Blog, Construction

Protecting Your Plumbing During the Winter Months

November 3, 2021
A bathroom sink with water coming out of it.

With cooler days upon us, the fall months are the perfect time to begin thinking about protecting your plumbing from the winter elements.  Whether it is your business, multi-unit buildings, or large parking structures, the following actions should be considered to avoid frozen plumbing systems, burst pipes, and the effects of long-term water damage.  

Neglecting winter care for both external and internal plumbing systems can cause major damage to a building if a water pipe bursts due to freezing.  Not only will there be damage to the pipe itself, but a ruptured pipe can also lead to flooding, as water that is not frozen continues to flow.  

The risks are not confined to water piping either. Sanitary pipes, if not properly installed and/or protected from freezing, can cause widespread damage. As sanitary pipes are not under pressure they do not usually burst, but instead become blocked. In both business and multi-unit buildings, this blockage can result in backed up sewage flowing into residential units and/or rooms on the lowest floors. This blockage can cause damage to the plumbing fixtures, as well as the floors and walls, and may result in having to vacate the building while damages are repaired. Businesses and/or residents who occupy the building may need to be moved and additional costs incurred due to loss of business.   

While winter weather does pose ongoing risks, there are actions you can proactively take to protect your plumbing system. Below we have highlighted important factors to consider, as well as numerous tips to protect your plumbing and buildings.   

Timing and location considerations: 

  • Timing will vary depending on where you live or where your project is located. For example, it gets colder sooner, and for a lot longer, in Maine than it does in Florida. You will want to gauge the temperature levels as they near freezing temperatures and ready yourself in the weeks prior to avoid any cold weather surprises. October and November are a good rule of thumb for northeastern states. The further temperatures drop below freezing, the more freeze protection you will need on your water and sanitary waste pipes.  

Materials to consider when protecting your plumbing system: 

  • Heat Trace – Heat trace is a system used to maintain or raise the temperature of pipes and vessels using heat tracing cables that run in physical contact along the length of a pipe. It is one of the more common forms of protecting pipes from freezing. 
  • Pipe Insulation – Pipe insulation is used to wrap your pipes to keep them warm and prevent freezing. Pipe insulation alone does not prevent pipes from freezing, because the insulation does not add any heat to the pipes, but it works to keep the pipe closer to the temperature of the water inside it. For that reason, in considerably colder climates, insulation should be used in conjunction with heat trace.   

Tips to protect your plumbing systems and buildings: 

  • Water Piping – Any water piping that is installed outside and below the ground will need to be buried below the frost line. The frost line is the depth at which the groundwater is expected to freeze. The colder the climate for a state, the deeper the frost line is. For instance, Maine has an approximate frost line of 70 inches while North Carolina is approximately 10 inches.  Florida is 0 inches. If water piping is outside, but not below the ground, it will need additional protection with pipe insulation.   
  • Sanitary Piping – Sanitary piping installed in areas subject to freezing will need insulation and (depending on the climate) heat trace. Installing heat trace electrical wires that run along the pipe will add, or help maintain, heat in any pipe that has water and reduce the possibility of blockage.  
  • P-Traps – P-traps are U-shaped pipes in toilets and underneath sinks. P-traps hold a small amount of water that prevents sewer gases from rising up and overflowing. As there will be standing water in P-traps, you will need to protect them with either insulation or heat trace wires. 
  • Horizontal Runs – It is a good idea to insulate any horizontal plumbing runs as it is possible for there to be standing water in those pipes if they are not installed correctly with the proper slope.  Insulation or heat trace wires may be used in these instances as well.   
  • Heated Drop Ceilings – Another option instead of heat trace and insulation on the piping is to have a heated drop ceiling in which the pipes are run. This is usually installed in parking garages open to the outside to protect the pipes during winter.   
  • Heated Garages – Another option for large garages is to heat the entire garage.  This option requires a garage to be closed and not open to the outside elements.   
  • Exterior Walls – Any piping installed in an exterior wall should be installed on the insulated side of the wall and therefore within the heated envelope of the building. 
  • Exterior Wall Hydrants – It is important to ensure any wall hydrants installed outside are frost proof (or freeze proof). Theses hydrants have a tube that extends to the heated envelope of the building with a shut-off valve that will shut the water there instead of in the wall outside of the insulation. This will prevent the water from freezing and possibly bursting a pipe.   

Proactively evaluating and protecting your plumbing systems each year can save you significantly over the long term. It is certainly more affordable to install, and annually check, the freeze protection of a building’s water and sanitary piping than it is to replace fixtures and/or damaged areas of a building that might be caused due to a burst pipe or blockage.  

You can take these steps yourself to protect your system or hire a professional to evaluate, protect, and minimize any future damages you may incur. We invite you to view our service offerings and call us directly to schedule a winter plumbing evaluation.   



About VP Engineering 

VP Engineering is a top Charlotte-based MEP design firm offering engineering expertise in senior living, multi-family, hospitality, and retail/commercial markets worldwide. With experience in a wide range of building types, our MEP engineering services help keep projects on budget and achieve your goals. Learn more at