Insulating water supply pipes in exposed areas of your home is a good idea for several reasons. In cold-winter climates, water supply pipes that are exposed to exterior walls or unheated spaces may freeze, burst, and flood your home. More than one northern family has gone south for a winter vacation, only to return to a months-long cleanup and restoration job when a single water pipe bursts. Insulating water pipes is a key element to any efforts to winterize the plumbing in the home.
Insulating water pipes can also save money on energy costs by preventing hot water pipes from losing their heat to the surrounding air. Insulating the hot water pipes leading out of your water heater, for example, can reduce heat loss and lower the costs of heating the water. Finally, insulating cold water pipes can prevent the pipes from sweating due to moisture condensation, which can reduce humidity levels in the house in the summertime.
Where to Insulate Water Pipes
Which water pipes you insulate will depend on why you are doing it. If the goal is to prevent frozen pipes, then the critical pipes to protect are those that run through unheated spaces. These are located in exterior walls, unheated garages, the floor cavities above unheated crawl spaces, and the like. Generally speaking, it's not necessary to insulate pipes that run through interior walls or in basements that are heated. When preventing freezing is the goal, insulate both the hot- and cold-water pipes. Hot water pipes can also freeze unless water is actively running through them.
If the goal is to lower water-heating costs, then it's wise to insulate hot water pipes wherever you have access to them. This will help prevent heat from radiating away from the hot water pipes and may allow you to lower the temperature setting on your water heater.
If the goal of pipe insulation is to eliminate pipe sweating and humidity, then it is the cold water pipes that are in most need of insulation. When exposed cold pipes contact warm, humid air, condensation can form on the pipes. This condensation may drip and puddle on floors, or it may contribute to overall high humidity levels, especially in basements. Insulating the cold water pipes can prevent this condensation.
There are several strategies you can use to insulate water pipes. We'll talk about insulation you can apply directly to the pipes. However, you can also consider adding wall insulation, insulating the gaps where pipes penetrate walls, and using faucet covers on outdoor spigots.
Before You Begin
When selecting water pipe insulation, consider the R-value of the various options. R-value is a measurement that quantifies the resistance to heat flow of a given material. The higher the R-value, the greater the insulating power of that material. The R-value may not be displayed on pipe insulation, so you may need to do a little research. The colder your climate, the higher the R-value you should look for when choosing pipe insulation.
Remove any dirt or grease from the pipes before insulating. No matter what type of insulation you are putting on, it’s a good idea to give the pipes a quick once-over to help the insulation stick better. If you use a cleaning solution or anything damp, make sure the pipes are dry before installing the insulation. Any kind of moisture can cause the insulation to come loose.
Check the pipe insulation yearly to make sure that it's still in good condition and that the pipes are completely covered. Duct tape or self-sealing strips on the insulation may come loose over time and expose parts of the pipe. If the pipes are not completely covered, reseal those areas before winter temperatures drop.
Equipment / Tools
- Utility knife
- Insulating pipe wrap
- Duct tape
- Foam pipe covers
- Frost-proof faucets (if desired)
How to Use Pipe-Wrap Insulation
A common way to protect pipes is with traditional pipe wrap insulation. This type of insulation is available in many different materials, including flexible foam with rubber backing tape, foam-and-foil pipe insulation, bubble-film pipe wrap, foil-backed natural cotton, and rubber pipe insulation tape. Pipe-wrap insulation is easy to install and is best suited for insulating small lengths of pipe, or sections where there are many bends.
Start the Insulation Strip
Begin by duct-taping the end of the insulation strip to the pipe (if it's not already self-adhesive).
Wrap the Pipe
Wrap the insulation around the pipe in spiral loops, overlapping each loop by at least 1/2 inch. Completely cover the pipe, taking care not to leave any areas exposed.
Tape the end of the insulating strip in place. If necessary, continue with another length of pipe wrap insulation until the full length of the pipe is covered.
How to Use Foam Pipe Sleeves
Consider foam pipe sleeves when longer runs of straight pipe need to be covered. Most foam sleeves are available in 6-foot lengths so that you can cover a lot of ground quickly. The sleeves can be made of either foam or rubber insulation, and both are available in self-sealing styles. Different diameters are available for different pipe sizes: 1/2-, 3/4-, and 1-inch. Installing foam sleeve pipe insulation is one of the simplest of all insulation options.
Position the Sleeve
Position the sleeves lengthwise along the pipe, and pry open the slit in the sleeve. Slide the sleeve over the pipe; the slits will close up around the pipe.
Seal the Seam
Seal the seam, using either the self-adhesive strip integrated into the sleeve or duct tape applied along the length of the slit. If necessary, continue with the next sleeve, butting it against the end of the previous sleeve.
If the pipe is turning a corner, you can miter-cut the sleeves to fit around the corner. Or, use pipe-wrap to cover the fittings at corners, taping them to the foam sleeves.
Finish the Installation
At the end of runs, cut the foam tube to length, using a utility knife. When the installation is completed, also tape the butt seams where two sleeves meet.
Consider Frost-Free Faucets for Added Protection
When combined with other insulating methods, especially pipe-wrap insulation or foam sleeves, faucet covers are good insurance against burst pipes.
Although they do not actually insulate, installing special frost-proof faucets is a good option for homeowners in colder climates. These faucets are designed with a special valve stem that prevents water from being trapped inside the faucet, where it can freeze, expand, and burst the pipe. The design uses a long valve stem that fits against a valve seat located well inside the house, where temperatures are warmer. The faucet is designed so that water drains out of the valve body when the faucet is shut off, rather than being trapped where cold air can freeze it.