By Carly Cooke, P. Eng., CFEI, CVFI

Along with winter comes freezing temperatures, which means the potential for frozen water lines, and those can be disastrous for plumbing and sprinkler systems. Because water expands when it freezes, it can produce pressures high enough to burst pipes, break toilet tanks, split valves and snap apart fittings, which could lead to water escaping and damaging property. This could require replacing everything from finishes to expensive specialized equipment. If a sprinkler line freezes and prevents water from reaching an activated sprinkler, it could prevent the proper operation of a fire suppression system.

To prevent ice formation, it is important to keep spaces above freezing temperatures, ideally above 4°C, and ensure there is no potential for localized cold spots where water piping, fixtures or other systems are found. This includes ensuring all doors and windows are closed and properly sealed, proper insulation is installed, and exterior openings are blocked or minimized. All exterior hose bibs should also be prepared for winter; removing hoses from frost-proof bibs or turning off the interior water supply to non-frost-proof hose bibs. Additionally, improperly functioning HVAC systems can create a pathway for cold air to enter a building. Poorly sealed areas may cause the temperature inside to drop lower than usual.

Care must also be taken to prevent heat loss from water lines or pipes that are installed close to the exterior. For example, if a copper water line, close to an exterior wall, is in contact with another metal component (such as a ventilation duct) that extends outside of the building, heat loss could occur due to conduction between the copper and the cold duct. Sufficiently cold exterior temperatures combined with stagnant or slow-flowing water in the copper pipe could lead to freezing within the pipe. For wet fire suppression systems that have sprinklers in an unheated space, special sprinklers with valves are required. Water is kept out of the sprinkler and pipe within the cold space as well as for a certain distance into the heated space with a valve that will open upon activation of the sprinkler head into the cold space. This extra distance within the heated space is required because, in thermally conductive materials, there is heat loss from the portion of the pipe in the heated space to the portion of the pipe in the cold space. When the external temperature gets colder, the internal section of the pipe’s temperature will also drop; a colder outside temperature means a colder inside section, and a longer distance of the pipe before the temperature will equalize. This could result in the inside pipe reaching freezing temperatures if the outside/cold space temperatures are low enough.

To prevent a water loss, should there be heating system failure, the water should be turned off to a building when it is going to be unoccupied for a length of time, for example when the owners are on vacation, for a vacant rental, etc. It is also important to have someone checking on the building regularly to ensure there is heat to the building and no freezing has occurred.

With the proper precautions, plumbing and sprinkler systems can be protected from the wrath of old man winter, or at least the resultant water damage can be kept to a minimum. For more information or to talk about a claim with one of our experts, contact us at 877 244-6251.

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