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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 home.

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 as well.

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 the professionals.

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 pipe.

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.




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