Which material is best to ward off frozen pipes?

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A couple of years ago we moved into our new home on the hottest day of the year, albeit a home built a little over 60 years ago. Excited to remodel, my boyfriend and I had paint swatches drying on the yellow and high-gloss maroon-colored walls within 30 minutes of getting the keys. Within an hour the dogs were running around the yard while my boyfriend had finished ripping out the intensely red carpet. Beneath the carpet were beautiful wood floors that over the course of the next week we refinished. That first day was long, hard work as we ripped tack strips and trucked old doors out to the new shop on our land. When we sat with cold beers on concrete stairs that evening, we toasted to our small new house and large yard envisioning the future here–exhausted, but happy.  These remodels were exciting; each day we saw the changes being made. Within a few weeks, we felt like the house was our home.

Pex Piping vs CopperHowever, that wasn’t the only type of work that needed to happen. One Saturday morning I found myself dipping into the crawl space beneath our house, flashlight and insulating foil tape in hand. (If I were to re-do this, I’d make sure to have some music too. Perhaps it would distract me from the mice corpses and multiple creepy crawlies I grimaced at.) I was never so glad to have a small house as I was that day–within a couple hours our vents were re-insulated so that when the cool weather did hit our house would stay a little cozier.  However, I was glad to see that our hot water line was appropriately wrapped with strofoam pipe wrap– from the previous home owner–so no need to go back down to insulate our hot water pipes (which was good–since the first thing I did after exiting the crawl space was take a long, hot shower!)

Frozen and burst pipes in winter are more than a headache. It’s a nightmare, so most homeowners today try to take precautions to eliminate the threat of burst pipes, especially in cold winter months. Ensuring that pipes are insulated is the most helpful option.  In an article in Builder Magazine, engineer  states,

“the best way to prevent a pipe from freezing is to keep it warm enough so the water within remains above the freezing point.”

In very cold weather areas though, there are other variables to consider. Does the material used in pipes make a significant difference? Aside from costs, I’d like to address some of the key points about how below-freezing weather affects various pipe options.

 

Copper

A fairly good conductor of heat, copper really hates the cold. If a copper pipe leaves the  insulated house to extend outdoors, the heat can be lost rapidly since it conducts the heat along the pipe. If there are gaps in the insulation of the copper pipe, the heat will rush to the uninsulated areas, away from the warmer areas of the pipe. Thus, the heat of the pipe is quickly lost–so complete insulation is absolutely needed with copper pipe.  If you have complete insulation though, copper might be an option for you–particularly if you live in area that doesn’t have many below-freezing days. Copper is notably used in older homes.

PVC

 

The important aspect to consider for most pipes is flexibility. Copper is rather inflexible when cold, as is PVC.  PVC does have thicker walls than copper—but also become more brittle at colder temperatures. One of the upsides is that PVC does not conduct heat very well at all. Because of this, it doesn’t experience the same issues that copper does with gaps in insulation. Heat will not flow immediately to the space in the insulation.

PEX

Pex is undoubtedly the best option in cold-weather areas. There is always a likelihood that a pipe, when frozen, will crack and burst. However, compared to the other options, this is really the only one that is not guarantteed to crack when frozen. Not only is PEX (cross-linked polyethlene) more flexible than PVC or copper, it also is typically run in a single continuous line–there are fewer connections where ice can burst.

As mentioned in the article “Plumbing 101: Pex vs Copper Piping,

PEX is also more efficient as it doesn’t lose heat like a copper pipe will. Although PEX is not suitable for use outside, it is much more resistant to freezing temperatures and bursting.

 

Ultimately, if you’re faced with the need to replace any or all of your plumbing, PEX is the most cost-effective and best chance to beat the winter cold. If your house is old enough that the pipes aren’t necessarily in the walls or insulated otherwise, it’s advisable to insulate them and consider keeping the water streaming on the colder nights, since the flowing water will typically not have enough time to freeze in the pipes. Typically, it’s water that has remained in the pipes that causes burst pipes–not water that is left running. The cost of the water running is minimal in comparison to the cost of burst frozen pipes. If you do have insulated pipes, check every couple of years to make sure there are no gaps in between the insulation. These steps can help keep your home cozy and dry.

 

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