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How to prevent frozen pipes to keep your water flowing all winter

Monica Beyer is a mom of four and has been writing professionally since 2000, when her first book, Baby Talk, was published. Her main area of interest is attachment parenting and all that goes with it, including breastfeeding, co-sleepin...

The steps you need to take to avoid frozen pipes, and what to do if it happens

With winter comes the ominous possibility of frozen pipes. The good news is there are a few things you can do to help prevent this disaster-in-the-making, and if you're unlucky enough to experience them, you can fix that, too.

Water is the stuff of life — we need it to live, and we need it to run our households properly. We use water for washing our hands, doing our laundry, flushing the toilet and taking a shower. But when water pipes get too cold, the water within can freeze and expand — which means that they can ultimately burst open, causing an enormous mess and financial headache.

More: How to unclog a kitchen sink without calling a plumber

To avoid this awful situation, consider the following steps:

Note potential problem areas. The pipes most prone to freezing are those that are in unheated areas of your home (garage, basement, crawl spaces, attics, kitchen cabinets or those that run along exterior walls that have little to no insulation). Outdoor hose bibs are also common culprits, as are swimming pool supply lines and sprinkler supply lines.

Drain your hoses. Drain all outdoor hoses, remove them from their bibs and store them over winter. Also drain sprinkler and swimming pool supply lines according to manufacturer directions.

Open outside hose bibs. This will allow water to drain. Also close the inside valves that supply those outside hose bibs.

Insulate. You should insulate any water lines that are in areas that are prone to freezing within your house. This includes hot and cold water lines, and can be insulated using commercially-available insulation materials.

Keep things flowing. It's important to keep the air inside your home flowing properly to keep pipes from freezing. For example, keep your garage door closed if there are water pipes in that area. Open kitchen and bathroom cabinets to allow warm air in. And when the temp really drops, leave faucets dripping in areas that are served by water lines prone to freezing.

More: Good news: You don't have to rake your leaves this fall

What do you do if you suspect that your water pipes have already frozen? Fortunately, you can thaw a frozen pipe.

Make sure the pipe is actually frozen. The easiest way to tell? Turn on the faucet, and if nothing comes out, you can conclude that it's probably frozen.

Keep the faucet "on." When you attempt to thaw the frozen pipe, keep the faucet on, as water flow can help out the thawing process.

Warm up the pipe. Use any number of strategies to work on the frozen pipe. A hair dryer, towels soaked in hot water, an electric heating pad or an electric space heater (making sure flammable materials are well away from your work area) all work well. Never use a blow torch, a propane heater or any other types of open flames. Don't forget to check other pipes in your house, because if one pipe can freeze, others can, too.

Know when to call a professional. If full water pressure can't be restored using these methods, or you can't access the frozen pipe, call in a licensed plumber.

More: 15 Ways to reduce your heating bill this winter

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