Ah, yes…it’s that time of year again! When the temperature drops below freezing, one of the scariest things that can happen to homeowners is a burst water pipe. When water freezes, it expands. Your home’s water pipes always contain a certain amount of water within them…water that will freeze when the mercury falls below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. The expanded water can exert up to 2000 pounds of pressure per square inch against the sides of your pipes, causing them to burst. When a pipe bursts, up to several hundred gallons of cold, cold water can drain into your house EACH HOUR. Imagine the thousands of dollars of damage a burst pipe can do!
The easiest way to avoid the hassle and expense of burst water pipes is to prevent them from freezing in the first place. When the forecast calls for low temperatures, allow a thin trickle of water to flow from your faucets at all times. The small uptick in your water bill will be far less expensive than the repairs resulting from burst pipes. Open the cabinet doors that hide the pipes in your kitchen and bathroom, exposing the pipes to the warmer air in these (usually) well-heated rooms.
If your pipes do happen to freeze, and have not yet burst, the immediate course of action is to defrost them…STAT.
You first need to determine where the problem starts. Turn on every faucet in the house to see which ones are producing water, and which are not. If none of your faucets are producing water, more than likely the issue is with one of the main thruways. If some are producing water and others aren’t, you’ll only need to treat individual pipes. Make sure you leave each of the affected the faucets open, because the water will need somewhere to go once the pipes begin to defrost.
The most likely areas for frozen pipes are ones with reduced insulation, such as pipes in basements, crawlspaces, attics, or areas close to concrete or cold air vents. You’ll also want to check any outdoor pipes you have, although many of these have systems in place to reduce the amount of standing water remaining in the pipes.
Once you’ve identified the problem pipes, search for cracks or leaks. If you find them, shut off the main water supply immediately and call a professional plumber. This is a bigger job than most homeowners can handle alone.
If there are no cracks or leaks, you can use one of the following methods to heat the pipe:
Hair Dryer – Keep it moving and do not place the nozzle directly on the pipe.
Heat Tape – Electrical heat tape is available at most hardware stores. Wrap the tape in a single layer around the length of the frozen pipe, then plug it into a power source. The tape contains heating elements that help defrost the pipes when turned on.
Heating Units – Warm up the air near the pipes using space heaters, bare incandescent light bulbs, infrared lights or heat lamps. Never use blow torches, as they are much too hot, and will easily damage pipes. Make sure none of the heating elements or units actually touch the pipes. You can drape blankets or tarps on the pipes to help warm them as well, but make sure these stay far away from the heating units. You can also wrap pipes in hot, moist towels or blankets without other heating units nearby, but make sure to remove them once they begin to cool down. Cold, wet towels or blankets will promote refreezing.
Salt and Water – If you have some bottled water left over from your summer hurricane kit, now is the time to heat it up a bit. Spoon some salt into the frozen drains and add the heated water a bit at a time. Be careful not to make the water too hot, as the rapid change in temperature can also burst a pipe.
If you find that the affected pipes are not within easy reach, you’ll have a tougher time thawing them, but it can be done. If the pipe is behind a wall, the easiest answer is to turn up the heat within the house up to 76 to 80 degrees and hope that the warmer air unplugs the pipe. Open closet and room doors to allow the warmer air to reach all areas of the house. This method defrosts pipes rather slowly, as it often takes two to three hours to raise the temperature enough to dislodge the ice.
If you feel you need to act more quickly, you may need to cut a hole in the wall to access the frozen pipe. Once you’re sure you have the right pipe, cut a hole with a keyhole saw and use one of the heating methods described above to defrost the pipe.
Luckily, for those of us in the southern states, we don’t see cold-weather conditions strong enough to freeze our pipes as often as other areas of the country. However, this happy circumstance can work against us; we often don’t realize that cold nights can lead to blocked faucets, burst pipes and potential property damage. The team at Ernest Signature Custom Homes wants everyone to be safe and warm this winter; we’re always looking for helpful information to share that will protect our homeowners – both present and future!