Can Water Heaters Freeze?

Dependent upon where you live, mild weather or severe cold may be typical 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 leading concern is that any standing water on the inside of the tank or tankless unit will freeze and expand, ruining 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 designed to stay operational despite how cold the temperature drops. Even so, it never hurts to take safeguards if a deep freeze is in the forecast, even more so if your water heater is set up outside. 

Drain the Water Heater 

Before departing on an extended vacation this winter, consider emptying the water heater to avoid a plumbing disaster while you’re away. You can also drain the tank if the power goes out to avoid possible freezing. As an added precaution, you may want to install a freeze protection solenoid valve, which opens automatically and drains the water heater during a power failure. 

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. 
  1. Flip the circuit breaker delivering power to the water heater. 
  1. Attach a hose to the drain valve or place a bucket beneath it to capture the water. 
  1. Open the valve to begin the flow of water. 
  1. Keep draining until the tank is empty, then close the valve. 

Let the Water Run – A Little 

Give some thought to leaving a trickle of hot water flowing from a faucet or two until the cold snap subsides. The small increase you’ll likely see on your next water bill is well worth avoiding a frozen water heater. This technique 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 cut down on standby heat loss and provide protection against cold weather.  

Of course, pipes are more inclined to freeze than water heaters. In addition to running a trickle of hot water, you can protect exposed pipes found outside or along exterior walls by wrapping them in foam insulation. Another option is to install electric heat tape to keep the pipes just above freezing. Only some 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 purpose of this system is to push hot water to the tap faster, reducing the wait time and reducing the amount of water that is wasted down the drain. A hot water recirculation system is useful, water-wise and energy-efficient. It also keeps your pipes warm in the winter and makes your tankless water heater less susceptible to freezing. These paired benefits could justify the installation cost, especially in cold climates. 

Select a Suitable Installation Spot 

Almost all North American properties have indoor water heaters. Nevertheless, 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 catastrophic effects on outdoor water heaters. Consequently, you should demand that your next water heater be installed inside, or at least in a covered spot 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 products use different freeze-prevention methods. Many have an electric element that supplies an adequate amount of heat to avoid internal freezing. Others fire up the gas burners to warm a small amount of water and, in short, 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 blackout, consider investing in 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 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 propose steps to help your pipes and plumbing appliances last longer in any weather. For more information or to plan a visit, please contact a Service Experts office near you today. 

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