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Spotting A Plumbing or Heating Emergency Is Half The Battle

In cold weather, it’s sometimes difficult to know exactly when you’re dealing with a plumbing or heating emergency. Time is always precious, but when the temperature drops, it’s more important than ever to recognize and respond to it immediately. So how can you spot plumbing and heating emergencies?

Plumbing emergencies

The most likely plumbing emergency you’ll encounter in the winter is a frozen pipe. The classic symptom you’re looking for is the absence of water when you open a tap. If you turn on your water and nothing comes out, you need to take action immediately.

Ice takes up about 10% more room than water does, and ice can exert about 2,000 pounds-per-square-inch of pressure on a pipe, so this is one situation where a delayed response can be devastating. As soon as you notice that you have no water at a fixture, begin searching immediately for the frozen section of pipe. Telltale signs of trouble include:

deformed sections of pipe
frosted pipes
running water

If your frozen pipe has already burst, turn off the water at the nearest local shut-off valve, or if necessary, at the main valve. This situation requires immediate attention by a licensed plumber. Dry as much of the water as you can and remove any items from the area that may obstruct the repair work.

If your pipe is deformed or frosted, but has not yet burst, you can attempt to thaw the pipe. Don’t use a torch or other open flame to warm the pipe. Instead, open the closest tap and warm the pipe from the tap back to the frozen section using a hairdryer, heat tape, or an incandescent bulb. Keep in mind that some frozen pipes don’t begin to leak until they have thawed and the pipe is repressurized. If this happens, contact a plumber to replace the damaged section of pipe.

Heating emergencies

The first obvious sign of a heating emergency is not having any heat! If your thermostat has triggered your system, but your system isn’t producing heat, you could be looking at any number of problems. Check the breakers (or fuses) for the electrical portion of your heating system to ensure that they’re working. If not, reset the breaker or replace the fuse and check the system for proper operation. If your system triggers the breaker or fuse again, contact a licensed heating contractor immediately.

If your breaker is intact but your furnace will not start, you may need to relight the pilot light, especially if your furnace is older and does not have an electronic ignition. Note that in high wind conditions, downdrafts in the chimney can cause the pilot light to extinguish repeatedly.

If your system has a pilot light, you should have an instruction sticker that explains how to light the pilot light. Usually, you’ll find a button that manually opens the gas valve for the pilot light. Even after the pilot light is lit, you’ll need to hold the gas valve open until the thermocouple heats enough to stay open on its own. Monitor the pilot light to ensure that it remains lit. If your system cannot maintain the pilot light, you may need a new thermocouple.

If you have a high efficiency furnace, and the furnace will not turn on, check the intake port (outside) to make sure it is free of frost, snow, ice and other obstructions. If the furnace cannot draw in fresh air, the system will not turn on. Clear any obstructions to see if that allows the system to start. If not, contact a licensed heating professional immediately.

One last note – if your home is equipped with carbon monoxide detectors and your CO monitor alarms, treat this situation as an emergency. Vent your home by opening the windows and remove all persons and pets from your home immediately. A carbon monoxide leak is more than a heating problem; it can also be a medical emergency. Call 911 immediately at let the dispatcher know that your CO monitor has detected a problem. After you vacate the home, contact a licensed heating professional to correct the problem.

If you need assistance with a heating or plumbing emergency, contact Boston Standard Plumbing at (617) 288-2911 anytime. We offer 24-hour emergency service, and when you call us after hours, you will talk to a member of the Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating staff. We’re well equipped to handle all of your plumbing and heating emergencies, no matter when they crop up.