Protect Your Restaurant Plumbing During Extreme Cold

Pipe Insulation

Every restaurateur's worst nightmare is being shut down by the health department. Restaurants have to keep their food safe, their kitchen pest-free, and their equipment clean. One requirement that causes trouble for many restaurants in the winter is the need for hot and cold running water.1 As simple as running water seems, if frozen pipes catch your restaurant unaware, your business may come to a screeching halt.


Any system that brings water into or out of your restaurant may be at risk for freezing. Water expands, its mass increasing by about 9 percent when it freezes. Blocked pipes result in a buildup of pressure, which can cause a burst pipe, equipment malfunction, or contaminated water back-up inside the building. Below are some ways to prevent these potential problems.

  • Backflow preventers are a necessary part of many restaurants' plumbing systems, but often their location leaves them exposed to the elements, including winter weather. Consider insulating your backflow preventer or purchasing a thermostatic relief kit to keep it safe from damage.
  • Condensate pipes leading from boilers, walk-in freezers, and ice machines can freeze, preventing condensate from draining properly. That backup can potentially cause damage to your equipment and contaminate food products. To prevent these pipes from freezing, invest in some foam pipe insulation. If your location often experiences extreme winter weather, you may wish to wrap the pipe in heat tape under the insulation.2
  • Water softeners can sometimes be installed in locations that leave them or their water lines exposed to cold air, which can cause them to freeze and burst, flooding the surrounding area. Insulate the lines where possible, and consider using heat tape as well. However, when anticipating extreme weather, it is wise to always leave a tap running at a trickle, as running water is less likely to freeze.3
  • Fire sprinkler systems bring the risk of two types of damage if they freeze and burst, since that can lead to water damage and leave you without adequate fire protection. This system is most at risk if your heating system breaks down, but insufficient insulation or drafts due to open or damaged windows, doors, or vents can also allow enough cold air in to freeze the sprinkler pipes. To prevent damage, keep all doors, vents, and windows closed and in good repair. Insulate any pipes that are exposed to outside temperatures, and keep the building's heat set to at least 40 degrees F even overnight and on weekends.4
  • Ensure that your HVAC system is in good repair and receives regular maintenance. Extreme temperatures can put a strain on this system, and if the heating system is disabled, even your indoor pipes can be subjected to freezing temperatures that can cause them to burst. Have your HVAC system inspected before cold weather hits, and consider keeping space heaters on hand in the case of HVAC failure. Propane heaters may be helpful in the case of a power outage.

Emergency Preparedness

Sometimes, no matter how many preventive measures are taken, there is no avoiding damage to pipes when extreme winter weather hits. Being prepared for the worst can help mitigate the damage incurred if a pipe freezes and bursts.

Talk to your plumbing contractor about their response time and experience handling frozen pipes, and find out if they have an emergency after-hours line. This number should be kept in an easily-accessed place, along with those for an electrician, your insurance agent, and local water extraction and restoration companies. Speak with your insurance agent about whether your policy covers water damage, and consider purchasing extra coverage if your climate puts your restaurant at risk.

Know where your building's main water shutoff is and make sure that all of your employees know its location. Turning off the water in a timely manner can prevent significant damage. Ensure that all food products are stored off of the ground, even in walk-in coolers. Not only does this improve the equipment's air circulation and cooling capabilities, it can also prevent product loss in the event of water inundation.5

1. Health Department Closes Businesses for Lack of Running Water The Baltimore Sun. Accessed October 2015.

2. How to Defrost a Frozen Condensate Pipe HomeServe. Accessed October 2015.

3. Freeze Warning for Water Softeners Heffner Plumbing. Accessec October 2015.

4. Preventing Fire Sprinkler Freeze-Ups Bollinger Insurance. Accessed October 2015.

5. Restaurant Water Damage Preparedness and Education Restoration SOS. Accessed October 2015.