How to Survive Philly’s Epic Winter Freeze

From frozen pipes to pet safety, here’s your one-stop, bookmark-able guide to ensuring you make it through the frigid temps unscathed.

You, like most of Philly right now, are probably dreaming of warmer days (or, at this point, just temperatures above freezing).

Unfortunately, we’re in for more cold and snow later this week. To help get you through, we’ve compiled a guide to surviving the below-freezing stretch in Philly, the region’s longest since 2004, per

How can I prevent my pipes from freezing?

Apparently the city needs to learn a thing or two about frozen pipes – the Philadelphia Water Department and local plumbers have reportedly been inundated with calls during the deep freeze.

First things first. When the water in your pipe gets too cold and freezes, it can expand and cause your pipes to burst, leading to a mess like this:

No one wants gallons of icy water gushing through their home. To prevent burst pipes, the Red Cross offers the following tips:

  • Keep garage doors closed if there are water supply lines in the garage.
  • Open kitchen and bathroom cabinet doors to allow warmer air to circulate around the plumbing. Be sure to move any harmful cleaners and household chemicals up out of the reach of children.
  • When the weather is very cold outside, let the cold water drip from the faucet served by exposed pipes. Running water through the pipe – even at a trickle – helps prevent pipes from freezing.
  • Keep the thermostat set to the same temperature both during the day and at night. By temporarily suspending the use of lower nighttime temperatures, you may incur a higher heating bill, but you can prevent a much more costly repair job if pipes freeze and burst.
  • If you will be going away during cold weather, leave the heat on in your home, set to a temperature no lower than 55° F.
  • Check around the home for other areas where water supply lines are located in unheated areas. Look in the garage, and under kitchen and bathroom cabinets. Both hot and cold water pipes in these areas should be insulated.
  • Consider installing specific products made to insulate water pipes like a “pipe sleeve” or installing UL-listed “heat tape,” “heat cable,” or similar materials on exposed water pipes. Newspaper can provide some degree of insulation and protection to exposed pipes – even a quarter of an inch of newspaper can provide significant protection in areas that usually do not have frequent or prolonged temperatures below freezing.

What if my pipes do freeze? How can I tell they’re frozen, and if they are, how should I thaw them?

If you turn on your faucet and only a trickle of water drips out, you may have a frozen pipe. It’s important to know that the Philadelphia Water Department can’t fix frozen pipes, as it has recently pointed out. You’ll want to call a plumber ASAP.

The Red Cross has some tips for what to do when you suspect your pipes have frozen:

  • Likely places for frozen pipes include against exterior walls or where your water service enters your home through the foundation.
  • Keep the faucet open. As you treat the frozen pipe and the frozen area begins to melt, water will begin to flow through the frozen area. Running water through the pipe will help melt ice in the pipe.
  • Apply heat to the section of pipe using an electric heating pad wrapped around the pipe, an electric hair dryer, a portable space heater (kept away from flammable materials), or by wrapping pipes with towels soaked in hot water. Do not use a blowtorch, kerosene or propane heater, charcoal stove, or other open flame device.
  • Apply heat until full water pressure is restored. If you are unable to locate the frozen area, if the frozen area is not accessible, or if you can not thaw the pipe, call a licensed plumber.
  • Check all other faucets in your home to find out if you have additional frozen pipes. If one pipe freezes, others may freeze, too.

How (and when) do I put ice melt on my sidewalk?

If you’re using ice melt or rock salt, be sure to apply it ASAP – the earlier, the better. Consumer Reports offers a small guide to applying the product. The organization recommends removing any existing snow before an impending storm (via a shovel or snowblower), then applying a thin, even layer of ice melt to the sidewalk.

If you’re using a wheeled or handheld ice melt spreader, rinse the spreader between uses. Otherwise sprinkle the product by using a cup of by hand – as long as you’re wearing gloves, as the product can be toxic. Don’t use too much of it – ice melt (or magnesium chloride, a common ingredient) can damage concrete. Be sure to pay attention to the recommended application amount including on the packaging.

Ice melt poses a risk to plants, pets and family members. If your child swallows ice melt, call the American Association of Poison Control Centers at 800-222-1222. Watch your pets to ensure they don’t ingest the product – even small amounts of 100 percent sodium chloride (salt) can be lethal to dogs.

Consider wiping your pets paws after walks in the winter. If you think your pet has ingested ice met, contact your vet or the Pet Poison Helpline at 800-213-6680.

How can I keep myself warm when I’m outside?

First, we recommend not going outside. But if you have to, we suggest wearing layers. As well as hats, gloves and scarves – and warm socks. Especially warm socks. If you’re going in the snow, try to wear something water resistant.

If you take public transportation, be sure to check that services are running smoothly before leaving your home. That way, you shorten the amount of time you have to wait outside the cold.

Get familiar with symptoms of frostbite, which include cold skin and a prickling feeling followed by numbness and red, white, blueish-white or grayish-yellow skin, as well as hard or waxy-looking skin, blistering and muscle stiffness. Seek medical attention if you’re concerned you or someone else has developed frostbite.

How can I keep my neighbors and others safe?

In dangerous temperatures, the city declares a Code Blue emergency status, which pertains to those experiencing homelessness. If you’re worried about someone you see on the street, call the city’s homeless outreach hotline at 215-232-1984.

The Philadelphia Network of Care offers lists of emergency shelters and street outreach programs in Philly.

If you’re worried about your neighbor, reach out and check in. Consider contacting the Department of Public Health at 215-686-5200.

Can I leave a space heater plugged in overnight?

No. You shouldn’t leaving space heaters — a common cause of fires — unattended at all. The Philadelphia Fire Department advises residents to keep heaters away from furniture and combustibles.

If you are using a space heater, always plug it directly into the wall – never into an extension cord or power strip. Power cords aren’t designed to handle the high current flow needed for space heaters.

What do I do if I lose access to heat or hot water?

If you find yourself in this situation, try to get somewhere warm – and get your heat fixed – as soon as possible. In the meantime, close all windows, curtains (unless the sun is shining directly through the window) and doors to rooms you aren’t using. (And yes, some people swear by using saran wrap to insulate windows.)

City law mandates that landlords must provide tenants with a central heating system or an approved heating system controlled by the tenant. If your landlord controls your heating, the house must be kept at 68 degrees Fahrenheit from October through April. Tenants also have the right to access running water and hot water.

If your landlord isn’t responding to your requests, considering calling 311 and reporting your complaint to the city. Someone from the Department of Licenses and Inspections should visit and inspect the property.

If you’re worried that your rights as a tenant are being violated, contact the city’s Fair Housing Commission at 215-686-4670.

How can I keep my pets safe?

As mentioned earlier, be sure to keep your pets away from ice melt and rock salt this winter.

And most important, keep them warm. Pennsylvania’s recently passed Libre’s Law mandates that dogs can be tethered outside for no more than 30 minutes in temperatures below 32 degrees Fahrenheit – or owners face potential fines or jail time.

For cold weather pet safety tips, visit American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. If you’re worried about someone else’s pet, report your suspicions to Philly police or the PSPCA.

How can I keep my car safe?

First things first: Check your fluid levels. Be sure you have enough coolant (and the correct antifreeze/water mixture) to ensure fluid doesn’t freeze in your radiator. (Your vehicle owner’s manual should including information on the best mixture.)

Also be sure that your wiper fluid is freeze-resistant in order to keep your view clear – and consider switching to a thinner oil in the winter, especially during stretches of below-freezing temperatures. Don’t use hot water to defrost your screen, as the sudden change in temperature could cause it to crack.

Be sure to check your tire pressure – low air pressure and worn tires can be dangerous on wet and slick roads. Your owner’s manual should contain your car’s recommended PSI.

Battery capacity is reduced by the cold. The Department of Motor Vehicles recommends checking your battery cables for cracks and breaks. The organization’s website includes a handy guide to inspecting and replacing your car battery.