Insulate your pipes to preserve heat, avoid freezing

Insulation is almost ubiquitous in homes in chilly environments. This material, packed into the walls and attics, is essential for preserving heat during the winter and minimizing a homeowner's utility bills.

At the same time, many homeowners may neglect to add insulation to their water pipes. This improvement can usually be completed in a few hours, and can provide additional savings on your winter energy expenses.

By insulating a hot water pipe, you can help reduce the amount of heat that is lost before it reaches its destination. The Department of Energy says an insulated pipe can keep water two to four degrees warmer than the temperature of water in an uninsulated pipe. This allows you to set a lower temperature on your water heater, and will also help the hot water to reach the desired temperature more quickly.

Insulating the pipes has some other benefits as well. By maintaining a higher temperature, it reduces the chance that a pipe will freeze and burst due to cold weather. The covering will also keep you from burning yourself on a hot pipe.

Don't limit yourself to just the basement when looking for exposed pipes that could use some insulation. Douglas Trattner, writing for the National Association of Realtors' home improvement site HouseLogic, says basement pipes are less likely to freeze since they are in a heated part of the home. Pipes in an attic, crawlspace, or garage are more likely to be affected by very low temperatures.

Decide what type of insulation is best suited for the pipes you are protecting. The Department of Energy says polyethylene or neoprene foam is commonly used for this job. However, foam insulation requires a certain clearance from the flue of a gas-burning furnace, since it can ignite and give off toxic smoke. Fiberglass insulation can be substituted for the area closer to the flue.

Check the size of the pipe. Consumer Reports says pipe sizes are determined by the interior diameter rather than the exterior, so you don't want to pick up insulation which is too small. Measure the width of the pipe, and then measure the total length so you know how much material you need to pick up.

Give the pipes a quick cleaning before adding insulation. Aaron Stickley, writing for the home design site The Spruce, says this will remove any dirt, grease, or other grime that will make it harder for insulation to stick to the pipe. Let the pipes dry before adding insulation.

Pipe insulation comes in long sleeves which can slip over the plumbing and cover it for several feet. Some types of insulation require you to cut them open lengthwise before they can be fitted. The Department of Energy says scissors, a box cutter, or a utility knife will work well to cut the insulation.

After you have cut the insulation, simply fit it over the pipe. You can then secure it every few feet using acrylic or duct tape, cable ties, or wire.

Self-adhesive pipe insulation is even easier to secure. Stickley says these insulation sleeves will open up and then stick back together after they are placed on the pipe.

Make sure you don't leave any areas of the pipe exposed. Consumer Reports says cutting insulation at a 45-degree angle will allow you to cover areas where the pipe bends. Keep insulating the pipe until it enters the wall or ceiling and is no longer accessible.

Even if you are using self-sealing insulation, it is a good idea to use tape or other fasteners at certain intervals. Stickley says this adds another layer of protection in case the adhesive fails and the sleeve pops open. Tape can also be used to cover up the seams where two pieces of insulation meet.

If a pipe is particularly vulnerable to cold temperatures, you may want to use heat tape instead of insulation. Trattner says this will activate when the temperature falls to a certain point, helping maintain a temperature above freezing.

While pipe insulation is primarily used to preserve warmth in hot water pipes, it can also be helpful on cold water pipes. Erik North, writing for the sustainable building site Green Building Advisor, says insulation can help maintain the cooler water temperature in these pipes and keep them from freezing. Condensation can form on cold water pipes during the warm summer months; insulation prevents this from happening, keeping moisture from dripping off the pipes and damaging your belongings.

Check the insulation periodically. This will let you know if any insulation or fasteners have come loose.

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