Can Water Heaters Freeze?

Dependent upon where you live, mild weather or extreme cold may be the norm during the winter months. Either way, your water heater has to work harder when the temperature drops outside the house. This prompts the question — can water heaters freeze?

While extremely rare, it's certainly not impossible for a water heater to freeze. The main concern is that any standing water on the inside of the tank or tankless unit will freeze and expand, destroying the appliance along the way. If this happens, you may have no choice but to replace the water heater.

Rest assured that water heaters are designed to be operational no matter how cold the temperature drops. Even so, 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 leaving on an extended getaway this winter, consider bleeding out the water heater to bypass a plumbing disaster 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.
  2. Flip the circuit breaker providing electric service to the water heater.
  3. Attach a hose to the drain valve or place a bucket under it to catch the water.
  4. Open the valve to start the flow of water.
  5. Don't stop draining until the tank is empty, then close the valve.

Leave the Water Running

Consider leaving a trickle of hot water flowing from a faucet or two until the arctic cold weather subsides. The associated increase in your utility bill is well worth averting a frozen water heater. This method also helps counter frozen and burst pipes.

Install Insulation

Plumbing insulation comes in many forms. You can insulate your water heater tank with a unique blanket to help minimize standby heat loss and give protection against cold weather.

Naturally, pipes are more likely to freeze than water heaters. Beyond running a trickle of hot water, you can cover exposed pipes located outside or along exterior walls by wrapping them in foam insulation. You can also install electric heat tape to warm the pipes above freezing point. Only certain types of heat tape are compatible with insulation, so read the product label carefully if you plan to use them together.

Put in a Hot Water Recirculation System

The main objective of this system is to push hot water to the tap quicker, shortening the wait time and reducing the volume of water that pours down the drain. A hot water recirculation system is convenient, water-wise and energy-efficient. It also ensures your pipes are warmer and makes your tankless water heater less likely to freeze. These bundled benefits could warrant the installation cost, especially in cold climates.

Pick a Suitable Installation Spot

Most North American properties have indoor water heaters. Nevertheless, in mild southern climates, water heaters are once in a while installed in the garage or even outside. While this approach is reasonably safe in those specific climates, the occasional deep freeze can have ruinous effects on outdoor water heaters. As such, you should insist that your next water heater be installed inside, or at minimum in a covered area sheltered from the wind.

Choose a Water Heater with Built-In Freeze Safeguards

A large number 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 option is to install it outside.

Different manufacturers use different freeze-prevention methods. Some have an electric element that provides an adequate amount of heat to avoid internal freezing. Others light up the gas burners to warm a small amount of water and, in turn, keep the tankless cabinet frost-free.

No matter the method, water heater freeze protection is only helpful when activated. First, check the unit to make sure this feature is engaged. Then, for protection during a power outage, think about purchasing a small portable generator, whole-home standby generator, or battery backup power supply for your tankless water heater.

Schedule Water Heater Services

To learn more 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 arrange a visit, please contact a Service Experts office near you today.

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