Can Water Heaters Freeze?

Based on your location, mild weather or extreme cold may be ordinary this winter. Regardless, your water heater must work harder when the temperature drops outdoors. This makes many people ask 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 inside the tank or tankless unit will freeze and expand, ruining the appliance in the process. If this happens, you may have few options but to replace the water heater. 

Now, it’s worth mentioning that modern water heaters are built to be operational no matter how cold the weather is. Even so, it is always prudent to take safety measures if bitter cold temps are heading your way, especially if your water heater is installed outside. 

Drain the Water Heater 

Before departing on an extended getaway this winter, give thought to bleeding out the water heater to avoid a plumbing crisis while you’re away. You may want to drain the tank if there is a power blackout to avoid potential freezing. To provide greater comfort and security, 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. Turn off the cold-water supply valve, gas supply valve, and temperature control knob. 
  1. Flip the circuit breaker providing power to the water heater. 
  1. Attach a hose to the drain valve or place a bucket under it to collect the water. 
  1. Open the valve to start the flow of water. 
  1. Don’t stop 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 resulting slight increase in your water bill is well worth averting a frozen water heater. This method also helps prevent frozen and burst pipes. 

Install Insulation 

There are many types of plumbing insulation that you can purchase. You can insulate your water heater tank with a unique blanket to help decrease standby heat loss and provide protection against cold weather.  

Of course, pipes are more prone to freeze than water heaters. Along with running a trickle of hot water, you can protect exposed pipes situated outside or along exterior walls by wrapping them in foam insulation. You can also install electric heat tape to ensure the pipes don’t drop in temperature below freezing. 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 basic objective of this system is to transfer hot water to the tap rapidly, shortening the wait time and reducing the quantity of water that pours down the drain. A hot water recirculation system is convenient, water-wise and energy-efficient. It also warms the pipes during the cold months and makes your tankless water heater less susceptible to freezing. These bundled benefits could warrant the installation cost, especially in cold climates. 

Choose a Suitable Installation Spot 

Almost all 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 practice is perfectly safe most of the time, the occasional deep freeze can have catastrophic effects on outdoor water heaters. As such, you should demand that your next water heater be placed inside, or at minimum in a covered location sheltered from the wind. 

Choose a Water Heater with Built-In Freeze Protection 

Most tankless water heaters have built-in freeze protection that works in temperatures down to -22 degrees F. Make sure your next water heater has this feature, especially if the only alternative is to install it outside. 

Different manufacturers use different freeze-prevention methods. Many have an electric element that provides just enough heat to protect against internal freezing. Others light up the gas burners to raise the temperature of a small amount of water and, as a result, keep the tankless cabinet frost-free. 

Whatever the method, water heater freeze protection is only effective when utilized. First, check the unit to make sure this feature is engaged. Then, for protection during a blackout, look into investing in 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 potentially 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 schedule a visit, please contact a Service Experts office near you today. 

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