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Dealing with frozen pipes

Dealing with frozen pipes

Jan 16, 2014

Polar vortex?  Bi-polar weather?  Frozen pipes – no matter how well you think you have winterized your home, you are still susceptible to frozen pipes.  Tonight’s evening news reported that there have been over 200 calls to the fire department in Prince George’s county alone about frozen pipes.  Water is tricky because it expands as it freezes.

The expansion puts pressure on the pipes that are holding it and could easily cause the pipes to break. The best prevention against freezing pipes is to make sure that all outdoor hoses are removed from faucets and that the water still in the faucet is drained.  Close all inside valves, and insulate the outdoor faucets.  You can find material at the hardware store that will do the job. Check around the house for other water supply lines that are unheated.

When the weather is very cold outdoors, let the cold water drip from the faucet that feeds off the exposed pipes.  Even running a trickle of water helps prevent pipes from freezing. Keep your thermostat at the same temperature for both day and night.  It is risky to turn the heat down at night in the event the temperature drops and freezes a pipe, causing it to break. In the freezing weather we have been experiencing, if you turn on a faucet and you only get a drip, you are probably looking at a frozen pipe.

To thaw frozen water pipes, first find where the frozen area of the pipe is located.  Usually you will find these pipes running against exterior walls or where the water comes in to your home through the foundation. Make sure the main water valve is open because as the ice begins to melt, it will flow through the frozen area.  As the water starts to really flow from your faucet, make sure that you check on all other faucets for cracks and leaks. Conventional wisdom says the best way to handle a frozen pipe is time and patience.  As the temperature rises, the water will begin to melt.  I recently had no water for 2 days and finally called in a plumber who aggressively melted the ice.

Should you wish to tackle the job yourself, here’s a list of options for thawing frozen pipes.

  • Don’t get crazy out there with blow torches and portable space heaters.
  • My first choice is to always call in a professional.  He or she has seen hundreds of frozen pipes and is the best source to get it done as quickly, safely, and as cheaply as possible.
  • Turn off the main water valve to your home, and leave the faucets open so that any steam produced by the thawing process will be able to escape.   Make sure the pipe is not cracked.
  • Do not use any electric heater or hair dryer applied directly to the piping because any leaking water could cause electrocution.
  • It is preferable to have two people to handle turning the water back on:  one person slowly turning the water on, and the other person walking around the house to make sure there are no leaks at other faucets.

If you do not want to wait for a professional, begin the thawing process in any of the one options:

  • The safest pipe thawing method is to use hot water.  Start at the faucet and work back to the end of the frozen section. Wrap a heavy towel or burlap bag around the pipe and hold the heat against it.  As you melt ice, water and steam will come out of the open faucet.  Put a bucket under the pipe to catch running water, then pour the boiling water over a towel.  Be careful not to scald yourself.
  • A more dangerous option is to try to thaw frozen pipes with a torch.  This is an option that should be approached with an abundance of caution.  You must be extremely careful to keep the torch from damaging or igniting the wall behind you.  Never  use the torch or other direct high heat on plastic pipes. Again, because of the inherent danger of these methods, I personally would hire a plumber who knew what he was doing.  I would rather pay for the services of a professional than risk damage to my home and its contents.
  • A safer method is to use a hair dryer or heat lamp to melt the water.  This takes longer but is certainly a safer method.

After the water is running again, and you were lucky if the pipes did not burst, call in a professional to look over the pipes that were involved to see if they need to be repaired or replaced. Make sure that you know where the main water valve is located and that it is in good condition in case you need to shut it off quickly, particularly in the case of an emergency such as a busted pipe.

If you are planning a winter vacation, turn off the main water valve to your home.  Leave the heat on and set it no lower than 60. In freezing weather, it would be valuable to have a neighbor stop by every day to make sure all is well in your absence.

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