How to Keep Buried Gutter Downspouts From Freezing

A downspout and roof of a house covered with snow

For homeowners who enjoy the season, winter can be quite a magical one. But you might forget all the magic once your buried downspouts freeze. If kept unchecked, frozen downspouts may cause further damage to your home’s exterior, thus raising your repair costs. To keep you jolly during the coldest months, let us explore how to keep buried gutter downspouts from freezing. 

When ice forms in one section of the downspout, it spreads throughout the entire system. Downspout elbows are most vulnerable to ice build-ups, since that is where water tends to easily settle. The entire situation can get worse when your downspout is clogged and there’s no way for the water to escape. 

But we won’t focus too much on the negatives. Instead, we’ll get right into the measures to keep your gutter system and buried downspouts from freezing. These measures include insulating the pipe drains, pouring hot water down the spout, and using perforated pipes. 

How to Keep Your Buried Downspouts From Freezing

It is never too late to take the necessary steps in preventing a frozen downspout. These not-so-complicated measures can really help those living in cold climates with freezing temperatures. 

Insulate the Pipe

This measure is necessary for underground pipes running from your downspout. It helps protect them from potential freezing. It is important to note that you will need to use insulation specifically made to protect underground pipes. Standard home insulation will not work, since it will lose its insulating properties when underground. 

Additionally, severe temperature drops in attics or crawl spaces will also impact the temperature of the pipe running underground. If these parts of your home are well-insulated, it will reduce this negative impact on the pipes. 

Apply Heat Cable

Also known as a self-regulating heating cable, it will automatically adjust the heat output according to the surface you place it on. Wrapping your downspout with this cable will prevent ice build-ups when it snows. But how does it work? 

Once connected to a power source, the cable heats the snow and turns it into water that will flow down smoothly. To maximize efficiency, check the hourly temperature on your weather app and turn the tape on about 2 hours before it starts snowing. Overall, it is a great way to keep the PVC pipes warm all through the cold season. 

However, applying this heat cable is expensive, not to mention the extra power consumed that would raise your electricity bill. Heat tape is a cheaper alternative to a self-regulating cable, though perhaps not as efficient. 

Pour Hot Water Down the Spout

If you’re comfortable using a ladder, you can make it a DIY task and pour hot/boiling water down the spout. While you’re at it, why not get rid of those ice dams too! But let’s focus on downspouts for now. Pouring hot water will thaw out the ice build-up inside it. But what if some of us have a fear of heights? Luckily, there is a safer alternative that doesn’t include any ladders. 

Using a hammer, you can look for blockage by lightly tapping the downspout’s exterior. If it feels solid rather than hollow, there is blockage. If you pour hot water on that particular spot, water should begin to flow along with chunks of ice. 

Insulate Your Attic

Improper attic insulation may lead to the formation of ice dams in your gutter. If done right, you will get an even covering of snow, which strangely enough, may even act as insulation by keeping the heat inside your house. More importantly, proper insulation stops snow on your rooftop from thawing and overflowing your gutter system. Once your gutter system is clear of ice dams, it will allow water to move smoothly down the downspout. 

Install Gutter Guards

A gutter guard installed on top of a gutter
Photo Credit: BanksPhotos / Canva Pro / License

Adding gutter guards will prevent debris from accumulating in your gutters, discouraging the formation of ice dams. They will also help in preventing blockages and clogging during periods of heavy rain. Gutter guards will benefit the downspout by allowing water to flow smoothly. If you already have a rain barrel installed, gutter guards will serve them well.

Clear Downspouts and Gutters of Debris

You should consider doing this before the winter season kicks in. Make sure the path from the gutters all the way down the underground pipe is clear of leaves or any other debris. This will ensure free water flow, meaning less chance of it getting trapped or turning into ice. 

Install Perforated Pipes

This is to help prevent the underground downspout pipe from holding water that could freeze. Under such cases, the frozen water could cause a blockage or further damage to the downspout. Perforated pipes will also help the pipe drain when or if the discharge gets blocked. 

Disconnect the Outlet

The outlet is the part of the rainwater system that connects the horizontal gutters to the vertical downspouts. If there is ice buildup at the outlet level, water would not flow smoothly all the way through the underground portion. Reduced water flow means more parts of the buried gutter downspout could start to freeze or form ice buildups. 

As a precautionary measure, make sure that the outlet is designed in such a way that it could be easily disconnected and cleaned. Professional installers based in cold climates would normally design it in such a way that it’s detachable.  

Check for Proper Pipe Pitch

We may have kept this measure for the last, but it is certainly not of least importance. It is vital to achieve the proper pitch, or tilt, in the underground drainage tubing. The right measurement is ¼ inch of drop per foot of pipe. This step is to prevent water from accumulating in the high and low areas of the downspout, and allow it to flow smoothly. 

Professional and efficient installers do take measurements as they install the underground downspout, so that the water flows freely down the tube. As previously mentioned, free flowing water means less it’s likely to freeze. 

Is it a Good Idea to Bury Downspouts? 

It certainly is, especially if you live in a rainy area. If water doesn’t drain properly away from your house, it may cause some property damage. This may also cause puddles and areas of stagnant water, which may attract pests. Burying downspouts could prevent such problems from occurring, as well as recycle water into the ground to benefit plants. 

How Bad is It to Have Frozen Downspouts? 

When downspouts freeze, ice may back up into the gutters. These solid blocks formed in the gutters are heavy and put a lot of pressure on the gutter system. This may lead it to form cracks, leaks, and eventually expand. Water and debris may also start to back upon your roof since they have nowhere to go, causing roof leaks. To make matters worse, frozen downspouts may cause moisture problems around your foundation, such as mold and rust. 

Signs Your Gutter Downspout is Frozen

A beautiful frozen downspout gutter of a house
Photo Credit: CatLane / Canva Pro / License

If you spot any of the following signs of a frozen downspout, you can address the issues yourself or hire a professional to repair the damage:

  • A bulge or crack with ice seeping out
  • Frost appearing on the outside
  • Water not flowing smoothly
  • Fractures caused by ice expansion
  • Roof gutters get clogged
  • Bottom of the downspout is blocked by snow or ice 

How to Fix a Frozen Underground Downspout

If the damage is already done to the buried downspout, then it is too late for any of the preventative measures mentioned above. Here are some measures to fix the underground downspout, depending on the issue you’re dealing with:

  • Pour hot water down the spout only if the ice blockage isn’t too thick, or if you’re not able to perform the first step. 
  • Disconnect the downspout from the underground frozen pipe to stop water backing up into the house. In this case, you should consider installing a temporary PVC to divert the water as far away from your home as possible. 

FAQ About Buried Gutter Downspouts

What are some winter maintenance tips for your underground downspout? 

Instead of waiting for your underground buried downspout to freeze, here are some tips to help you maintain the system throughout the cold winter months:
• Regularly check the downspout for rust, holes, and leaks to get it fixed
• Don’t use force to remove ice blockage. Using tools like hammers to break up the ice could potentially do more damage than good. 
• Make sure the downspout drain is diverting water at least 10 feet away from your home’s foundation
• Regularly check your gutter system and downspouts for debris cleanout 

Which downspout extensions are good for the winter?

Adding an extension to your downspout is a great way to keep water away from your home’s foundation. Instead, it will be diverted to a suitable and safe drainage area. Here are some great options you may consider: 
Stealth flow pipe: can withstand heavy snow or ice impact
Rain barrel: keeps water away from your home. You may later use it to water your plants
Splash blocks: will help keep water further away from your home
Pop-up emitter: it will allow captured water through your drainage system to be released in water-safe locations
Buried drain pipe: this includes a self-regulating heating cable. It will be installed through the gutter and down to the underground drain pipe. It may be a costly option, but it’s great to keep your gutter system and downspouts functioning properly in the winter. 

What are signs your underground drain system is clogged? 

When you encounter any of these problems, you should get the system looked at and get it fixed immediately:
• Water overflowing from downspout connection, it will seem like storm water runoff
• Gutter will start overflowing once the downspout is completely filled with water
• You detect water damage in the basement

Let Pros Break the Ice

We don’t mean relieving the tension by being funny or charming, we mean actually dealing with the ice build-up in your downspouts. Some of the anti-freezing measures in this article are DIY-friendly, but there are still homeowners who get worried about making matters worse. 

Avoid the obvious mistakes, such as using solid objects to roughly smash the downspout. That might break off the ice build-up, but ultimately cause more damage to the system. Doing so will lead to more unnecessary problems during the cold winter months, and cost you money for installing a new downspout. 

To ensure a functioning buried downspout system, hire a local gutter professional who can melt ice blockages and prevent them from occurring in the first place. This way, you won’t have to worry about DIY mistakes and you can stay out of the cold.

Main Image Credit: Random_Moments_Photography / Canva Pro / License

Jeffery Keusseyan

Jeffery Keusseyan is a writer who loves the winter season, so he knows the importance of unclogged gutters. He likes to provide homeowners with proactive measures to maintain clean, functional gutters during the wet season.