The weather outside is frightful -- and that can mean problems for your home's pipes. Extremely cold temperatures can freeze unused (or underused) pipes, which can cause thousands of dollars of damage when you try to use them, or when you've left them alone long enough for the water inside them to freeze completely and expand. If you're looking to protect your home (and your wallet) from water damaged pipes this winter, then here's what you need to know.

It's frighteningly common

When the cold weather comes, you're generally more concerned about keeping your feet warm than your pipes -- and that can lead to some serious problems. Unfortunately, most people don't think about their pipes first thing during the winter, with a quarter of a million Americans suffering water damage every winter due to neglecting their pipes.

It doesn't take much

Your mental picture of a broken pipe probably looks a lot more like the hull of the Titanic than a hairline crack, but it's the little things that matter. A crack an eighth of an inch wide can fill your home with about 250 gallons a day -- definitely enough to put a damper on your day, and a definite dent in your wallet.

20 is the magic number

You generally don't have to worry about frozen pipes until the outside temperatures drop below 20 degrees Fahrenheit (or about negative six degrees Celsius). Once temperatures dip that low, your pipes can crack and break -- if you don't protect them first.

It's 99% preventable

There is some good news to be had, however. As with a lot of home repairs, you can almost always prevent this catastrophe from occurring by taking a few easy steps. The first ones deal with the outside of your home -- make sure that your outside walls are fully insulated, and that you repair any cracks in your foundation to prevent cold air and ice crystals from settling in the crawl spaces in your home. If you find any pipes that are exposed to the outside air, wrap a layer of insulation (available at your local hardware store) around them.

After that, it's all about maintenance; You should make sure to use all of your pipes daily, even if it's just running a trickle of water for a couple of minutes out of your lesser-used faucets. You can also help heat to reach your pipes by propping open the cabinet doors.