Can Water Heaters Freeze?

Dependent upon where you live, mild weather or extreme cold may be the norm during the winter months. Regardless, your water heater has to work harder when the temperature drops outdoors. This prompts the question — can water heaters freeze?  

While extremely rare, it’s certainly not impossible for a water heater to freeze. The biggest concern is that any standing water within the tank or tankless unit will freeze and expand, destroying the appliance in the process. If this happens, you may be left with no alternative but to replace the water heater. 

Today’s water heaters are engineered to be operational no matter how cold the temperature drops. Nonetheless, it never hurts to take precautions if a deep freeze is in the forecast, particularly if your water heater is placed outside. 

Drain the Water Heater 

Before departing on an extended trip this winter, give thought to bleeding out the water heater to bypass a plumbing emergency while you’re away. You can also drain the tank if power is lost to avoid potential freezing. For added protection, you may want to install a freeze protection solenoid valve, which opens conveniently and drains the water heater during a power disruption. 

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. Fasten a hose to the drain valve or place a bucket underneath it to capture the water. 
  1. Open the valve to begin the flow of water. 
  1. Don’t stop draining until the tank is empty, then close the valve. 

Leave the Water Running 

Consider letting a trickle of hot water flowing from a faucet or two until the arctic cold weather 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 avoid 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 prone to freeze than water heaters. Beyond running a trickle of hot water, you can cover exposed pipes situated outside or along exterior walls by wrapping them in foam insulation. Another option is to install electric heat tape to warm the pipes above freezing point. Only certain 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 intent of this system is to transfer hot water to the tap quicker, decreasing the wait time and reducing the quantity of water that flows down the drain. A hot water recirculation system is convenient, water-wise and energy-efficient. It also ensures your pipes are warmer and makes your tankless water heater less likely to freeze. These bundled benefits could validate the installation cost, particularly in cold climates. 

Select a Suitable Installation Spot 

Almost all North American households 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 approach is fine for those climates, the occasional deep freeze can have negative effects on outdoor water heaters. Because of this, you should demand that your next water heater be placed inside, or at least in a covered area sheltered from the wind. 

Choose a Water Heater with Built-In Freeze Prevention 

A large number of 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 choice is to install it outside. 

Different manufacturers use different freeze-prevention methods. Some have an electric element that provides an adequate amount of heat to avoid internal freezing. Others fire up the gas burners to raise the temperature of a small amount of water and, in short, keep the tankless cabinet frost-free. 

No matter 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 power failure, 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 

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 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 schedule a visit, please contact a Service Experts office near you today. 

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