Why pipes burst, batteries die in the cold

The science of chemistry explains why pipes burst when temperatures drop below freezing, Colorado Mesa University chemistry professor Joe Richards said.

Burst pipes start with the chemical reaction that turns water into ice. The process starts when the temperature approaches 32 degrees, Richards said.

The cold causes water molecules to begin to form very strong hydrogen bonds in an open, linear construction, he said.

As water freezes into its crystalline form, alternating hydrogen and oxygen molecules bond in lines that expand out in an open framework that becomes greater in size than the water presented in liquid form, Richards said.

Consequently, the water expands out from inside the pipe, causing seals to break and leak.

The explanation for the death of a battery starts with high temperatures in the summer, not cold temperatures in the winter.

High temperatures quicken corrosion of internal plates and vaporize the electrolyte inside a battery faster, said Dave Gonzales, Hensley Batteries and Electric general manager. 

Car batteries fail in winter because damage done during the summer doesn’t show up until the battery is more taxed, Gonzales said.

A cold battery has reduced cranking power. Cold temperatures also thicken motor oil, which makes it harder for the engine to turn over, he said.

Weak batteries can start a car in the summer with less cranking power because of warm temperatures. When weak batteries are further compromised by cold conditions, they are more likely to fail, Gonzales said.

— Greg Ruland


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