Can Water Heaters Freeze?

Based on your location, mild weather or extreme cold may be typical during the winter months. Regardless, your water heater has to work harder when the temperature drops outside. This makes many people ask the question — can water heaters freeze?

While relatively rare, it's actually not impossible for a water heater to freeze. The biggest concern is that any standing water inside the tank or tankless unit will freeze and expand, permanently damaging the appliance along the way. If this happens, you may have no choice but to replace the water heater.

Now, it’s worth mentioning that modern water heaters are engineered to remain operational despite how cold it gets outside. Even so, it is always prudent to take safety measures if sub-zero temperatures are in the forecast, especially if your water heater is set up outside.

Drain the Water Heater

Before heading out on an extended vacation this winter, consider emptying the water heater to prevent a plumbing disaster while you’re away. You may want to drain the tank if the power goes out to avoid potential freezing. As an added precaution, you could install a freeze protection solenoid valve, which opens instantly and drains the water heater during a power outage.

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 supplying power to the water heater.
  3. Fasten a hose to the drain valve or place a bucket under it to capture the water.
  4. Open the valve to start the flow of water.
  5. Continue draining until the tank is empty, then close the valve.

Let the Water Run - A Little

Think about letting 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 preventing a frozen water heater. This technique also helps avoid 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 special blanket to help cut down on standby heat loss and provide protection against cold weather.

Not surprisingly, pipes are more likely to freeze than water heaters. Along with 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 main goal of this system is to transfer hot water to the tap quicker, decreasing the wait time and reducing the quantity of water that pours 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 likely to freeze. These overall benefits could warrant the installation cost, particularly in cold climates.

Pick a Suitable Installation Spot

Most North American homes have indoor water heaters. However, 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. Consequently, you should require 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 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 option is to install it outside.

Different products use different freeze-prevention methods. Some have an electric element that provides just enough heat to prevent internal freezing. Others fire up the gas burners to heat 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 effective when turned on. First, check the unit to make sure this feature is activated. Then, for protection during a power failure, think about 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 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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