The Ultimate Guide to Preventing Frozen Pipes & Thawing Frozen Pipes
Brrrrrrr! It's cold outside! When temps plummet below freezing, pipes become vulnerable, especially for homes built in the South where temperatures typically stay above 32 degrees. Frozen pipes can quickly turn into a very expensive plumbing problem, so read on to learn how to prevent pipes from freezing, how to thaw pipes if they do freeze, and how to make sure the pipes you thawed did not crack, resulting in a leak.
How to Prevent Pipes from Freezing
Many homes are not built to withstand the cold, and some pipes are more vulnerable than others. In most cases, vulnerable pipes are located:
- In outdoor areas (hose bibs, water lines to irrigation systems, wells or pools)
- In unheated areas such as the garage, attic, crawl space or basement
- In cabinets, where they do not get enough heat because cabinet doors remain closed (under the kitchen or bathroom sink)
- Uninsulated exterior walls
Once you've determined what pipes may be susceptible to freezing, you will want to take action to protect those pipes.
Action You Can Take Right Now
If you were caught by surprise and are dealing with low temps unexpectedly, you can prevent pipes from freezing by doing the following:
- Open cabinets. This allows the warm air to circulate around pipes.
- Open the door to the attic to allow warm air to move up (if you have pipes in the attic).
- Let water trickle from faucets. The flowing water will prevent pipes from freezing. The small amount of water you waste is much less than the cost of a plumbing repair or the amount of water that will escape if a pipe bursts.
While these tricks may get you through a handful of cold nights, it's best to preemptively insulate pipes and winterize your home before temps plunge. See the next two sections for details and make time to protect your pipes long term.
How to Insulate Pipes
Insulating pipes is the best way to prevent pipes from freezing. Take the following steps:
1. After you've identified what pipes need insulation, visit the hardware store and pick up your insulating material of choice. You can use:
- Tubular sleeve insulation
- Fiberglass insulation
- Duct tape
- Foil insulation tape
- Heating blanket tape (which will need to be plugged in to an electrical source, but works great for exposed pipes and wells)
You can also use newspaper and duct tape in a pinch.
2. Prep the pipes. A simple wipe down with soapy water (mild dishwasher detergent in warm water) will do.
3. Wrap the pipes, being sure to cover all exposed surfaces. Secure the edges and corners with duct tape. It doesn't have to look pretty, but you do want to be thorough. If you use fiberglass insulation, wrap the insulation with sheets of plastic or duct tape as well.
Ta-da! You're done!
Other Winterizing Efforts
If you have pipes in your crawl space, you may want to:
- Insulate the outer walls of your crawl space with foam board
- Close the vents (just during the freeze; crawl spaces need to breathe)
- Run a very low-temp space heater on the lowest setting in the crawl space (away from all flammable materials)
If you have a well, you will want to:
- Insulate the exposed pipes
- Install a low-watt heat lamp designed for this purpose
- Cover the well to keep heat inside and cold out (look for fiberglass rocks or well covers at the hardware store)
If you have an irrigation system or pool/pond lines, you will want to:
- Drain the lines
- Use the blow out method to remove remaining water from the lines
In general, if you don't have time to insulate pipes, consider using heat tape, a heat lamp or a low-watt bulb to heat the space, but be mindful of fire hazards and install with care. Read about two tragic fires that took place in January 2018 because people were not careful when thawing frozen pipes. Never use a blow torch or a heat gun when thawing pipes, and always be mindful when using a heat lamp.
How to Tell If Your Pipes Are Frozen
Uh, oh! Suspect it might be too late? Here's how to figure out if you've got a frozen pipe (and what segment of the pipe is frozen):
If you don't have any running water, or you turn on the water and only a trickle comes out of the faucet, bingo—you know you have a frozen pipe problem.
Now you have to figure out where, in the hundreds of feet of pipes, the frozen section lies. As you might expect, the more exposed the pipe, the more likely it is to freeze. Therefore, look first under sinks, in the crawl space or basement, in the attic, along the main pipeline to and from your yard, and any other exterior pipes.
Visual cues include frost or condensation.
You can also feel your way to finding a frozen pipe section. Touch the pipes. The frozen section will be considerably colder.
If one faucet is fine and other isn’t, the pipe is frozen somewhere between the main line and that room’s piping. If the faucets work on one floor but not another, the frozen pipe is located where the floors separate.
If no faucets work, a section of the pipe near the main water line may be frozen. Can't find the cold section of pipe? It's probably hidden in the wall or yard.
Outdoor water lines can be trickier to catch because you probably don't use the pipes leading to a pool or hot tub, irrigation systems or outdoor hoses during the winter. Inspect outdoor lines once in a while if temps stay low.
How to Thaw Frozen Pipes
Found the section that's frozen? Now it's time to carefully thaw the pipe without causing it to burst. Try the following:
- Aim a hair dryer on low or medium (not high) heat at the section of pipe
- Run a space heater on low—but be careful not to place it too close to the pipe
- Wrap the pipe with towels dipped in warm water (you’ll need to replace them periodically)
- Wrap the pipe with a heating pad on low or medium (not high)
Every once in a while, try running the faucet to see if you've been successful. When water is flowing once again, take steps to prevent the pipe from freezing again!
How to Tell if a Frozen Pipe Cracked
The danger of frozen pipes is cracking. Water expands when frozen, and pipes may crack under the pressure of the expanding water.
Sometimes a burst pipe results in a tremendous flow of water. If you see a burst pipe, turn off the water (learn how to find your main water line shut off valve here) and call a plumber right away.
Other signs of a leak include:
- The sound of rushing water inside your wall or floor
- Hot or cold spots inside the wall or floor
- Water stains on the wall or ceiling
Unfortunately, a lot of cracked pipes happen in hidden places where you can't see evidence of the leak. After thawing your pipes, you will want to keep an eye on your water bill. If you see a water bill spike, there's a very good chance you've got a hidden leak. A plumber will use leak detection equipment to locate the leak.
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