When most people say they are freezing in winter, they mean it metaphorically, but for fixtures in your home that use water, such as toilets, the expression can be quite literal.
For people who live in places that get cold winters, particularly those in homes that aren’t well-insulated, freezing temperatures can lead to all sorts of problems.
Your toilet is one part of your home that can freeze in cold weather. However, a far more common problem is that the pipes leading to your toilet will freeze. The cold weather can cause your toilet to act up in all sorts of funky ways, but luckily there are ways to prevent that.
Knowing how the cold weather can affect your toilet can help you winterize your toilet and troubleshoot any issues you see as they arise, hopefully preventing your toilet from freezing completely.
Here is what you need to know about this very common problem in cold-weather climates.
Can Toilets Freeze?
Anything that has water can technically freeze. Your toilet uses water in the toilet bowl or tank. If the weather gets cold enough, that water can freeze according to the laws of physics. (Link)
Sometimes, the water in people’s tanks will freeze. Usually, the problems don’t end when the water freezes. When the water in your tank freezes, your tank could also explode. (Link)
When static water freezes, it expands because ice takes up more area than liquid water. The expanding substance pushes at rigid boundaries, such as your toilet tank, and will cause the tank to explode.
However, the toilet itself freezing is a rare occurrence. In fact, it is so rare that people posted photos of frozen toilets during the Polar Vortex of 2019, when the Midwestern United States saw record-breaking cold temperatures. (Link)
Unless your bathroom regularly gets colder than 32 degrees Fahrenheit, which is the freezing point for water, you don’t have to worry about your toilet itself freezing.
While this is more common when people have toilets that attach to exterior walls because then the toilet is in closer contact with cold weather, it is still rare enough. That doesn’t mean that you are free from other problems associated with cold weather.
Can Cold Weather Affect A Toilet’s Performance?
Even if your toilet is unlikely to freeze unless it gets extremely cold, there are still a few other ways that winter might make using your toilet difficult.
Cold weather can affect a toilet’s performance in several ways, including:
- Freezing the pipes that lead to the toilet
- Cracking the tank
- Straining the water heater
That’s not even getting into the ways that cold weather makes using a toilet more unpleasant, such as sitting on a freezing cold toilet seat!
Depending on your toilet, you should prepare yourself for any of these problems before winter strikes. Here is what you need to know about these common issues affecting toilets during the winter.
Can Pipes Freeze That Leads To The Toilet?
If you try to flush your toilet and notice that no water is coming out, the problem probably isn’t that your toilet itself is frozen. Most likely, the pipes that connect to your toilet and other bathroom fixtures are frozen.
Frozen pipes are a common and damaging problem for people who live in cold climates. (Link)
People who live in homes that are older and poorly insulated or that have pipes that run through colder spaces, such as attics, garages, exterior walls, and crawlspaces, are particularly prone to having their pipes freeze.
When building a home or renovating pipe installations, professionals will install pipes in out-of-the-way places such as exterior walls, attics, or cellars because it is much easier to get to the pipes in case of an installation. However, these places may be exposed to temperature fluctuations.
While your toilet itself is unlikely to freeze because it is in your warm bathroom, the pipes that are separated from the raging winter storm outside by only a thin layer of wall are in far more danger.
Can The Toilet Tank And Bowl Crack During Winter Spells?
Older toilets may experience problems with the hardware during the winter, even if the toilet itself doesn’t freeze. One of the most common problems people report to plumbers during cold weather snaps is cracked porcelain in toilet bowls or tanks. (Link)
Over the years, little bits of water seep into the parts of the toilet that sit soaked in water for a long time, such as the interior of your toilet tank and your bowl.
Although the toilet water that sits in the tank is room temperature because the air around the toilet is heated, when you flush, newer water that comes in through your pipes is cold at first. The difference in temperature causes the porcelain to crack.
Can The Cold Winter Season Cause Strain To The Water Heater?
While the water heater doesn’t affect your toilet itself because toilets connect only to a cold-water line, if your water heater doesn’t work, it will make washing your hands after using the bathroom more unpleasant (and hopefully you are washing your hands).
Problems with the water heater could also affect your toilet if you have a built-in bidet or bidet seat that has a water heating function.
When the weather outside is cold, your water heater has to work extra hard to heat the water enough for usage.
Older appliances will struggle to meet the challenge.
Like your toilet tank or bowl, an old water heater might also crack along the inside due to the temperature shock of cold external water mixing with the warmer water already in the tank. (Link)
Although the functioning of a water heater does not directly affect the way your toilet works, if you want to have a pleasant bathroom experience all around, make sure that all fixtures in your home are working properly, including the water heater.
It takes some effort to winterize your home, but it is worth it when you don’t have to deal with cold water showers or cracked installations.
How Do I Prevent A Toilet From Freezing?
Even though having a toilet freeze is a rare problem, you still don’t want it to happen.
Nobody wants to go into the bathroom to find their toilet looks like the Abominable Snowman attacked it! Plus, your toilet freezing could cause other, more expensive problems, such as the tank or other fixtures exploding and needing replacing.
The easiest solution is so simple it seems like a no-brainer—heat your bathroom. The temperature in your bathroom needs to consistently dip below 32 degrees Fahrenheit for your toilet to freeze (although it can still happen if your bathroom is warmer than that if your tank connects directly to a poorly insulated exterior wall).
Many people try to save money on their heating bills by not heating the bathroom, particularly if their toilet is in a separate room from the shower.
They reason that a few minutes of discomfort when sitting on the toilet or washing hands is worth saving the extra money on heating bills.
If you’re building a home or renovating your own and thinking about skipping heating the bathroom to save a few bucks, think about the extra money a burst toilet tank will cost.
That will motivate you to heat the bathroom more than the thought of an uncomfortable toilet experience.
In other cases, heating the bathroom is impossible. If your home is older and extending heating to the bathroom is not possible, or you simply cannot afford to heat another room, you can still prevent your toilet from freezing.
Usually, the ambient heat from the rest of your home is enough to prevent your bathroom from getting cold enough to freeze the toilet. (Link)
Take steps to promote the circulation of heat, such as opening the bathroom door. This may make the rest of the house a bit colder and increase your heating bills slightly, but it is worth doing when the weather is cold enough to potentially freeze your toilet.
Can Antifreeze Work To Prevent A Toilet From Freezing?
Antifreeze is a liquid that lowers the freezing point of water and can prevent standing water, such as the water in a car’s radiator tank, from freezing.
If the toilet tank is the part of the toilet that is the most prone to freezing due to the standing water, can antifreeze help?
If you know that you’re about to get hit with a very cold spell, you can actually pour antifreeze into your toilet tank or replace the water in the tank completely with antifreeze. The liquid will not freeze even if your bathroom gets colder than the freezing point because it has a lower freezing point than regular toilet water. However, be sure that you use non-toxic antifreeze instead of the intense stuff you put in your car radiator.
Some manufacturers even make antifreeze specifically for home plumbing. When you flush your toilet, the antifreeze in your tank will go into your pipes.
You want to use a substance that will not hurt your family while it sits in your tank or interact with the bacteria in your sewage pipes strangely.
Read labels carefully before pouring antifreeze down your tank!
What About A Toilet At Your Vacation Home?
All of these tips for preventing your toilet from freezing assume that your toilet is located in a reasonably well-insulated house, where at least some rooms in the house are heated, and someone will be using the toilet frequently enough that water flowing will prevent it from freezing. However, the rules are different for vacation homes that you only use during the warm months. (Link)
Toilets in summer or vacation homes are more prone to freezing in winter than toilets in homes that people use year-round for a few reasons.
First, toilets and pipes need water to run through them at regular intervals to prevent them from freezing because standing water freezes more easily than moving water.
Also, summer homes are poorly insulated and unheated because, by definition, they are only used during warm weather months.
There are a few things you can do to winterize your toilet before you leave your vacation home so that you don’t come back to an unpleasant surprise at the beginning of next year’s season.
First, drain all the water out of your tank by turning off the fill and shut-off valves and then holding down the flush paddle until all the water flows out of the tank. Then, drain any water out of the bowl by “flushing” it using a bucket.
If there is no water left over in your toilet during the winter, then there is nothing to freeze (Link), no matter how cold the weather gets. When you get back, just turn on the valves again and let the tank fill up normally.
However, be sure that you only winterize your toilet at the very end of the season after everyone is ready to leave because it is a hassle to reverse the process to make the toilet usable again on short notice.
How To Prevent Pipes From Freezing?
All these tips to prevent your toilet from freezing are certainly useful because nobody wants to deal with a frozen or exploding toilet tank.
However, remembering how to prevent the pipes leading to your toilet from freezing is even more important since this problem is much more common in the winter.
Pipes are usually more exposed to cold weather outside than your toilet, which is safely and warmly in your bathroom, so frozen pipes are usually the culprit if your toilet won’t flush.
If you are building a new home or renovating from scratch, choosing where to lay out your pipes is an important step to preventing headaches down the line. Think wisely. Running pipes through exterior walls, attics, or crawlspaces makes it more likely that the pipes will freeze, but it is also easier to get to them in case of an emergency, such as an ice blockage.
Talk with a plumber about the optimal location.
Another step you can take when building or renovating is to add insulation around your pipes. Pipe insulation is relatively inexpensive, and wrapping it around hot-water pipes prevents the heat from escaping and the cold from coming in.
Insulating your pipes is labor-intensive, particularly if your pipes are located inside walls, but worth it if you know homes in your area are prone to frozen pipes in the winter.
If you have exposed pipes in your attic or basement, insulating them is an easy afternoon project.
Instead of insulating your pipes, you can also run a heating cable directly alongside the pipes.
There are special self-regulating heating cables designed to tape to water pipes and generate just enough heat to prevent the pipes from freezing. (Link)
This method works best for exposed pipes in your attic or crawlspace. However, be mindful that your electrical bills will slightly increase if you install heating cables, although it will be less expensive than heating your whole attic or garage where the pipes are located.
How To Prevent Your Pipes From Freezing When You Go Away
People most commonly encounter frozen pipes when they come home after a long period away. Then there is no water flowing through the pipes, and the still water is much more prone to freezing.
If you are going away for a long time, such as the entire season, then turn off the whole water supply valve to the home. Then, let all the water in your pipes drain by turning on the faucets and draining the toilet.
For good measure, pour non-toxic antifreeze down the toilet.
If you’re just going away for a shorter vacation, turning off the water valve isn’t worth it because making your home habitable again is a headache when you come back.
One easy way to prevent your pipes from freezing is to leave the heat on.
Let it run at a low temperature, such as 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Although this will increase your heating bill slightly, think about how much the repair bill for frozen, burst toilet pipes would be!
Frequently Asked Questions
The threat of frozen toilets naturally inspires lots of questions. Here are some of the most common ones people have.
Will A Toilet Break If It Freezes?
The answer depends on how bad the freeze is.
If just the surface of the water in the tank is frozen, then you can thaw the water without damaging your whole toilet. However, if the whole tank freezes, it is very likely to also burst because ice takes up more area than water.
How Do You Fix A Frozen Toilet?
The easiest way to thaw a frozen toilet is to pour warm or hot water into the frozen area, such as the tank.
You can also thaw it from the exterior with a space heater or heating pad—just be careful not to apply direct heat such as fire.
Living in cold climates comes with all sorts of problems, even for your toilet. If the temperature in your bathroom dips below freezing, your toilet could freeze as well, although frozen toilet pipes are far more common.
You can prevent this problem by heating and insulating the bathroom and pipes.
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