Can Water Heaters Freeze?

Depending on where you live, mild weather or harsh cold may be typical in the wintertime. Either way, your water heater works harder when the temperature drops outside. This prompts the question — can water heaters freeze?  

Although very rare, it’s certainly not impossible for a water heater to freeze. The primary concern is that any standing water found in the tank or tankless unit will freeze and expand, ruining the appliance along the way. If this happens, you may be left with no alternative but to replace the water heater. 

Rest assured that water heaters are designed to stay operational regardless of how cold it gets outside. Even so, it never hurts to take precautions if a deep freeze is in the forecast, especially if your water heater is installed outside. 

Drain the Water Heater 

Before leaving on an extended vacation this winter, give thought to bleeding out the water heater to bypass a plumbing emergency while you’re away. You may want to drain the tank if the power goes out to avoid possible freezing. As an added precaution, you could install a freeze protection solenoid valve, which opens automatically and drains the water heater during a power outage. 

Here’s how to accomplish this task yourself: 

  1. Shut off the cold-water supply valve, gas supply valve, and temperature control knob. 
  1. Flip the circuit breaker delivering electric service to the water heater. 
  1. Fasten a hose to the drain valve or place a bucket beneath it to catch the water. 
  1. Open the valve to create the flow of water. 
  1. Don’t stop draining until the tank is empty, then close the valve. 

Let the Water Run – A Little 

Consider leaving a trickle of hot water flowing from a faucet or two until the arctic cold weather subsides. The associated increase in your utility bill is well worth averting a frozen water heater. This approach also helps prevent frozen and burst pipes. 

Install Insulation 

Plumbing insulation is very affordable and comes in a variety of forms. You can insulate your water heater tank with a unique blanket to help decrease standby heat loss and give protection against cold weather.  

Naturally, pipes are more prone to freeze than water heaters. Beyond running a trickle of hot water, you can protect exposed pipes found outside or along exterior walls by wrapping them in foam insulation. It’s also possible 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 directions for use carefully if you plan to use them together. 

Put in a Hot Water Recirculation System 

The primary intent of this system is to transfer hot water to the tap rapidly, reducing the wait time and reducing the amount of water that flows down the drain. A hot water recirculation system is simple, water-wise and energy-efficient. It also warms the pipes during the cold months and makes your tankless water heater less likely to freeze. These combined benefits could warrant the installation cost, especially in cold climates. 

Choose a Suitable Installation Spot 

The majority of North American homes have indoor water heaters. But, in mild southern climates, water heaters are once in a while installed in the garage or even outside. While this approach is reasonably safe in those specific climates, the rare deep freeze can have negative effects on outdoor water heaters. For this reason, you should insist that your next water heater be installed inside, or at minimum in a covered location sheltered from the wind. 

Choose a Water Heater with Built-In Freeze Protection 

A large number of tankless water heaters have built-in freeze protection that works in temperatures down to -22 degrees F. The next tankless water heater that you buy should have this, especially if the only option is to install it outside. 

Different manufacturers use different freeze-prevention methods. Some have an electric element that yields just enough heat to prevent internal freezing. Others spark the gas burners to warm a small amount of water and, as a result, keep the tankless cabinet frost-free. 

Whatever the method, water heater freeze protection is only helpful when activated. First, check the unit to make sure this feature is engaged. Then, for protection during a power failure, consider buying 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 perform any water heater repair or replacement you need. We can also suggest steps to help your pipes and plumbing appliances last longer in any weather. For more information or to arrange a visit, please contact a Service Experts office near you today. 

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