Protecting Water from Freezing

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Shawn Shouse
Agricultural Engineering Field Specialist
Iowa State University Extension & Outreach

frozen water from a hydrantOne of the challenges of surviving an Iowa winter is keeping the water you use from freezing. A little bit of science and a healthy dose of trial and error have yielded ideas for avoiding the hassles of unwanted ice. Let's look at some advice regarding winter protection for water pipes, tanks, and dishes.

Keeping water thawed is simply a matter of conservation of heat. You need to keep the temperature of the water above freezing. Now, HOW you do that is a more complicated issue. The three most common methods are adding heat with a heating device, insulating to conserve heat, and adding heat by bringing in warmer water.

Any water lines that can be drained for the winter (sprinkler lines, empty buildings, pasture water lines, garden hoses, etc.) should be disconnected and drained. Compressed air can help remove water from some low spots, but separating connections at the low points is the surest way to make sure water doesn't get trapped in low spots. Remember to remove garden hoses from hydrants and outside faucets on your home. Connected hoses can trap water and cause freezing even in faucets designed to be "freeze-proof."

Household water pipes in exterior walls can freeze in extreme weather. Check to see that there is sufficient insulation between the outside of the wall and the water pipes. Removing insulation between the warm room and the pipes can let more heat get to the pipes. Even leaving doors ajar on the counter under the kitchen sink can allow a little extra room heat in to keep pipes warmer. In extreme cases, letting a trickle of water run all night will constantly replace the cold water in the pipes with warmer water from the basement or well.
Water pipes in exposed locations will need extra added heat. In a small enclosed space like a well pit or pump house, you might consider a small electric heater or heat lamp. For $30 to $50 you can even add a thermostatic control to turn a heater or lamp off when it isn't needed.

Remember to keep fire and electrical safety in mind when selecting and installing heaters or lamps. Adding insulation to the pump house or well pit cover can help conserve the heat that is already present. Many people use hay or straw bales to insulate over a well pit. This works, but hay and straw attract rodents and hold moisture. Insulating inside the pit and cover with materials like fiberglass may be a better plan.

In open areas like unheated buildings or crawl spaces, you may need to localize the heat directly to the pipes. Long strips of heating element (heat tape) may be the answer. Heat tapes can be wrapped around the pipe to add heat directly to the pipe. Some heat tapes include built-in thermostats to turn them off in warmer weather. Be careful to follow manufacturer's instructions when installing heat tape. Never apply heat tape over itself (double wrapping) or over or under pipe insulation unless specifically recommended by the manufacturer. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) estimates 2,000 fires and ten deaths every year related to malfunctioning heat tapes. The CPSC recommends using only new heat tapes certified by Underwriter's Laboratories (UL) or similar agency. They also recommend using a ground fault circuit interrupter and replacing any heat tapes more than three years old with new, certified heat tapes utilizing grounded (3-prong) plugs. Check the CPSC web page at for more information, or call CPSC at 1-800-638-2772, or TTY for the hearing impaired 1-800-638-8270.

Even buried, underground water pipes are subject to freezing. Problems usually arise when soil in new water line trenches has not fully settled, or when earthwork or construction above the pipeline removes too much soil or replaces soil with materials like concrete that conduct heat away more easily. If you have a buried water line that is at risk because of fresh backfill or thin cover, you can add insulation on top of the ground in the form of hay, leaves, or even snow piled over the water line. In extreme cases, letting a small flow of water run continuously through the water line can supply enough warm water to keep a line open through temporary periods. With buried lines, remember that the risk period may last for days or even weeks beyond the extreme cold weather until ground heat from below can migrate back up to the water line.

Speaking as one who spent many hours trying to keep waterers open for sheep in an unheated barn, I can attest to the challenges and frustrations of tank waterers in winter. If electricity is available, submersible electric trough, tank and bucket heaters are available for $20 to $50.

For safe operation, you must have a power supply with a third wire ground. If electricity is not available, liquid propane gas (LPG) stock tank heaters are available for around $500.  These units are basically a small propane burner encased in a hollow heavy metal pipe.  Many people have built wood-fired versions of these stock tank heaters.  You can find descriptions in sustainable living magazines and blogs.

Energy-free waterers are available for new installations. These waterers channel heat up from the ground below and use lots of insulation to keep water warm. If properly adjusted, they seem to work very well in Iowa. Expect to pay $450 to $700 for energy-free waterers (about $100 more than their electrically heated counterparts).

An inexpensive alternative for large stock tanks without access to electricity is the propane bubbler. This combination of supply tank, pressure regulator and tubing is anchored to the bottom of the stock tank and releases a slow stream of bubbles from a 20-pound (5 gallon) propane tank. The bubbles, which are not harmful to livestock, carry warmer water from the bottom of the tank up to the surface where they maintain a small open hole in the ice during moderate weather. While not available as a package for purchase, the parts for a bubbler cost less than $100 and it can operate for up to three months on five gallons of propane (about $10).

Adding insulation to the outside of a water tank and even to the water surface can help conserve heat and keep water available longer during cold weather. When adding insulation, be sure to protect the insulation from animal chewing, manure, and spilled water.

For small quantities of water, electrically heated buckets and water dishes are available for $30-$100 from hardware and farm supply stores. Make sure these units are properly grounded for safety.

Date of Publication: 
November, 2016