Tips for Dealing with Frozen Pipes

January’s record-setting cold has caused problems with frozen water pipes for many people. While we hope the rest of the winter will be kinder, it’s best to know what to do before you have an emergency.

Why are frozen pipes bad?

When ice forms inside a pipe it expands and may crack the pipe. When the ice thaws, the broken pipe can leak badly, gushing water inside a wall or ceiling. If undetected, these leaks can damage walls, floors, ceilings, electrical systems — just about every part of your house.

Which pipes are most at risk?

Any pipe that passes by an uninsulated wall, basement, or attic may be at risk. Even pipes inside kitchen or bathroom cabinets may freeze, especially if the wall behind the cabinets is not well insulated.

How do I prevent frozen pipes?

There are several steps you can take to keep pipes from freezing in the first place:

  • If you are going out of town for an extended period, turn off the water to your home. After turning off the main valve, open faucets to empty water out of the pipes.
  • Wrap insulation sleeves (available at hardwares and home centers) around pipes that run through uninsulated areas.
  • During cold spells, open lower cabinet doors in kitchens and bathrooms to allow heat to enter the cabinet.

If you think there is danger of your pipes freezing, open faucets slightly to allow a trickle of water to flow out constantly. Running water is slower to freeze than standing water.

How can I tell if pipes are frozen?

If you turn on a faucet and no water or only a trickle comes out, and other faucets are working normally, the pipe serving the non-working faucet may be frozen.

How do I thaw a frozen pipe?

First, turn off the water supply to the pipe. If there is not a shutoff valve for the individual pipe, you may need to turn off the water for the whole house. Open the faucet served by the frozen pipe to take the pressure off the pipe.

Check the pipe to see if it is obviously cracked or split. If so, you will probably want to call a plumber to minimize damage when the frozen pipe thaws and begins gushing water.

To thaw the pipe, work from the faucet toward the frozen area.

DO NOT use a blowtorch or other open flame to thaw a pipe! Many people have accidentally caused fires that cause more damage than a burst pipe.

You can use a hair dryer, space heater, or rags or towels wrapped around the pipe with hot water poured onto them from a teakettle. If you use a hairdryer, remember that the motor will burn out if you run it continuously for long periods. Run it for 5-10 minutes, then turn if off to let the motor cool.