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How to: Frozen Pipes

While it hasn’t been as much of a concern this year, in the mid-Atlantic region at least, I keep seeing forecasts that the rest of the winter is going to get really cold. So in case that happens, or for those in other regions, I thought this would be a good topic to cover. This winter problem is relatively preventable and so much easier to deal with before than after it comes up. Pipes freezing leads to pipes bursting, and pipes bursting leads to homes flooding and expensive clean-up and repair costs. This is especially true for those with vacant homes. Maybe you’re trying to sell the property, maybe you have a vacation spot somewhere, or maybe you’re just traveling for a while (take me with you!). Any which way, no one wants to come home to a flooded house. Today we’ll be talking about why frozen pipes are a problem, how to prevent frozen pipes, how to thaw frozen pipes, and one dangerous situation to avoid.


How do pipes freeze and why is that a big deal?


Firstly, a question. Have you ever put a full soda can in the freezer and then forgotten about it? Did it look kind of like this when you came back?



The same thing happens to your pipes when they freeze. As water freezes and expands it puts serious outward pressure on whatever is containing it. If pipes are full of water while they freeze, then they will slowly explode, and when that water melts it’s probably going to be a flooding situation. Fortunately, there are ways around that even if you’re not going to be at the home for some time.


Which pipes are most likely to freeze?


  • Pipes exposed to the frosty air- Hose spigots, swimming pool supply lines, gutters, and water sprinkler supply lines.

  • Pipes next to exterior walls with little to no insulation.

  • Water lines that go through unheated areas of the home such as attics, garages, crawlspaces, and kitchen cabinets.

  • Pipes that go into the frosty ground.

While gutters are not technically a pipe, if they’re jammed up and water freezes there, that water can expand and damage your eaves and roof.



How to prevent pipes from freezing


Shut off water valves where you can, after draining. If you’re going to be living in the house that means hoses and any other exterior water lines, such as sprinklers, or pool lines. With hoses, there’s an indoor shut-off valve for outside spigots. It is important to drain the spigot, or bibb, and leave that valve open so that any remaining water can leave if it expands too much. Detachable water lines, such as the hoses themselves, should be drained and put away for the season. Plus, any water left in there for months at a time is going to get kinda funky and if your first use of the hose in spring is, for example, kids playing with the hose, that experience could be gross instead of fun.

If you’re going to be away from the house for a while, you may wish to shut the water off at the main, and then drain the household pipes. Take your time with this one, drain one area at a time if you can. The reason I’m recommending this is because sometimes, when the water is shut off, it can reveal leaks, particularly in incoming valves. The pressure of the water in the system can keep an incoming valve functioning, even with a small hole. When that pressure is released, however, the leak comes to light.



Insulate your at-risk pipes. There are a couple of options here. If you’re confident in your spray foam skills, then you can use that. Otherwise, there are products like foam pipe insulation, heat tape and heat cable. As a kid I thought that heat tape was super cool, a magic tape that meant my mom didn’t have to chisel the roof anymore in the winter. Turns out it was the magic of electricity and heat tape and heat cable are actually the same thing and wrap around pipes or sections of the roof to prevent freezing. Application tape, however, actually is a thing and will make that wrapping process significantly easier!


The slow drip. Running the tiniest trickle of water through faucets on really cold days and nights will help prevent pipes from freezing. The liquid water with temperatures above freezing will run across any icy areas and help warm them up.


Steady heat. It is generally recommended, by the Red Cross, among others, to keep the heat on at all times with a minimum temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit. This is especially true for those leaving their homes during the winter. Personally, in my house, I heat to 60 degrees. My house does really does not heat evenly though, your experience may differ. Keeping the heat on is a little more for the electric bill, but that is so much less expensive than flood repair, or this:





Open kitchen and bathroom cabinets. Pipes go through or near these areas, but heating usually doesn’t. If you open your cabinets in the kitchen and bathrooms, it allows heated air to circulate through those areas so the pipes don’t freeze.



How to Thaw Frozen Pipes


The slow drip, part two. If you have not already done so, opening the faucets a little will help liquid water go over the frozen bits and melt them. If no water comes out keep the faucet open for when it does and see next steps. This can also help you pinpoint where frozen sections of pipe are. If no water is coming out, then the frozen pipe is likely nearby. Check under the sink etc. for a pipe with visible frost or a bulge.


Heat ‘em up! (but not with fire) Something like a blowtorch or propane can damage your pipes or potentially cause an explosion so we recommend against heating that way, but there are a variety of other methods to try. An electric blanket or heating pad wrapped around frozen sections of pipe will help. You can also use an electric hair dryer or even wrap towels soaked in hot water around the pipes. A space heater nearby will also help.


Act quickly. If the pipe is frozen water is pressing against the insides pressing to break them. We want our pipes to be in that position as little as possible before the strain damages them.


When it gets Dangerous


If your house has flooded it’s time to call in an expert. Ceilings may not be stable and could fall, the same is true for any area with drywall. Things have probably also moved under the water’s surface that you can’t see and could present tripping hazards. Lastly, if the power is still on there could be exposed areas or wires which will make stepping in the water (without protection) dangerous and up to deadly. For example, some boilers and furnaces have an electrical control board on the bottom, which is normally fine, but if the water level has risen to be in contact with it and then you come into contact with that water…

Having a flooded house is very expensive to repair, but nowhere near as important as your safety.


Advanced tip:

Some pipes break more easily than others. CPVC breaks more easily when frozen than Pex. In the picture below, Pex is on the left and CPVC is on the right.

Conclusions

Ideally it never gets to the flooding stage. Or the frozen pipe stage. With our mid-Atlantic weather you can never tell what’s coming next. Yesterday, I got a weather alert about rapidly dropping temperatures…it was actually warmer a couple hours later. Le sigh. Hopefully this leaves you feeling better prepared for whatever happens next!


Which pipes? - The ones exposed to cold air

How to prevent freezing? - Insulation, steady heat, and a steady drip

How to thaw? - Steady heat, running water, no fire

Danger? - Getting into electrified water


Thank you for reading!


If you found this interesting be sure to check out some of our other posts!


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