi-enabled smart thermostat. That way, you can program it to alert you if the temperature drops below a certain point. If it does, you can crank up the heat until the cold snap passes, something you can do through an app on your phone.

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