If your water pipes freeze during cold weather months, they can burst, flooding your home with water and causing thousands in damage, not to mention the loss of irreplaceable items and the headaches of insurance claims. Read on to learn how to unfreeze pipes, so hopefully, you’ll never face this winter plumbing emergency, which is, unfortunately, quite common.
Why Do Pipes Freeze?
Pipes freeze during colder weather when the temperature around the pipe becomes too low. You don’t even have to have freezing temperatures to experience frozen pipes, although that is certainly a factor.
Frozen pipes can occur both inside and outside the home. If the water inside a pipe freezes too much, it expands to the point where the pipe can no longer contain it, and the pipe bursts. This can result in catastrophic water damage and huge plumbing repairs, so obviously you want to try to prevent frozen pipes whenever possible.
There are multiple reasons why pipes can freeze in your home:
- Poor insulation around the pipe or in the room where the pipe is housed
- Low heat or no heat at all inside the house
- High wind chill factor during cold weather
- Location of pipes next to exterior walls, floors, and ceilings
- Open garage door
- Unoccupied home or pipes left unused for a long stretch of time
- Unplugged holes or cracks where cold air comes in around the pipes in the wall or floor
- Homes unprepared for cold weather, typically in warmer climates that rarely experience freezing temperatures and may have more piping on the exterior of the home, such as in a crawl space under the house
How Do You Know If a Pipe Is Frozen?
Ideally, you want to try to catch a frozen pipe before it completely fills with ice and before it is at risk of bursting. So, how do you know if a pipe is frozen? There are multiple clues that let you know a pipe is beginning to freeze or has already frozen.
No water exiting the pipe
This is a very common way for homeowners to identify a frozen pipe. When the pipe becomes blocked by ice, if you turn on the faucet no water can make its way through the pipe to the spigot or the shower head. Sometimes you might notice just a slight drip coming out of the faucet when the pipe is almost but not completely blocked by ice.
Frost appearing on the exterior of the pipe
When frost appears on the outside of your pipes, you know that they are beginning to freeze and may even be totally frozen inside. This will often happen if moisture builds up on the outside of a pipe that has ice on the interior and cold air moving across the exterior.
Sometimes a drain will not work properly, especially if the drain sends water through a pipe before it enters the home’s water disposal or sewer system.
Water backing up in appliances
Water can also back up inside your appliances. Commonly, you’ll find water in the bottom of the dishwasher or water accumulating in the clothes washer, and no amount of spinning will remove the excess water. You may also notice poorly cleaned dishes and clothing or undissolved detergent if your dishwasher or clothes washer have ice built up somewhere in the pipes that either supply the appliance or allow it to drain. If you have a refrigerator that dispenses water or ice, that appliance can malfunction as well.
Unpleasant smells coming from a drain or faucet
Normally you don’t notice unpleasant odors that may emanate from a drain or a faucet because they go back down into the plumbing system. However, if a pipe is blocked with ice, the odor has nowhere to go, and it will escape into the room where you can smell it.
A bulge in the pipe
If you see a bulge in the pipe, that usually means ice is present in the pipe and is expanding in a dangerous way. If you can’t unfreeze the pipe quickly, this is the time to call your emergency plumber (see below).
A leak or pooling water
If you see water pooling or notice a leak, you may have a cracked pipe that luckily hasn’t burst yet. If you suspect you have a leak and want to confirm it, a plumber can use leak detection techniques to help you make the determination.
How Do You Unfreeze Pipes?
Once you have done the detective work above to locate a frozen pipe, you may be able to unfreeze it using several different methods.
Always open both the cold and hot water taps feeding any pipe you attempt to unfreeze. This will reduce pressure in the plumbing system and give the water someplace to go once the ice begins to thaw.
If you have easy access to a pipe, such as one that is exposed in a basement or garage or under a sink, you may be in luck. You can try several heat-generating devices to try to thaw the pipe quickly and easily. A hair dryer is probably your best friend in this situation. With the dryer on, point the hair dryer at the pipe starting closest to the faucet.
A portable space heater or heat lamp, such as those used for plants or small animals, can be used like the hair dryer. Simply place them as close to the pipe as you safely can and allow the heat to thaw the pipe.
You can purchase electrical heating tape at hardware stores and similar places. This is a type of heated tape that once wrapped around the pipe or placed directly on the pipe distributes heat evenly, thawing ice inside.
Another easy solution, provided your water is running, is to use hot towels. Dip a towel in hot water and then place it around the pipe and let the heat from the towel radiate to the pipe and melt the ice inside.
If the frozen pipe is located in an enclosed space, like inside a wall, the unfreezing job is a little trickier but can still be done. First, try turning up the heat in your house. Sometimes cranking up the thermostat is enough to warm up the ambient temperature and get the ice melting.
An infrared lamp placed in front of the wall where the pipe is located may warm up the area sufficiently to melt any ice inside pipes nearby. You may have to move the infrared lamp around a bit to cover the entire portion of the wall under which the pipe is located.
If you’re a do-it-yourselfer and have experience with home repair and construction, you may be able to cut a section of the wall and remove it to expose the pipe underneath. Then you can use the methods suggested above for thawing exposed pipes.
Always be careful when using electrical devices in wet areas, and err on the side of caution. Never use open flames to try to thaw pipes, as this can pose a fire risk to your home.
Is There a Way to Prevent Frozen Pipes?
Of course, the best way to avoid a frozen pipe emergency is to prevent frozen pipes in the first place. Whenever possible, don’t wait until the winter to develop a strategy for preventing frozen pipes.
One of the simplest remedies is to insulate your pipes and your house properly. Add insulation to walls and ceilings where you can, and this will have the added benefit of keeping those rooms warmer during the winter as well.
You can insulate pipes individually by wrapping them in pipe insulation material that is affordable and easily found at home supply stores, hardware stores, and plumbing stores. For tough-to-reach areas or plumbing with lots of bends or turns, you can purchase insulating tape that accomplishes the same thing.
Other ways to prevent frozen pipes include:
- Open the cabinet doors under your sink in the bathroom or kitchen during very cold weather to allow the room to warm the area around the pipes.
- Keep your home temperature at a steady level, and don’t turn down your thermostat too low.
- Use space heaters or similar devices in cold rooms of the house.
- Be sure to keep your garage door closed other than when you were coming and going
- Allow the water to drip slightly in problem faucets to make it harder to freeze.
- Always keep vacation and second homes heated during the winter, or drain the pipes and shut off the water supply to the dwelling.
- Disconnect exterior items like garden hoses from your outdoor water spigots in the fall before cold weather sets in.
- Consult a professional plumber to insulate pipes that you can’t reach inside the wall or behind appliances like your dishwasher, clothes washer or refrigerator.
What If You Can’t Unfreeze a Pipe?
If your attempt to unfreeze a pipe is unsuccessful, don’t wait too long to call a professional plumber for assistance. It’s never worth risking your home and the water damage that can ensue from a burst pipe just to save a few dollars.
If possible, while you’re waiting for the plumber to arrive, turn off the water supply to the house, so that no new water can enter the pipes. If you’re not sure where your shutoff valve is located, look near the water meter or your hot water boiler.
If you can’t locate the main shut off valve, try using the smaller valves near their respective fixtures or appliances. You’re probably familiar with the little valves under your toilet, under your sink, or in the vicinity of your clothes washer.
San Diego Pipelining is here to help you with frozen pipe emergencies and other plumbing needs. Contact us today with any of your plumbing questions, and keep our number handy for winter plumbing emergencies. Hopefully, with the tips listed above, you won’t need us, but we’re always here in case you do.