Preventing and Repairing Frozen Pipes
By Jim Sulski
Summary: There are many things a homeowner
can do to keep there pipes from freezing: let water drip, use a heater, and
insulate pipes. Jim gives tips on how to keep your pipes working smoothly and
how to carefully thaw a pipe once it is frozen.
During the winter months, a frozen water pipe can mean big trouble. The real
problem occurs when a pipe freezes up completely, the water expands and the
pipe bursts or cracks because of the pressure.
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Then, when the temperature around the pipe rises and the ice melts, you've
got a leaky pipe on your hands.
The problem is compounded when the pipe is located in a wall. You’ve
not only got to replace the pipe but repair the wall as well.
When are pipes most likely to freeze? Watch out on the very coldest days, when
wind chill factors are subzero. Also, if the pipes are in an outer wall, they’re
much more likely to freeze than pipes located in the interior walls of your
Most pipe problems occur in homes older than 20 years or so, where insulation
is poor. Also, older homes tend to have more water pipes located in exterior
wall cavities rather than in interior wall spaces.
Usually, pipes in exterior walls or in basements or crawlspaces are the most
susceptible to freezing up because they come in contact with cold air. Pipes
can also freeze if a heating system fails and temperatures in the home drop.
There are several things a do-it-yourselfer can do to help prevent pipe freezing.
For example, if you have a pipe that freezes up each year, as a stopgap measure
you can simply let water trickle out of a connecting faucet during extremely
cold periods. That solution, however, wastes both water and energy.
Another temporary measure is to keep the pipes warm with a portable heater,
a 100-watt light bulb or a heat lamp. As a safety precaution, never leave these
heaters unattended, especially at night.
You can also try to keep the rooms where pipe problems occur well-heated by
opening vents or doors. Pipes in basements and garages can also be kept warmer
by opening or adding heat vents.
If you have a crawlspace under your home, make sure that all vents to the outside
are closed for the winter. It's also worthwhile to insulate pipes in the crawlspace
A more permanent solution is to insulate the pipes. But while insulation may
reduce the chances of freezing, there is no guarantee a freeze won't occur.
If pipes are in an exterior wall, you can insulate the wall cavities to reduce
the chances of freezing. On older homes, insulation can sometimes be forced
or blown into the cavities through openings in the attic or basement.
Insulation bats and blankets placed on the exterior of a home can also help.
Another possible solution are electric heat tapes that wrap around pipes.
The tapes, which resemble extension cords, emit a small amount of heat when
plugged in. Plumbing experts caution that heat tapes must be installed properly
to avoid possible fire hazards.
An even more permanent solution is to move the susceptible pipes so that they
aren`t exposed to cold air. This may require removing pipes from the cavities
of exterior walls and placing them in interior walls. Or replacing those pipes
with new pipes in interior walls and killing the water flow to the old pipes.
Unless you have experience with plumbing, such work is usually best left to
If a pipe does freeze up, the flow of water will stop from a connecting faucet.
First, check all the faucets in the home. If they all show a decreased flow
or have stopped flowing, it means there's a pressure problem with the main water
If only one or two faucets are showing a decreased flow, the problem can be
traced to the pipe supplying that faucet.
There are a number of steps you can take to thaw the water in the pipe. First,
check to make sure the pipe hasn`t burst or sprung a small leak. If it has,
shut off the water and have the leak repaired.
Even a small leak can cause major damage, so have the leak repaired immediately.
If there are no leaks, there are several ways to melt the ice in the pipe:
If the pipe is exposed, you can use a heat source, such as a blow dryer or heat
gun to warm the pipe. First, close the shutoff valve (or the water main) to
the pipe and open a faucet to allow the water to run out. Work the heat source
from the open faucet back to the frozen area.
Make sure the electrical appliance you're using is grounded properly and wear
rubber gloves to reduce the risk of shock. And never touch the pipe while you're
operating the electrical appliance.
Take your time heating the pipe because overheating can make the water boil
and possibly burst the pipe. When the ice begins to melt, water will trickle
freely out of the faucet. When the pipe is finally clear, reopen the shutoff
valve and flush the pipe for a few minutes.
Don't use a propane torch on a frozen pipe for a number of reasons: The flame
can ignite nearby combustible materials; it may melt the joints on copper pipe;
and it may overheat the water in the pipe, causing the pipe to burst. And never
use a torch on plastic pipe.
You can also immerse towels in hot to boiling water and wrap them around the
exposed pipe. You can concentrate a heat lamp on the exposed pipe or wrap it
in a waterproof electric blanket. Or, you can wrap the pipe with the above-
mentioned heat tape. Again, it will take some time to melt the ice. One other
idea is to use a hair dryer to gently heat the pipe.
If the pipe is not exposed, check for any water damage on the nearby wall.
If there is no evidence of leaks, you can try heating the wall with a heat lamp
or small portable heater. Again, shut off the flow of water to that line and
leave faucets open.
Remember, never leave heat lamps or heaters unattended. You wouldn’t
want to deal with a fire while you’re trying to keep your pipes from freezing.
© by Jim Sulski. All rights reserved. January 24, 2005.
NOTE: This column is distributed by Real Estate Matters Syndicate,
PO Box 366, Glencoe, Illinois, 60022. This column may not be resold, reprinted,
resyndicated or redistributed without written permission from the publisher.
© 2005 by Ilyce R. Glink. Distributed by Real Estate Matters Syndicate.