Can Water Heaters Freeze?

Dependent upon where you live, mild weather or harsh cold may be typical during the winter months. In either case, your water heater works harder when the temperature drops outdoors. This prompts the question — can water heaters freeze?  

While relatively rare, it’s certainly not impossible for a water heater to freeze. The primary concern is that any standing water on the inside of the tank or tankless unit will freeze and expand, permanently damaging the appliance along the way. If this happens, you may have few options but to replace the water heater. 

Today’s water heaters are built to be operational no matter how cold the temperature drops. Still, it is always prudent to take precautions if a deep freeze is in the forecast, particularly if your water heater is placed outside. 

Drain the Water Heater 

Before heading out on an extended vacation this winter, give thought to draining the water heater to avoid a plumbing disaster while you’re away. You can also drain the tank if your home loses power for an extended period to avoid possible freezing. As an added precaution, you could install a freeze protection solenoid valve, which opens conveniently and drains the water heater during a power failure. 

Here’s how to drain a water heater tank by hand: 

  1. Turn off the cold-water supply valve, gas supply valve, and temperature control knob. 
  1. Flip the circuit breaker supplying power to the water heater. 
  1. Attach a hose to the drain valve or place a bucket under it to catch the water. 
  1. Open the valve to start the flow of water. 
  1. Don’t stop draining until the tank is empty, then close the valve. 

Allow Some Water to Run 

Give some thought to leaving 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 averting a frozen water heater. This method also helps reduce the risk of frozen and burst pipes. 

Install Insulation 

Plumbing insulation comes in many forms. 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.  

Of course, pipes are more likely to freeze than water heaters. In addition to running a trickle of hot water, you can protect exposed pipes located outside or along exterior walls by wrapping them in foam insulation. It’s also possible to install electric heat tape to ensure the pipes don’t drop in temperature below freezing. 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 basic intent of this system is to move hot water to the tap rapidly, reducing the wait time and reducing the amount of water that is wasted 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 overall benefits could justify the installation cost, especially in cold climates. 

Pick a Suitable Installation Spot 

Almost all North American households have indoor water heaters. But, in mild southern climates, water heaters are sometimes installed in the garage or even outside. While this practice is fine for those climates, the rare deep freeze can have catastrophic effects on outdoor water heaters. Consequently, 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 Protection 

Most 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 provides a sufficient amount of heat to protect against internal freezing. Others fire up the gas burners to warm a small amount of water and, in turn, keep the tankless cabinet frost-free. 

No matter the method, water heater freeze protection is only successful when activated. First, check the unit to make sure this feature is switched on. Then, for protection during a blackout, think about buying 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 recommend 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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