Frozen pipes in winter aren’t anything new to plumbers in Minnesota. We see this issue every fall. The problem with a dripping outside faucet in the winter isn’t the massive ice rink that can form under the tap, it’s the possibility of the pipes freezing and bursting.
When you have an outside faucet that is dripping it can be caused by a few different issues. If you have a isolation valve inline for the outside spigot it could mean that the valve isn’t shutting off completely. Even if it’s a slow leak the line could still freeze up and potentially burst when it gets too cold. Every fall, when it gets cold enough to freeze, a homeowner should shut off and drain the water going to the outside water spigots. Leave the outside spigot open and check to see if it still drips. If it does then the inline isolation valve should be repaired or replaced.
To repair this internal shut-off valve you first need to shut the water off to the whole house. When repairing the valve be aware that they are factory sealed and are not easy to take apart. Make sure to be careful when attempting to take them apart so that you don’t put too much stress on the solder joints. Use two wrenches in opposite directions holding on to the body of the valve and the section that you are attempting to remove. Make sure to grab the hex shaped spot below the packing nut (removing the packing nut won’t get you to the washer you need to replace).
Some valves do not take washers and therefore you cannot repair them. If you have a washerless shut-off valve that leaks it will need to be replaced. You will need: a propane torch, solder, flux, sandcloth, a wire fitting brush, a small section of copper pipe (most likely 3/4″ I.D.), a slip coupling (again probably 3/4″) and a shut-off valve. I would highly recommend installing a ball valve with a drain on it as opposed to a washer style valve. If you purchase a decent quality ball valve it will last a very long time.
Note: If you do not feel comfortable soldering, then do not attempt this and call a plumber.
To replace it you need to first shut off the main water and cut out the old valve. To cut out the valve use a copper tubing cutter and cut the copper piping near the valve. Next, you will have to solder the new valve to a small section of copper piping. Make sure that when you are soldering the valve that it is in the open position. Measure the space and cut the copper tubing to size. Next, solder the valve to the existing pipe making sure that the drain that is on the valve is on the outside wall side and not the house side of the piping. Finally, slide on the slip coupling and solder that into place to both the new pipe and the old pipe.
Not all faucets have an interior isolation valve. If your valve is a “frost-free” style of valve then you may not have an isolation valve. Frost free valves are a style of valve in which the water shut off for the valve is located at the back end of an integrated copper pipe inside the house. This allows the water to be shut off further in on the line keeping the water away from the outside cold temperatures. The use of a frost-free valve is often used in locations where an internal shut off valve is inaccessible. Often times they are used is spots where the walls and ceilings are finished and the piping is not exposed. This style of faucet (like all faucets) will leak over time. If you have a frost-free valve that is leaking you will need to replace the washers internally on the valve to prevent the valve from freezing and bursting.
If you don’t have a frost free valve or isolation valves for your outside faucet you may want to consider having something different installed. If you don’t want to replace the valves right now and just want something to help prevent a problem on your current valve there are a few options that can help. One is to buy a Styrofoam faucet insulating cover. They run less than $5 at our store. They aren’t the greatest option but easily one of the cheapest helps out there.
Another option for helping prevent an outside faucet from freezing would be to add a section of heat tape to the pipe. Heat tape is a cable that you wrap around the problematic pipe to help prevent it from freezing. It comes in varying lengths and you can plug it in and unplug it when needed. It is a cost-effective option that does work. Simply wrap the heat tape around the pipe, cover it with fiberglass pipe insulation and plug it in. This can also be used to help thaw already frozen pipes, although it does work better as a preventative measure.
Making sure that you do preventative maintenance on all of your outside faucets can prevent a cold, wet, and costly problem down the road. Paying to have a plumber replace a faulty valve will cost you significantly less than having to pay for emergency plumbing service work when you have a pipe freeze and break in the middle of the night.
For more info on frozen pipes check out this post on frozen pipes
For more info on valves check out this post on frost-free outdoor spigots
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