One of the most common things to happen to a home during a cold snap is frozen pipes, especially if your pipes aren’t insulated. Even where extremely cold weather is normal winter fare, pipes freeze and cause all kinds of problems. Pipes freeze when they’re exposed to freezing weather for a few days. Problems come up when frozen pipes thaw; cold weather makes pipes brittle and frozen water has less volume than running water. The pipe breaks due to the cold, water starts running and – bingo – you’ve got a mess on your hands.
Pipes can freeze in 2 main areas – water coming in and water going out. You know water coming in is frozen because nothing comes out the tap. Frozen outgoing pipes from showers, toilets and sinks are a bigger problem because these will back up into the house; that’s the reason it’s always recommended to keep a little water dripping into the sinks and opening the cabinet doors under the sink … running water doesn’t freeze as easily as standing water.
So now, you’ve discovered, one way or a smelly other, you’ve got frozen pipes. How do you deal with it? Ethan, an elementary school teacher in Boston, tells of taking a vacation in northern New Hampshire one winter. He and his family arrived at the home they had rented to discover, in a most unpleasant way, frozen outgoing pipes. He and his wife spent the first day of their vacation taking turns in the crawl space under the house with a hair dryer trying to get things moving.
If you think you’ve got a leak because your pipes have frozen, the first thing you need to do is to locate the frozen area of the water pipe; most likely places are pipes running against exterior walls or where water enters the house from outside.
Keep the faucets open, even if little comes out. As you thaw the frozen pipes, the water will start moving and you don’t want it to stop anywhere along the line. Running water through the pipe will also help melt the frozen area faster.
Like Ethan did in New Hampshire, gradually heat the frozen area. If you’re inside the house, the best way to thaw pipes is by using a heating pad wrapped around the pipe or a hair dryer. You need to be careful, though, to protect against electrocution. Make sure to use a GFCI outlet and that you’re not standing on ice or in water. If there’s standing ice or water, put a board or other hard surface under you.
Don’t use anything that puts out a huge amount of heat, like a blowtorch, kerosene or propane heater, charcoal or propane grill or other open flame. These are too hot and will cause the water to boil when it thaws, leading to an even bigger problem. Open flames also present a high risk of fire and carbon monoxide poisoning inside the home, so use a gentler, slower but more effective manner of warming the pipes. Continue to apply the heat until full water pressure is restored.
If you can’t locate the frozen area of pipe or you suspect it’s inaccessible, call a licensed plumber. Tomorrow, we’ll talk more about how to pick a good plumber.