If you live in an area experiencing extreme winter temperatures and power outages, you run the risk of the pipes in your home freezing. As water running through your pipes begins to freeze, the water will expand 10% in volume until the pressure rises enough to split your pipes open, potentially causing severe water damage to your home and appliances.
Not only are power outages uncomfortable for people, but a home’s plumbing and appliances can be severely damaged by freezing temperatures resulting from the loss of heating.
During a power failure or other heating emergency, protect exposed water pipes, drains, appliances, and other items to prevent freezing damage.
Freezing temperatures can damage your home appliances, especially those in basements, garages, and outside walls.
Whether you want to turn the heat down when you are leaving for vacation or your area is experiencing an extended power outage, the ideal temperature to protect your pipes and appliances is 55°F degrees or warmer. Please note, 55F is not a recommended long-term living temperature for people or animals, and depending on where you live and how drafty or energy-efficient your house is, that baseline recommendation may vary. Appliance manufacturers recommend compressors should not run when temperatures drop below 55°F. Frigidaire’s Installation Guide says: “Do Not install the refrigerator where the temperature will drop below 55°F (13°C) or rise above 110°F (43°C). The compressor will not be able to maintain proper temperatures inside the refrigerator”.
If your pipes have frozen, unplug your appliances right away. Unplugging your appliances is a good safety measure when flooding from broken pipes, power surges when gas and electric services are reestablished, and protecting your appliance models’ operational integrity.
Here’s a checklist to ensure proper appliances care during a power outage:
- Unplug the power cord or shut off the power to all water-using units.
- Shut off the water supply and disconnect the hoses, if possible.
- Drain all water-using appliances.
- Check the water heater, humidifiers, refrigerator ice maker, washing machine, and dishwasher. Drain the pumps on the washing machine and the dishwasher. Do not put antifreeze in these appliances.
- Close valves to the furnace, water heater, and dryer.
Purdue University has an excellent checklist for Protecting Plumbing and Appliances during a Winter Power Failure.
Protect Appliances During Extreme Cold and Power Outages
Washing machines are particularly vulnerable to extreme cold, especially if your washer is indoors but sits against a poorly-insulated, outside-facing wall — like in the garage or in your basement where the temperature drops below freezing. Hoses fill a washer tub with water before a cycle, and pumps drain the water when it’s done. The drum spins your clothes, getting excess water out. Frozen hoses and lines can cause the water intake valve to break, potentially causing flooding when the temperature warms up. To prevent this from happening during a power outage or polar vortex, shut off the water supply valves to the washer then disconnect the water supply hoses from the wall and only connect them when you’re actually running a load during the cold event. Another good time is to wrap your washer’s hoses with pipe insulation. Plumbing experts recommend insulating water pipes for the same reason; protecting your hoses the same way is a great preventative measure.
Drain pumps on washing machines and dishwashers are not readily accessible and some disassembly will be required for draining these components on either type of appliance. To learn how to disassembly a washing machine, please refer to Repair Clinic’s Disassembly step-by-step videos.
Refrigerators are a bit more robust than washers during a cold snap or outage. However, during an extended power outage, a fridge can also be susceptible to cold temperature damage, especially if you have a second fridge or freezer in the basement or garage. Like protecting your pipes and washer hoses, disconnect or insulate the hoses on your refrigerator. If you have an ice maker and the appliance is connected to a water supply, your hoses can freeze just like those in your washer. If you have appliances in the garage, the temperature needs to be kept above freezing (55°F), or the water components — water lines, water valves, and the water reservoir — may become damaged. If you’re unable to maintain a temperature above freezing in the garage, then disconnect the waterline, and drain the reservoir. Water can be reconnected once the extreme weather event passes or power is restored.
Central AC Protection
Your central air condensing unit (the one that’s outside the home) should be OK during any extended cold spell. Units are designed to deal with freezing temperatures, snow, and ice, so regular winter weather generally isn’t a problem. However, if your HVAC unit gets encased with ice and snow, it can trigger an emergency shut-off. If the HVAC unit does not maintain the desired indoor temperature, it should then switch over to the secondary heat or emergency heat (electric heat strips). If the heat is off for an extended period during freezing temperatures, it could result in frozen, broken pipes, severe water damage, and potentially costly home repairs.
Heat Pump Protection
Heat pumps and outdoor units should be placed where there is a minimal chance of the unit getting covered by snow or snowdrifts. In areas that do get a lot of snow, the condenser should be placed on a platform to raise it above average snow accumulation. During higher-than-normal snowfall levels, the area should be kept clear and always allow for ample airflow on all sides. Shovel around your HVAC unit if necessary and make sure your gutters aren’t leaking water onto the unit, which will then freeze.
Water Heater Protection
To protect your hot water heating system, you will need to keep exposed heating pipes from freezing. This can be done by circulating water through the pipes. If electrical power is available, maintain the circulator pump going. Moving water does not freeze readily. However, if the room temperature drops to below 40°F, you should probably begin to drain the pipes. Most hot water heating systems are not easily drained. Pipes may have to be disconnected to drain low points. Open the vents on radiators to release air so pipes can drain.
Pipes are vulnerable to damage caused by expanding water in any climate, but especially in buildings that have not been designed for four seasons. In warmer climates, pipes often run through non-insulated or under-insulated attics, crawl spaces, or walls. If the temperature drops below freezing for even a day, these pipes may freeze and break. Winter wind, snow, and ice storms frequently damage electric power lines and equipment, resulting in electric power interruptions. Most heating systems depend on electricity, and when the power goes off, so does the heat. In severe cold weather, this can result in extensive freeze damage before power is restored.
Damage generally occurs when the water supply is turned back on. When thawing begins or when the water is turned back on, damage can occur, especially in older, rusted, or corroded pipes. Since most modern plumbing lines are inside walls, homeowners usually observe a leak only after the water has damaged floors, carpet, walls, ceilings, or appliances.
While we’re not plumbing experts, Repair Clinic is the definitive expert on appliances, maintenance, and part repair, our library of 5K videos can help you through any repair following a polar vortex event or an extended power outage that may damage your appliances.