Can Water Heaters Freeze?

Depending on where you live, mild weather or severe cold may be ordinary in the wintertime. Regardless, your water heater must work harder when the temperature drops outside the house. This makes many people ask the question — can water heaters freeze?

Although very 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, permanently damaging the appliance in the process. If this happens, you may have no choice but to replace the water heater.

Rest assured that water heaters are built to be operational regardless of how cold the temperature drops. Still, it is always prudent to take precautions if sub-zero temperatures are in the forecast, especially if your water heater is placed outside.

Drain the Water Heater

Before leaving on an extended trip this winter, give thought to emptying the water heater to prevent a plumbing emergency while you’re away. You may want to drain the tank if the power goes out to avoid potential freezing. For added protection, you might choose to install a freeze protection solenoid valve, which opens automatically and drains the water heater during a power disruption.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to walk you through it:

  1. Shut off the cold-water supply valve, gas supply valve, and temperature control knob.
  2. Flip the circuit breaker delivering electric service to the water heater.
  3. Connect a hose to the drain valve or place a bucket beneath it to collect the water.
  4. Open the valve to begin the flow of water.
  5. 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 bitter temperature subsides. The resulting slight increase in your water bill is well worth avoiding a frozen water heater. This method also helps counter 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 special blanket to help decrease standby heat loss and offer protection against cold weather.

Not surprisingly, pipes are more inclined to freeze than water heaters. Beyond running a trickle of hot water, you can protect exposed pipes found 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 some 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 primary objective of this system is to move hot water to the tap quicker, decreasing the wait time and reducing the quantity of water that is wasted down the drain. A hot water recirculation system is useful, water-wise and energy-efficient. It also warms the pipes during the cold months and makes your tankless water heater less prone to freezing. These paired benefits could warrant the installation cost, especially in cold climates.

Select a Suitable Installation Spot

Almost all North American properties have indoor water heaters. However, in mild southern climates, water heaters are sometimes installed in the garage or even outside. While this approach is perfectly safe most of the time, the occasional deep freeze can have ruinous effects on outdoor water heaters. Consequently, you should insist that your next water heater be installed inside, or at the very least 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 choice is to install it outside.

Different brands use different freeze-prevention methods. Many have an electric element that yields a sufficient amount of heat to protect against internal freezing. Others spark the gas burners to warm a small amount of water and, as a result, keep the tankless cabinet frost-free.

Regardless of the method, water heater freeze protection is only helpful when activated. First, check the unit to make sure this feature is switched on. Then, for protection during a power failure, think about buying 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 potentially freezing this winter, turn to Service Experts Heating & Air Conditioning. Our well-trained plumbers can accomplish any water heater repair or replacement you need. We can also propose 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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