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Frozen Water Pipes? Here’s What to Do

During the winter, many homeowners in cold regions face the potential of frozen water pipes.

This is one of those repairs that just doesn’ t sound good, even if you’ve never been faced with it.

The obvious consequence of a water pipe freezing is that you don’t get water coming out of a faucet. At first, this is just a minor inconvenience.

But damage and leaky pipes become a very real possibility.

In areas where it’s expected to be very cold during certain times of the year, homes are built to protect and conceal plumbing.

This creates more work for the plumber and builder, having to run pipes inside of walls or finishing a ceiling in a basement.

So, believe it or not, a lot of homes that are susceptible to freezing conditions may actually have areas of exposed pipes…just because it was easier when the house was built!

It’s these folks that end up with frozen pipes from time to time.

You can either live with it– if it’s temporary and take on the risk of pipes breaking–or find a process for thawing your pipes as needed. Even better, you can take some action to permanently address the pipe freezing problem.

Let’s take a look at what to do when your pipes freeze and then how to keep your pipes from freezing.

Frozen pipes, what to do?

When you turn on a faucet in your home, water usually comes out immediately. This is because the pipes that lead from your water supply to valve you turn are full of water already. If those pipes are exposed to freezing temperatures for too long, the water inside will freeze, and water can’t flow.

Your job in how to fix then is to warm the pipes and melt the ice inside. Sounds easy, right? It is (if you can access the frozen portion of the pipes), but you must follow a few basic steps to do this fix just right.

  1. First, turn of your main water supply. You don’t want any water feeding your frozen pipes as you work.
  2. Now, open the nearest faucet to where you suspect the pipe is frozen. For example, if everything is frozen, go to the sink that is closest to a basement or crawlspace where you know plumbing runs.  By opening the faucet you will allow water pressure and steam to move freely as you warm the water inside the pipe.
  3. Get yourself access to the frozen section of the pipe. You want to start defrosting from as close to the faucet as possible and work your way back out of the house (toward the water source).
  4. To thaw frozen pipes, you can use the follow methods:

Hair dryer: Works pretty well, but is time consuming. You need to do a lot of back-and-forth motion since you don’t want to get the pipe too hot. You’re much better off using a good heat gun, a very common tool for thawing out pipes and frozen spigots.

Just warm it (you should be able to touch it with your bare hand), and gradually defrost the ice inside. Work on metal, and is a must on plastic or PVC pipes.

Propane torch: Works just like hair dryer, only much faster. Again, don’t heat the pipe up too much. The heat is intense and will penetrate quickly enough.

Pour boiling water: This method is a little more messy. You essentially wrap the pipe with a towel or cloth. Then carefully pour hot water over the cloth. This isn’t always convenient since you need someplace for the water to go and need to be out of the way so you don’t get scalded!

Heat tape: Using heat tape is a lot less work on your part, but it can take some time to warm and thaw frozen pipes.  You essentially wrap the frozen pipes (curl heat tape around pipe cylinder) and plug one end into an outlet. Over time, the pipes warm and melts the frozen water. As a preventative measure, heat tape is actually a wonderful way to protect pipes during the cold season.

How to keep pipes from freezing

If at all possible, try to prevent frozen water pipes in your house. Not only can it be a pain to get them thawed out, pipes can start to leak. As water freezes, it expands. It’s pressure won’t hold back, and cracks can occur in pipe walls.

The best thing to do then is to not let your pipes become frozen in the first place! Read on to see some simple ways to fix your problems before they start.

Water pipe insulation:

Insulating your pipes against cold temperatures is pretty easy and affordable. Wraparound foam pipe insulation is cheap, easy to find and a breeze to put over your pipes. Pipe insulation like this helps to maintain the water temperature in the pipes under most conditions.

If you have long-term freezing conditions, this kind of insulation may not hold up, however. Your best bet is to build around the pipes, i.e. make them a part of your home.

To apply, just separate the two split pieces of the pipe insulation and slip it over piping. You can tape ends up to secure them better. It’s a good idea to affix water pipe insulation like this to help keep warm, humid air from condensing on pipes in the summertime, to help prevent sweating.

Pipe heat tape:

As mentioned above, heat tape is great at warming up your pipes. It’s not too intense so it won’t damage pipes from quick changes in pressure due to dramatic temperature shifts. What’s even better

about heat tape is that it will also help you prevent frozen water pipes in the first place. In other words, you can permanently wrap your pipes with the heat tape. Products (such as the one on the left) come with a built in thermostat.

That means, a thermo-contolled switch comes with the tape assembly to make the tape heat up when temperature drop to a certain point, and then turn off when air temps warm up again.

The one caveat of course is that you need a convenient enough place to plug in the heat tape. This usually isn’t a problem in a basement, but may be hard in a basement or attic. Consider installing an outlet nearby pipes that could freeze and using pipe heat tape. It gives you peace of mind when extreme cold hits.

Other kinds of pipes can freeze as well, such as drains and vent pipes. Insulate drain pipes as best you can. For frozen vent pipes, you’ll most likely have to access your roof to make repairs. If you can, try to increase the diameter of the very top of the vent pipe up there.

For example, add a wider extension or reducer (which, actually offers a wider opening) to accomplish this. Doing this will make it more difficult for an ice dam to form in cold weather.

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