An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and that’s especially true when it comes to plumbing. One of the worst residential plumbing emergencies to contend with is a frozen pipe. How can you recognize a frozen pipe and what should you do if one or more of your pipes freeze?
You can suspect a frozen pipe in cold weather if you open a tap and nothing comes out. You may also see bulges in a pipe, or around joints or valves. Water expands as it freezes, and it can exert enormous pressure on a pipe. Eventually, the pipe will give way, and split. Sometimes pipes are hidden in walls, and that will make a visual diagnosis much harder. The most vulnerable pipes are those in outside walls.
So what can you do to prevent frozen pipes, and how should you respond if you have one?
Don’t let your pipes freeze. Avoiding a frozen pipe is the ideal, so that’s where we’ll start. If you know in advance that the outside temperature will drop below freezing, you should also know that any pipes you have in outside walls, unheated crawl spaces and in basements are vulnerable. Take the following steps to avoid this cold-weather plumbing disaster.
Insulate your pipes. Keep an eye on your hot water pipes. Heated water can be softer than cold water, so it will freeze faster than cold water will. As part of your winterization plans, insulate your water pipes to help them retain heat and resist freezing. Pipe insulation is inexpensive, readily available at home improvement stores, and requires no tools or skills to install.
Open a tap. Moving water doesn’t freeze as easily as standing water does. If you think a pipe is in imminent danger of freezing or has a history of freezing, a trickle of water flowing through the pipe is often enough to ride out the storm. How big should your water stream be? A flow the size of a Number 2 pencil should do the trick. You might wince at “wasting” that amount of water, but a slightly elevated water bill is much cheaper than an emergency plumbing repair.
Warm things up. Raise the temperature in your home, or around the vulnerable pipe(s). Open base cabinet doors, circulate warm air into the vulnerable space, use a space heater and turn up your furnace or boiler.
If, despite your best efforts, you end up with a frozen pipe, what should you do?
Shut down. If a pipe is already showing signs of freezing, shut off the water to the affected leg. (Nothing good will come out of leaving the water on.) Turning the water off will allow you to minimize the impending water damage that can result when the pipe is thawed.
Thaw safely. Open a tap on the frozen run, and use an incandescent light bulb or a hairdryer to warm the pipe. You can also safely use a portable steam cleaner. Start at the open tap and work your way back to the trouble spot. If you start thawing at Ground Zero, the melted water may be stuck behind an ice plug, and may not have a way to exit the pipe.
Do not use direct electrical resistance, a welding torch or other open flame to thaw a pipe. These methods often result in accidental house fires and can cause other personal injuries.
Inspect. Take a very careful look at the pipe once you have thawed it and before you turn the water back on. Very small splits and cracks may have occurred in the pipe, and these will leak and cause water damage if you repressurize the pipe. If you see a split, bulge or crack, don’t even turn the water back on. You’ll need to replace the damaged pipe.
Test. If no obvious damage is visible, test any shut-off valves and pipe joints by turning the water back on. (Have a helper standing by to turn the water off immediately if a leak in the joint or valve has occurred.) If a joint or valve leaks, call a plumber to repair or replace the affected joint(s) or valves.
Replace. Even if the pipe seems intact, consider having a successfully thawed pipe replaced. The pressure from ice is enormous, and the experience of being frozen and thawed can significantly weaken the pipe. In the best case, you’ve converted a frozen pipe from a plumbing emergency to a routine repair that can be scheduled at your convenience. If you don’t replace the damaged (but still intact) pipe, you may be setting yourself up for another plumbing emergency down the road.
Contact us a Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating at (617) 288-2911 if you encounter problems with frozen pipes. We can help you safely thaw frozen pipes and repair damaged plumbing.