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How to prevent pipes from freezing in your home during the extreme cold

A sign warns of frozen pipes on Sunday, Feb. 14, 2021.NITASHIA JOHNSON/NYT

With sub-zero temperatures expected to envelop the region Friday night into Saturday, Massachusetts residents should brace for the possibility of pipes freezing in their homes.

Here’s a quick guide on preventing that from happening and what to do if, despite your best efforts, it does.

Are there any prevention tools available?

Yes. Writing previously in the Boston Globe, general contractor Rob Robillard said there are two types of pipe-freeze protection cables on the market: self-regulating and constant wattage.

Constant-wattage cables, Robillard wrote, are designed to maintain a higher temperature and generally turn on when the surface of the pipe dips to 40 degrees.


“Self-regulating heat cable has a special conductive core between two internal bus wires,” Robillard wrote. “The heating cable will increase its wattage per lineal foot in response to the cold. Smart, right?”

Absolutely. And Robillard said it’s important to install self-regulating cables on the bottom of the pipe and wrap the heat cable with pipe insulation to increase its efficiency and reduce heat loss.

“Use aluminum-foil tape to cover and attach the heating cable to the pipe,” Robillard wrote. “Installing a heat-tracing system is not only cheap insurance, but it is a proactive and cost-effective way to protect your investment.”

Disconnecting garden hoses, wrapping exposed pipes with insulating sleeves, and sealing foundation cracks that let in Arctic air can also help, he wrote in a separate column.

What else can you use to keep pipes warm?

On its website, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency says that newspapers (one of your old Boston Globe editions, perhaps?) can also do the trick.

“Wrap pipes in insulation or layers of newspapers covered in plastic to prevent them from freezing,” the agency says.

Also important: “Let a trickle of warm water run from a faucet to keep water moving through your pipes.”

Don’t forget to open cabinet doors to expose plumbing pipes, especially if they are located next to outside walls. That allows room temperature air to circulate around the pipes, helping to keep them a bit warmer.


Should you turn the heat up?

Keep the heat set to “at least 68 or 70,” said Carl Jonasson, owner of C.H. Jonasson Corp., a Needham-based plumbing, heating, and air conditioning contractor.

“It really takes more than a day [of extreme cold] to really cause a problem, unless you’ve got a draft against the pipe,” Jonasson said Thursday. “We may just slide through this [storm] anyway.”

But what if the pipes freeze? Then what?

Public safety officials advise calling a plumber right away, but if you can’t reach a professional and decide to take matters into your own hands, one tool to avoid under any circumstances is a blowtorch, Boston fire officials have said.

Residents should instead treat frozen pipes with a hair dryer, officials say. Residents should “never use” an open flame to thaw pipes, MEMA advises on its website.

“If your pipes freeze, open all faucets all the way, remove any insulation, and heat the frozen pipe with a hair dryer or wrap with towels soaked in hot water,” the site says. “Never use an open flame to thaw pipes.”

An electric heating pad can also work, officials say.

Be careful with other heating devices in the house during a deep freeze

“It’s important to keep space heaters at least three feet from curtains, bedding, and anything else that can burn,” State Fire Marshal Peter J. Ostroskey said in a statement.

“Plug them directly into a wall socket, not an extension cord or a power strip, and remember that they’re intended for temporary use,” Ostroskey said. “Always turn a space heater off when you leave the room or go to sleep.”


Residents should also exercise caution with fireplaces, wood stoves, and pellet stoves.

“Open the dampener before lighting a fire; use only dry, seasoned wood; don’t use flammable liquids to start the fire; and keep a 3-foot ‘circle of safety’ around the fireplace or stove free of anything that can burn,” officials said.

Material from prior Globe stories was used in this report.

More stories on the upcoming weather:

Travis Andersen can be reached at