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Avoiding or Managing A Frozen Pipe

This item is based on a post that originally appeared on this blog on January 15, 2010. These tips are worth keeping in mind as you deal with the snow and cold in Boston this weekend!

All Boston homeowners worry about the possibility of frozen pipes in the winter and with good reason. Frozen pipes can lead to expensive plumbing repairs, property damage, and other disasters like mold growth. Ice in a residential plumbing pipe can exert more than 2,000 psi of pressure. Your pipes aren’t designed to handle this kind of force, and they will burst. There are a few things you can do to keep your pipes in good shape in the winter, no matter how low the outside temperature may go!

First, keeping pipes thawed relies on heat. If you plan to leave your home for any length of time (even during the day while you work) do not set your thermostat lower than 62°F. Your home’s plumbing is often found encased in walls, unheated crawl spaces or in the basement of your home. Some of the heat from the living spaces and duct work in your home will help to keep these areas warm, but this type of heat will only go so far. The warmer your living space is, the warmer the unheated areas of your home will stay and the less likely you are to experience a frozen or burst pipe.

2014 Tip: In exceptional cold, don’t turn your thermostat down at all. If you can stand keeping your home heated to 68°F or 70°F, do it! Being frugal with the heat in these temperatures is false economy! Also, open the doors to any sink base cabinets in your home to allow heated air to circulate around the source pipes for your sinks.

Insulate the pipes in your home. This will help keep the pipes warmer and will also help prevent radiant heat loss along your hot water pipes. Pipes in and near outside walls and crawlspaces are the most likely candidates for freezing so be sure to keep these as warm as possible.

2014 Tip: Open the taps on any faucet or fixture whose pipes are contained in your home’s outside walls. Create a stream about the size of a #2 pencil. Pipes on outside walls are at a much higher risk of freezing than the pipes on the inside walls of your home.

If a pipe in your home has frozen but has not yet burst, you can thaw it out. Do not use any type of open flame (such as a torch) to melt the ice. This creates a high risk of fire, as well as a high risk of personal injury. Open the tap and locate the frozen area. This area may be frosted over on the outside due to condensation. The pipe may also be deformed in the critical spot. Heat the pipe from the tap back toward the frozen spot. You want to clear out the pipe, and if you start from the frozen point, the newly melted water may have nowhere to go.

2014 Tip: Hot water pipes freeze faster than cold water pipes do. Your hot water tank removes minerals from the water, which softens it and allows it to freeze more quickly. If you’ve got a hot water pipe on or near an outside wall, drip it when the temperature drops!

You can heat exposed pipes using a hair dryer, an incandescent or infrared light, or a space heater. Use foil, a cookie sheet or rolled aluminum behind the pipe to reflect heat evenly around the pipe. You can also use “heat tape” to help warm up the pipes. If your frozen piping is below a sink, open the doors to the base cabinet and circulate warmer air around the pipes.

If your pipe is unexposed, you may need to remove drywall or plaster to expose the pipe. If you don’t want to do that, turn up the heat in the home and wait or use an infrared heat source to help warm the hidden pipes. If the pipe bursts while you’re trying to thaw it (a real possibility), turn off the water at the main shutoff immediately. At this point, you will have to expose the pipe to repair the damage and dry up the water.

If you think you may have frozen pipes or your pipes are in danger of freezing, you can call Boston Standard Plumbing at (617) 288-2911. We offer emergency plumbing services and can help you assess the condition of your plumbing, turn off the water, thaw pipes and make any needed repairs.