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Frigid nights and frozen pipes
(istock)

Cold weather is here to stay for awhile, and just as water can freeze outside, it can also freeze in the pipes that carry the water into and around your home.

The nonprofit Federal Alliance for Safe Homes is recommending homeowners take the time to check the pipes in and outside their homes for proper insulation in order to avoid costly and messy burst pipes this winter, according to Anna Alexopoulos, communications project coordinator with the nonprofit.

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"Frozen pipes are the second-largest cause of [home] insurance claims in the U.S.," she said, citing information from the Insurance Information Institute.

Outside pipes and pipes exposed to outside air through exterior walls are vulnerable to freezing and bursting, but Alexopoulos said insulating them can be easy and inexpensive, and will protect them even in the event of a power outage.

"For less than the price of a latte you can properly insulate your pipes," she said. "At most home improvement stores you can buy an insulating foam tube ... and you put it around any exposed pipes. I think it's $1 for about 6 feet of insulation. You can also get insulating faucet domes. ... You hook it onto any outside spigots, creating a warm space so that the water inside will not freeze from the cold air hitting it. They are about $2 to $3 a piece."

Even old towels can be used to wrap pipes in a pinch, Alexopoulos said, such as in a sudden, unexpected deep freeze. In such situations, it might also be worth it to let faucets drip overnight so they do not build up pressure, or even to shut off the water and run the water to empty the system until temperatures thaw, she said.

Homeowners should also check their attic insulation, according to Alexopoulos, which can settle over time and get moved away from pipes by objects stored by the homeowner. Attic insulation not only keeps pipes warm but helps with heating and cooling costs in general, she said. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends 12 to 15 inches of insulating material.

"Attic insulation is the easiest place to insulate with the greatest results," Alexopoulos said. "All of these insulation steps will help if there is a major power outage. Because of power outrages last year during the ice storms, people were stuck in these freezing temps without any kind of heat."

Local plumber Ben Scheper, vice president of Finksburg-based Apple Plumbing has a lot of experience with burst or frozen pipes — the company fielded 145 such calls last winter — and he said attic insulation is even more important in homes with sprinkler systems. A Hampstead client last year had a sprinkler pipe burst while she was at work, leading to 10 hours of water spilling into her home, which had to be completely gutted.

The good news for 2015, according to Scheper, is that the extreme cold last year may have pruned the pipes most prone to bursting. Apple Plumbing has only had seven calls for burst pipes thus far this year.

"I think last winter was such a deep freeze and with those negative-20 degree windchill that anything that was going to freeze, did freeze," Scheper said. "I think people took care of the problems. It will probably take them a few years to forget."

At the same time, Scheper said, it pays to be prepared, as not checking pipes before the cold is what led to a lot of water damage in homes last winter.

"Take a flash light and follow the pipes in your basement," he said. "Once they go into a wall or an overhang, poke around. Put your hand up there to see if you feel some cold air."

If you're going to be checking insulation around basement pipes and the attic, Alexopoulos said it won't hurt to check window and door insulation as well, adding spray foam or weather stripping as needed.

"You can do easy things like lighting an incense stick to see if the smoke gets sucked out or blown in. That's one way you can check to see how your insulation is on you windows and doors," she said. "We recommend doing that before winter and if you haven't yet, take the time to do it this weekend."

The better sealed the home, Alexopoulos said, the warmer pipes and people inside will remain during cold weather or a power outage. And wintertime efforts will pay summertime dividends, keeping cool air inside and saving on cooling bills when the weather warms up.

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"Everything makes a difference and every little bit helps," she said. "The more you can do the more you will be protected."

Reach staff writer Jon Kelvey at 410-857-3317 or jon.kelvey@carrollcountytimes.com.

For more tips on protecting you home from frigid winter weather, go to http://www.greatwinterweatherparty.org.http://www.greatwinterweatherparty.org

More information

Cover external pipes and pipes exposed to outside air with foam insulation or wrap with old towels in a pinch.

Check attic insulation levels, especially around home sprinkler system piping. The EPA recommends 12 to 15 inches.

Remove hoses from external spigots and cover them with insulating domes.

Drip faucets overnight during a deep freeze to relieve pressure and prevent frozen pipes from becoming bursting pipes.

Check insulation around doors and windows with a lit candle or incense stick to find leaks.

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