Defending Against Frozen Pipes

By Catherine McNulty

August 3, 2015 5 min read

After a long, hard winter, the signs of spring are eagerly awaited. But don't let your spring thaw turn into a flood. Frozen pipes can lead to burst pipes, which can lead to costly home repairs. How can you prevent this?

Before we get to prevention, first we have to understand why this happens. As water freezes, it expands. Water trapped in a pipe is no different, and even the sturdiest pipes are no match for Mother Nature in this regard.

If you live in a place where it is likely to get and stay below freezing for extended periods of time, or if there is even a possibility of this, you should spend some time getting to know the pipes and plumbing in your house. First, you should know how to shut off the main water valve. If you do experience a burst or a leaking pipe, this will be invaluable.

Second, locate the pipes that are at risk of freezing. The pipes most likely to freeze during the winter are those that are exposed outside or run along the exterior walls of your home or come in through your foundation. You should also be aware of pipes that run through unheated areas of your house: those in the attic or basement or in a crawl space. These pipes are at risk, too. Any pipe you will not be using during the winter -- such as those that supply outside faucets -- should be drained (per manufacturers instructions) before the cold weather sets in.

For pipes that cannot be drained, consider insulating them. Pipe sleeves are a popular option and are available at almost any hardware store. Heat tape is another option, though a more expensive one. Even newspaper, about a fourth of an inch thick, bound around a pipe can offer a quick fix of insulation.

During extreme cold weather, consider letting water drip from faucets that are served by exposed or at-risk pipes. The running water will help prevent total freezing in the pipes. You may want to keep the door to your basement or attic open to circulate warm air. Yes, your heating bill will go up as a result. But a heating bill is cheaper than replacing ruptured pipes.

How can you tell if a pipe has frozen? The easiest way is to check your faucets. If you turn one on and the water pressure is weak or nonexistent, then you most likely have a frozen pipe. So what should you do?

Keep the faucet open. As you thaw the ice, you want it to run. Once the water starts to flow, the running water will help melt the remaining ice. Apply heat to the frozen section of pipe. If it's a big section, you may need to work in smaller sections. Never use exposed flames such as blowtorches, kerosene/propane heaters or charcoal stoves on frozen pipes. You can use electrical forms of heat such as a heating pad, a hair dryer or a portable space heater, but be careful. If the ice in a pipe has caused a fracture, then it will start to leak when it thaws. Water and electricity do not mix.

You can also wrap the frozen pipe in a heavy towel or some such material and then pour boiling water over it. This is messy, and boiling water can burn, so be prepared and remain cautious. You will need to set up something underneath the area you're treating to catch the runoff water. If you're in an area where the pipe is frozen, boiling water will eventually cool and freeze, as well, resulting in an even bigger mess.

When in doubt, call a professional, though this can be costly and time consuming.

When it comes to pipes, the old adage "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" is especially apt. In general, if you live in an area where there is the potential for a harsh winter, spend some quality time winterizing your home. Replace or add additional insulation to your attic and/or basement. Check for gaps in and around your home and seal them. Such gaps are commonly found near windows, dryer vents and places where cables for phone/Internet/television have been put through a wall. Not only will this help with your pipes, but it also will help with your heating bill.

This winter, stay warm and keep the water flowing.

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