How to Keep Water Intake Lines from Freezing

VIDEO BELOW: Do you have a cottage or seasonal country home you’d like to upgrade for year-round living? As more and more people retire permanently to what was originally just a summer vacation property, the challenge of making running water happen in winter is becoming more common. If you’ve got a situation with shallow soil and exposed water supply lines, you might want to learn about a plumbing installation I completed in late 2019.

Brad and Melanie are two new neighbours of mine, and they’ve only got about 12” of soil on the property they want to live on year-round. That’s 36” less than needed to reliably protect water intake lines from freezing where we live, and it’s why I recommended a Canadian-made system called Retro-Line. It’s the best I’ve seen after years of looking, and so economical that Brad doesn’t even notice any effect on his electricity bills.

Made by a Haliburton, Ontario company called Heat-Line, Retro-Line incorporates three features that make the system more reliable and more economical than other options I’ve installed. After all, when you rely on a heating system to keep water flowing into your house for months each year, it’s got to be good.

Push a “smart” electric heating cable inside the full length of a water supply pipe; encase this pipe with foam insulation and external physical protection; control this heating cable with a thermostat that energizes the cable only when temperatures drop to near freezing.  This is how the Retro-Line system works, and the electric heating cable itself is the most interesting part in my mind. It enters the water pipe through a proprietary, water-tight fitting, but it’s what happens inside the water pipe that’s worth talking about.

I’ve installed this type of heating cable before and seen how reliable it is over the years. Besides reliability, there’s something else unique that this cable can do. It has the ability to deliver more or less heat along its length, depending on how cold the cable is in that particular spot. This smart capability reduces energy consumption, but it also means that the cable won’t overheat if it overlaps other sections of cable. This eliminates a significant risk that’s present with every other frost-proof heating cable I’ve seen.

As smart as this cable is, it can’t shut itself OFF completely, no matter how warm things get. This is why I also suggested that Brad and Melanie opt for an external thermostat. It’s an optional part of the system and reduces energy consumption even more by completely shutting off power when heat is not needed. A temperature probe within the pipe as it sits outdoors feeds information to the thermostat inside the house that controls electricity flow to the cable.

While it’s obvious that insulating a water pipe heated in this way will greatly reduce energy consumption, what’s not so obvious is how vulnerable that insulation is when buried even by a little soil. Mechanical damage of the insulation by soil, rocks and vermin is a risk, but water poses a greater risk than these. Eventually, ground water will saturate foam pipe insulation if it’s present in the soil, and saturated insulation is no insulation at all. That’s why it’s important to encase the insulated pipe within another larger pipe before burying. It’s an extra step, yes, but it makes all the difference. When the smart cable of the Retro-Line system is coupled with insulation and thermostatic control, the amount of electricity used is pretty much negligible.

Click below to watch me install Brad and Melanie’s freeze-proofing system on video. You’ll see smart cable installed inside the water pipe, foam insulation going on the outside, an outer protective pipe going on, and other important details. I think you’ll find it interesting. 

Canada is a country with deep winters and, in many places, shallow soils. That’s why it only makes sense that we’ve also gotten pretty good at technology that keeps water flowing all winter long no matter where your cold part of the planet is.