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Can Water Heaters Freeze?

Dependent upon where you live, mild weather or intense cold may be the norm this winter. Regardless, your water heater has to work harder when the temperature drops outdoors. This begs the question — can water heaters freeze?

While extremely rare, it’s certainly not impossible for a water heater to freeze. The leading concern is that any standing water within the tank or tankless unit will freeze and expand, permanently damaging the appliance along the way. If this happens, you may be left with no alternative but to replace the water heater.

Now, it’s worth mentioning that modern water heaters are built to stay operational despite how cold the temperature drops. Nonetheless, it doesn’t hurt to take safeguards if bitter cold temps are heading your way, particularly if your water heater is installed outside.

Drain the Water Heater

Before departing on an extended vacation this winter, think about emptying the water heater to bypass a plumbing crisis while you’re away. You can also drain the tank if there is a power blackout to avoid potential freezing. To provide greater comfort and security, you could install a freeze protection solenoid valve, which opens automatically and drains the water heater during a power disruption.

Here’s how to drain a water heater tank by hand:

    1. Shut off the cold-water supply valve, gas supply valve, and temperature control knob.
    1. Flip the circuit breaker supplying electric service to the water heater.
    1. Fasten a hose to the drain valve or place a bucket underneath it to capture the water.
    1. Open the valve to start the flow of water.
    1. Continue draining until the tank is empty, then close the valve.

Leave the Water Running

Think about leaving a trickle of hot water flowing from a faucet or two until the cold snap subsides. The associated increase in your utility bill is well worth averting a frozen water heater. This technique also helps avoid frozen and burst pipes.

Install Insulation

Plumbing insulation is very affordable and comes in a variety of forms. You can insulate your water heater tank with a unique blanket to help reduce standby heat loss and offer protection against cold weather.

Naturally, pipes are more likely to freeze than water heaters. In addition to running a trickle of hot water, you can shield exposed pipes located outside or along exterior walls by wrapping them in foam insulation. Another option is to install electric heat tape to warm the pipes above freezing point. Only certain types of heat tape are compatible with insulation, so read the directions for use carefully if you plan to use them together.

Put in a Hot Water Recirculation System

The main objective of this system is to move hot water to the tap quicker, reducing the wait time and reducing the amount of water that flows down the drain. A hot water recirculation system is useful, water-wise and energy-efficient. It also ensures your pipes are warmer and makes your tankless water heater less susceptible to freezing. These bundled benefits could warrant the installation cost, particularly in cold climates.

Pick a Suitable Installation Spot

Almost all North American households have indoor water heaters. However, in mild southern climates, water heaters are occasionally installed in the garage or even outside. While this approach is perfectly safe most of the time, the rare deep freeze can have catastrophic effects on outdoor water heaters. As such, you should demand that your next water heater be setup inside, or at minimum in a covered area sheltered from the wind.

Choose a Water Heater with Built-In Freeze Protection

The majority of tankless water heaters have built-in freeze protection that works in temperatures down to -22 degrees F. Don’t buy a tankless water heater without this feature, especially if the only alternative is to install it outside.

Different manufacturers use different freeze-prevention methods. Several have an electric element that supplies an adequate amount of heat to prevent internal freezing. Others light up the gas burners to raise the temperature of a small amount of water and, in short, keep the tankless cabinet frost-free.

Whatever the method, water heater freeze protection is only helpful when activated. First, check the unit to make sure this feature is activated. Then, for protection during a blackout, consider investing in a small portable generator, whole-home standby generator, or battery backup power supply for your tankless water heater.

Schedule Water Heater Services

For answers to questions about your pipes or water heater possibly freezing this winter, turn to Service Experts Heating & Air Conditioning. Our well-trained plumbers can complete any water heater repair or replacement you need. We can also recommend steps to help your pipes and plumbing appliances last longer in any weather. For more information or to plan a visit, please contact a Service Experts office near you today.

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