Be ready for the unexpected

The best way to weather a winter emergency is to prepare for it ahead of time.

By Dominique Silva

Beautiful days, spectacular sunsets and pleasant weather have been plentiful this mild December. But this year’s first freeze early this week is a signal that it’s time to prepare for any hard freezes that may be in store this winter.

A hard freeze is considered 28 degrees or lower for two hours or more, killing crops and patio plants. Ice can form inside any plumbing exposed to freezing temperatures, causing pipes to burst. You can protect vulnerable pipes with fiberglass pipe sleeves, foam and faucet covers.

Here’s a list of household areas where exposed pipes may need protection:

  • All outdoor hose bibs.
  • Unheated areas of the house, like the garage — especially around the water heater, the washing machine and the water softener.
  • For pier-and-beam houses, it’s also wise to protect pipes under the house.
  • Seal any openings exposed to cold air or wind.
  • For newer swimming pools, a freeze protector set to 38 degrees can automatically circulate water in the event of a freeze; otherwise make sure to leave the pump running during the freeze. Check with your pool company recommendations specific to your equipment. (In the event of an extended power outage, it may be advisable to turn off the power to the pool, remove the drain plugs on pumps and filters, and break up ice forming on the pool itself for the duration of the event; these steps would need to be reversed after a freeze, so again, check with your pool company.)

In the event of extreme cold, it’s good practice to open cabinet doors around kitchen and bathroom plumbing so warm air can circulate around the pipes inside, especially those located on exterior walls of the house.

Landscape irrigation can be shut down for the winter after November — and this is especially important as water run-off from irrigation can freeze on sidewalks and roadways, creating black ice and dangerous driving and walking conditions.

  • Turn off irrigation at the irrigation controller, typically located in the garage. (For smart controllers, you can do this from your mobile device.) You can leave irrigation off until March or April and just run it manually once a month if needed.
  • Disconnect, drain and store anything connected to an outdoor hose bib.
  • Your irrigation backflow device is expensive (and full of water) so it should definitely be protected from freezing temperatures if it’s installed above ground. For reduced pressure zone backflow assemblies, this is typically performed with rubber tape and fiberglass sleeves and/or a fitted open-bottom backflow insulation pouch. (Backflows can also be drained in the event of an extreme event. Check with your irrigator for recommendations specific to your device.)

Protecting Plants

Not all plants need protection from a hard freeze, but those grown in containers are especially susceptible since their roots are directly exposed to extreme temperatures. Smaller pots can be moved inside, but for large containers and baskets move them out of the north wind and under overhead cover.

You can protect some freeze-tender plants with cotton sheets, lightweight blankets or cardboard boxes. But don’t rely on plastic, which can worsen cold damage where it touches plants. If you’re covering plants, make sure the sheets reach all the way to the ground and weigh down the corners.

Very small recent plantings that haven’t developed freeze tolerance can benefit from a wrapping of blankets, newspaper and burlap.

In general, tender plants like cannas will need to be cut back after freeze damage. Best practice is to plant them with this in mind, in combination with evergreen shrubs or other features that can conceal freeze damage.

The best landscape plants for the San Antonio climate are freeze-hardy: their roots will survive.

It’s always good to complete these tasks before severe weather approaches. If suppliers run out of inventory in the run-up to a cold snap, you may get stuck using very thick cloth and bubble wrap.

For more tips on preparing your home and property when temperatures tumble, visit

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Our Guest Authors are fantastic former SAWS employees, incredible interns and community leaders in the local landscaping world. They are all as passionate as we are about saving water with beautiful, diverse landscapes.
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