Here Are the Top 9 Winter Plumbing Problems and What You Should Do If You Experience Them

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Central Indiana winters tend to be exceptionally cold and windy, which can spell trouble for plumbing systems. From frozen pipes to unresponsive appliances, this season is known to create illusive winter plumbing issues, which is why our team here at Mr. Plumber is always ready to help.

While some most common winter plumbing problems can be avoided by homeowners who take proactive steps early on in the season, others may need urgent professional attention. Our licensed and insured plumbers know what to do and how to help, offering 24/7/365 support for plumbing repairs and replacements. Use this guide to learn more about commonly reported winter plumbing problems in Indianapolis, and when to call our team.

Wintertime Plumbing Issues You Could Come Across

When winter weather strikes, some cold weather plumbing problems are much more common than others. Use this list to spot common plumbing issues, avoid the problem, or fix it when the issue does occur.

1. Exterior Pipes Frozen

Outdoor water lines and spigots make it easy to wash your car, water your plants, and hose down your driveway in the spring and summer. However, during the winter, these lines are especially prone to damage, since they are subjected to cold temperatures and left untouched for months. Water damage can occur if the lines freeze and burst.

Proactive steps you can take

  • Protect hose bibbs. Outdoor spigots can freeze and burst if they aren’t properly winterized. Disconnect hoses from the spigot, drain the water, and store them in a dry place. Turn off the valve that supplies the outdoor hose inside the house, with the outdoor valve open. This allows the line to drain. Cover the bibb with an insulated cover.
  • Change to frost-free spigots. Consider switching to a frost-free bibb to prevent problems. These bibbs are installed at an angle to drain water and have shutoffs that are more central to prevent freezing in the line.
  • Add insulation around water lines. Insulate outdoor water lines with pipe insulation to protect against freezes.

Corrective steps you can take

  1. If your outdoor hose bibb is frozen, open the valve if it isn’t already open.
  2. Find the hose bibb base and pack the area behind the bibb with washcloths and towels.
  3. Pour boiling water over the fabric to saturate the towels and to warm the bibb. When water trickles from the spigot, it’s a sign the water is melting.
  4. You can also use a heat gun or a hair dryer to apply warm air to the base of the bibb to melt blockages.

2. Interior Pipes Frozen

Interior water lines can freeze too, especially if they are housed within walls that aren’t insulated. Exterior walls are especially prone to problems. When water freezes within an interior plumbing line, water won’t run from the tap, or may expand enough to crack or burst the line. Sudden indoor flooding can occur, so proactive measures are important before the coldest parts of the year.

Proactive steps you can take

  • Have faucets drip overnight. 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.
  • Give air the chance to circulate. Leave cabinets under sinks open during cold temperatures to allow heat from the home to circulate in the area.
  • Protect pipes with insulation. Install pipe insulation to water supply lines, especially those on exterior walls and in uninsulated areas.
  • Have a plumber install a pressure relief valve. Have pressure relieve valves installed on water lines to help avoid the pressure buildup that contributes to pipe leaks and breaks when freezes occur.

Corrective steps you can take

  1. When you suspect a frozen pipe, start by locating the impacted area. Turn on faucets, showerheads, and water-using appliances throughout your home to see what is working. If water isn’t flowing from anything, your main water line may be frozen. If only a few faucets aren’t working, find the supply line that provides those with water, and focus your efforts there.
  2. Open all faucets in the affected area while you work on thawing the line.
  3. Warm the area where you suspect the freeze carefully. Direct heat from hair dryers, heat guns, and radiant space heaters can help to warm the area. Electric blankets or heat pads can be placed against the wall or wrapped around the impacted pipe to thaw the blockage.
  4. Keep an eye on your taps. When water is flowing freely, turn off the faucet so you don’t waste extra water.
  5. Anytime you spot significant damage like swelling, cracks, or a burst pipe, turn off the water at your water main shutoff valve and let our team know. We will have to repair or replace the damaged pipe segment to keep your home safe.

3. Kitchen Sink Drain Clogs

Few things are more comforting to a family than a home-cooked meal on a cold winter’s day. However, wintertime can be hard on your kitchen sink, especially if more food waste than normal is sent you’re your garbage disposal. Here are a few ways to ward off and treat kitchen sink clogs, so you can enjoy those meals without any stressful cleanup.

Proactive steps you can take

  • Watch what goes into the disposal. Greasy foods, cooking oil, and fat can collect on blades and internal pipes, so keep those items out of your disposal. You should also keep hard foods or objects out of your disposal, such as eggshells, coffee grounds, and meat bones. Encourage anyone clearing the table to scrape plates and dishes before placing items into the sink.
  • Flush the area with water. Clean garbage disposals and drains by flushing the area for 15 to 30 seconds after use. This step protects your system and eliminates odors.
  • Deep clean your disposal. You can purchase garbage disposal cleaning tablets to run through your system to clean the blades, or use ice cubes. After placing a few ice cubes into the disposal and covering the drain opening, run the system to scrape the blades clean.

Corrective steps you can take

  1. Anytime you suspect a clog in your garbage disposal, stay safe by cutting off power to the system before you start troubleshooting. Unplug the unit, make sure the switch is off, and turn off the breaker that controls the circuit.
  2. Using a pair of kitchen tongs, peel back the rubber covering of your disposal and peek inside the unit. Use a flashlight to look for obstructions and remove them with tools like pliers. Never put your hand into a garbage disposal to clear a clog.
  3. If your garbage disposal stopped working after hitting a hard object, it may have tripped an internal breaker. If the disposal is free of debris, use an Allen wrench on the underside of the garbage disposal to move the gears of the system back and forth. If you feel it catch, there could be debris between blades that you can’t see. Check the system again for obstructions and remove them as outlined in step 2.
  4. Give your unit some time to cool down before turning it back on. Wait about 15 minutes.
  5. Restore the power to your garbage disposal, press the red “RESET” button on the bottom of the unit, and see if it turns on like it should.

4. Problems with Your Water Heater

If you love relaxing in a hot bath at the end of a cold day, you aren’t alone. During winter, many people find themselves taking more baths and showers than normal, not to mention using more hot water during holiday cooking and cleaning. When the demand for hot water spikes, so can the problems. Water heaters can develop issues that halt hot water supply, so know how to prevent issues and when to order repairs or replacement.

Proactive steps you can take

  • Perform routine water heater maintenance. As long as you’ve been diligent about water heater maintenance in the past, drain your tank water heater every year to remove sediment and scale buildup from inside the tank. Have a plumber test the pressure relief valve to ensure it is working properly.
  • Insulate water lines. Find the water lines running into and out of your system and insulate them with covers.
  • Add a water heater blanket. Invest in a water heater blanket to prevent heat loss from inside your water heater.

Corrective steps you can take

  1. When you don’t have enough hot water, check the temperature dial on your hot water heater. Sometimes, these dials are accidentally turned down, which can impact the levels of hot water you have access to. Turn up the temperature to 125 degrees, but never go above that reading, since it could waste energy or cause scalds.
  2. Check your electrical or power supply if your water heater isn’t working. Simple issues, such as power outages, a closed valve, or even a widespread utility shortage could be the culprit for a system not turning on.
  3. Water heaters have a limit switch designed to trip if water temperatures get too hot. Check to see if this switch needs to be reset.

When troubleshooting your water heater, keep in mind that the average lifespan for these systems is about 10 years. If your unit is older, a replacement may be more cost-effective than a round of repairs. As an added bonus, you can find high-efficiency systems designed to save you money.

6. Drain Damage Outside

Outdoor drains are prone to damage during winter, especially if water inside the system freezes, expands, and cracks the structure. Temperature fluctuations can also cause rapid expansion and contraction that harms other parts of the drain. Keep your system damage-free by taking these steps.

Proactive steps you can take

  • Keep drains clean. Organic debris like leaves, branches, and dirt can clog drains as water moves towards low-lying areas. Rake or sweep the area around drains to keep them clear.
  • Remove ice and snow buildup. Clear away ice and snow whenever it accumulates over outdoor drains.
  • Switch to metal. Metal drains are less prone to damage from the cold and tend to bear weight better than plastic varieties. Have a plumber switch out your drain covers for you.

Corrective steps you can take

  1. To remove ice and snow easily, use hot water, ice melt, or a mixture of the two. Pour a deicer into the drain to keep the area from freezing.
  2. When large amounts of ice and snow are present, shovel the area carefully or break up large pieces before using heat to melt it away.

7. Backups Involving Sump Pumps

Winter can be hard on sump pumps, which collect and evacuate water from low-lying areas like basements and crawlspaces. If water freezes within sump pumps or discharge lines, these systems may not drain appropriately, or could cause backups. Follow these tips to prevent this common winter plumbing problem.

Proactive steps you can take

  • Remove debris from sump pump pits. Clean out your sump pit in the fall to remove dirt, grime, and any foreign objects that may have fallen into the pit. Keeping the area clean can help prevent clogs.
  • Check on your system. Test your sump pump by pouring a bucket of water into the pit to raise the float and activate the pump. If the system doesn’t start up or dispel water, there could be a blockage or a system malfunction.
  • Maintain a heated environment. Keep sump pumps from freezing by keeping the heat on around your sump pump and pit. If the unit is in your basement, open vents in the space to keep the area warm.
  • Reduce water load. Keep your sump pump from being overwhelmed by directing water away from your foundation. Check and clean outdoor downspouts and drains. If water tends to pool around your home, talk with a landscaper about re-grading the land to ensure better drainage.
  • Protect intake and discharge lines. Check both the sump pump’s intake line and discharge line for blockages. Insulate these lines to protect them from freezing temperatures.

Corrective steps you can take

  1. Switch off your sump pump before doing any troubleshooting. You can do this by unplugging the device or flipping the switch that controls the circuit at the breaker.
  2. Check the drainage lines outside to see if there are obstructions. Remove any snow, ice, or debris that may be in the way.
  3. If the clog is near the exit, apply heat for about an hour to free the clog.
  4. Remove extra water from the sump pump with a wet/dry vacuum.
  5. Disconnect the drain line.
  6. Working carefully, pour boiling water into the drain line to melt any frozen water. Continue pouring until water flows freely. Reconnect the line and restore power.

8. Septic Tank or Lines Frozen

When septic tanks and lines aren’t insulated well by proper soil coverage, they can freeze. Unfortunately, frozen sections inside your tank or effluent lines can halt drainage from your home, or cause backups as toilets are flushed and appliances are used inside. Fortunately, preparing your septic tank for winter weather is fast and easy, and professional plumbers are always on hand to answer questions or respond for emergency service.

Be proactive

  • Look at soil coverage. Check the area around your septic tank for spots where soil has eroded. Backfill these areas with new dirt to provide insulative coverage. Never compress the soil, as tightly packed dirt freezes faster.
  • Use straw to insulate septic systems. Since straw is hollow and holds air, use it to insulate your tank. Add a layer of straw around your tank and pipes.
  • Schedule a septic pumping. When your tank is due to be pumped, have it performed before freezing temperatures hit. This prevents an already full tank from freezing, expanding, and damaging your system.
  • Watch your water use. Conserve as much water as possible during the winter. Focus on taking shorter showers, using your garbage disposal less frequently, and only running full loads of laundry and dishes.
  • Never drive or park over septic components. Avoid dangerous soil compaction or tank damage by never parking on top of or driving over septic tanks.
  • Aerate your yard. Keep the soil above your septic system aerated to prevent compaction.

Corrective steps you can take

  1. Open the door to your septic tank’s access cover.
  2. Attach a hose fitted with a backflow preventer and brass nozzle to a hot water supply.
  3. Find your home’s main drain line that runs within the septic tank. This junction is T-shaped and usually situated on the side of the septic tank that faces your home.
  4. Place the hose inside the outlet and turn on the water. When you hit the clog, you should feel some resistance.
  5. Give the water some time to melt the clog. You should be able to move the hose deeper into the junction as the clog melts.
  6. When you are finished, remove the hose and disinfect it carefully.

Keep in mind that sewer gas is combustible, and direct heat sources like open flames or heat guns should never be used. Even if water is cool or you have exhausted your hot water supply indoors, the running water should be enough to melt the clog. Refer to a plumber anytime you don’t feel comfortable troubleshooting your septic system.

9. Well Pump Frozen

When you rely on a well pump to supply your Indianapolis, IN home with water, freezing temperatures can cause a lot of problems for jet well pumps. Because deep well pumps are underground and protected by surrounding earth, they are not as prone to freezing. However, jet well pumps have to hold water at all times, and must be thawed immediately if they start to freeze. Remember these tips to protect and troubleshoot your system.

Proactive steps you can take

  • Insulate the area around your jet well pump. Insulate the housing of your jet well pump to keep heat around the unit. Have your unit relocated if the area where it sits is exposed to wind and cold temperatures.
  • Insulate supply lines. Insulate well supply lines carefully with pipe insulation to prevent freezing.

Corrective steps you can take

  1. When well pumps freeze, the water inside can expand and crack the cast iron body. If this damage occurs, the unit will need to be replaced.
  2. Keep an eye on your well pump on cold days. If the unit starts to freeze, turn it off and give it time to thaw. Heat the area around the pump to encourage free-flowing water.

10. Interior Flooding Due to Snow Melt

Snow may be beautiful, but when it melts too quickly, it can oversaturate the ground and any sump pumps you may rely on to keep your basement dry. Quickly melting snow can damage your home and result in mold growth. Here are a few ways to ward off interior flooding due to melting snow.

Proactive steps you can take

  • Repair or clean drainage systems. Check downspouts, gutters, and outdoor floor drains for debris. Clean the interiors so water can flow freely away from your home’s foundation.
  • Check on your sump pump. Test your sump pump by placing water in the pit. If the system doesn’t move and drain water, have it repaired or replaced.
  • Use a second sump pump. If you are nervous about ground flooding, consider installing a second sump pump.
  • Clear away extra snow. Clear any snow within five feet of your home. This allows ice and snow to melt where it won’t impact your foundation. Use a roof rake to remove heavy snow accumulations from your roof.
  • Check your basement walls and foundation. Check your basement walls and the visible foundation outside for cracks or holes. Patch these spots carefully with either spray foam insulation or caulk. Homes with significant problems may require professional basement waterproofing.

Corrective steps you can take

  1. Remove water as quickly as possible if your basement does flood. You can use a bucket, a wet/dry vacuum, a submersible pump, or a professional flood remediation service to get rid of extra water. Dehumidifiers and commercial fans can help to dry out the space.
  2. Take any waterlogged items out of your basement and dry them carefully. Take photos of items before throwing them away in case insurance companies need documentation.
  3. After your basement is dry and clean, check the walls and floor for new damage. Cracks and holes may need to be filled with hydraulic cement.

Avoid Plumbing Issues This Winter

Anytime you are faced with wintertime plumbing problems, don’t hesitate to reach out to the team at Mr. Plumber. We are committed to helping our clients to enjoy cleaner, safer homes with correctly installed plumbing. Whether you have a drain clog or you need a new water heater, we can help fast. Contact us today for help!

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