Can Water Heaters Freeze?

Based on your location, mild weather or harsh cold may be the norm this winter. In either case, your water heater must work harder when the temperature drops outside the house. This begs the question — can water heaters freeze?

Although very rare, it's actually not impossible for a water heater to freeze. The primary concern is that any standing water inside the tank or tankless unit will freeze and expand, destroying the appliance in the process. If this happens, you may have no choice but to replace the water heater.

Rest assured that water heaters are designed to remain operational regardless of how cold the weather is. Nonetheless, it never hurts to take safeguards if bitter cold temps are heading your way, especially if your water heater is installed outside.

Drain the Water Heater

Before going away on an extended getaway this winter, give thought to emptying the water heater to avoid a plumbing crisis while you’re away. You may want to drain the tank if your home loses power for an extended period to avoid possible freezing. For added protection, you may want to install a freeze protection solenoid valve, which opens instantly 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.
  2. Flip the circuit breaker supplying power to the water heater.
  3. Attach a hose to the drain valve or place a bucket under it to catch the water.
  4. Open the valve to create the flow of water.
  5. Keep draining until the tank is empty, then close the valve.

Let the Water Run - A Little

Give some thought to keeping a trickle of hot water flowing from a faucet or two until the cold snap subsides. The small increase you'll likely see on your next water bill is well worth averting a frozen water heater. This approach also helps counter 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 special blanket to help minimize standby heat loss and deliver 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 cover exposed pipes situated outside or along exterior walls by wrapping them in foam insulation. Another option is to install electric heat tape to keep the pipes just above freezing. Only a few types of heat tape are compatible with insulation, so read the instructions carefully if you plan to use them together.

Put in a Hot Water Recirculation System

The main objective of this system is to transfer hot water to the tap quicker, shortening the wait time and reducing the amount of water that flows 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 susceptible to freezing. These paired benefits could justify the installation cost, especially in cold climates.

Choose a Suitable Installation Spot

Most North American homes have indoor water heaters. Nevertheless, in mild southern climates, water heaters are sometimes installed in the garage or even outside. While this practice is perfectly safe most of the time, the rare deep freeze can have catastrophic effects on outdoor water heaters. As such, you should require that your next water heater be setup inside, or at the very least in a covered location sheltered from the wind.

Choose a Water Heater with Built-In Freeze Prevention

The majority of tankless water heaters have built-in freeze protection that works in temperatures down to -22 degrees F. Don't buy a tankless water heater without this feature, especially if the only choice is to install it outside.

Different manufacturers use different freeze-prevention methods. Many have an electric element that supplies just enough heat to prevent internal freezing. Others light up the gas burners to raise the temperature of a small amount of water and, in short, keep the tankless cabinet frost-free.

Regardless of the method, water heater freeze protection is only helpful when turned on. First, check the unit to make sure this feature is activated. Then, for protection during a blackout, look into purchasing 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 complete 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 schedule a visit, please contact a Service Experts office near you today.

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