How to Prevent and Thaw Frozen Pipes

Jim Bauer Home Maintenance and Repair, Water Damage

For just about every homeowner, it’s one of their worst nightmares. The temperature plummets and before you know it, your pipes are frozen. It can be a stressful situation. Frozen pipes can burst, causing a surprisingly large amount of water damage, and nobody wants that headache! Here are some suggestions for identifying and fixing the situation before it causes extensive damage to your property.

Why Your Pipes Freeze

Frozen Pipes - burst water pipeMilder winters here in the south mean a lot of homes are built a little differently than they are in places like the Northeast or Midwest where winters are harsher. Unfortunately, that means when a cold front does come in, the pipes in your home are at a higher risk of freezing.

When the temperature drops, water inside your pipes can be exposed to freezing temperatures. Pipes in unheated areas like garages, crawlspaces, and attics, spaces along exterior walls, and places where pipes enter the house are most commonly affected. As water freezes it expands, first, enough to partially block water flow, and eventually enough to stop it completely. As the ice increases, the pressure on the pipe also increases, causing the pipe to crack, leak at the joint, or break.

How to Identify Frozen Pipes

If you suspect that your pipes may be frozen but aren’t quite sure how to tell, check for these signs:

Frozen Pipes - Cracked Water PipeVisible Cracks or Leaks

A pipe that has already started to crack or leak will usually be more obvious and easy to spot, especially if the pipe is visible. But if the pipe is inside a wall or is otherwise inaccessible, the problem could be a little more difficult to diagnose. You will most likely see a wet spot or even pooling water on the wall, floor, or ceiling in the area where the problem is located. Sometimes, however, water from a leak will travel to a lower spot or an opening and appear there. This may make your search a little more difficult.

Restricted or No Water Flow

Unexplained loss of water is a big sign that there may be a problem in your pipes. Faucets that produce little to no running water when turned on or toilets that don’t refill after flushing are both indicators that your pipes may be frozen. If you turn on a tap and no water comes out at all, that’s a definite red flag.

Frozen Pipes - frozen hose connection with frostFrost

Frozen pipes can actually develop a layer of frost on the outside of them. If you can see frost on any of your pipes, that may be an indicator that the water inside is frozen. You may also see your pipe bulging where the ice has built up. 

What To Do If Your Pipes Freeze

If you see any indications of frozen pipes, don’t wait. There are several things you can do on your own to help stop the leak and prevent water damage to your home. 

Take Immediate Action

If your pipes are frozen, the best and safest course of action is to turn the water to your home off at the main shutoff valve. The quicker you can remedy the situation, the better. If you don’t find and thaw the pipe immediately, the chances of it bursting are much more likely. If that happens, you’ll not only have a lot of water to clean up but potential water damage to your home as well, which can be expensive and time-consuming to repair. 

Turn Up the Heat

Immediately turn the heat up in your home while you look for the problem area. While this won’t completely thaw your pipes on its own, it may buy you some time and start the thawing process for you.

Be Prepared

Don’t start working on the pipe without taking some preventative measures. Grab a bucket and some towels to help catch water, and make sure you know where the shutoff valve is and how to get to it. If you can’t get the pipe thawed in time, or water begins to leak once it starts flowing again, you’ll be prepared. 

Frozen Pipes - sink faucet with a trickle of waterLeave the Faucet On

Leave the water on and the faucet in the affected area open. When water starts to run again, it will need a way to exit the pipe. The running water will also help thaw the rest of the ice faster. If you’re too late and a pipe has already broken, you will need to turn the water off immediately to prevent further damage.

Learn More!

Download our free informational article to learn more about how you can prevent water damage in your home this winter!

Start the Thawing Process

Use caution when thawing your frozen pipes yourself. In order for the pipes to thaw, they will have to be warmed gradually. The best method for doing so will depend on your situation. 

  • Turn up the heat in the room and expose the pipe to warm air. In the event that the pipe runs through a cabinet, open the cabinet doors. If necessary, you can use fans to pull in extra warm air from other areas.
  • If you can do so safely, using a space heater is a great way to warm the area quickly. 
  • Use a heat lamp, heating pad, electric blanket or hair dryer to warm the pipe.
  • Use microwavable heat packs or towels soaked in very warm water to warm the pipe. This method requires that at least part of your home have running water. Keep in mind, however, that towels and heat packs will lose heat quickly and will most likely need to be reapplied multiple times. While this option is more labor intensive, it could be used if there is no way to safely access electricity in the area.

Remember, always exercise caution when using electricity around water and make sure you plug into a GFCI outlet to reduce the risk of electrical shock.

Learn More: Water Damage and Electrical Safety

NEVER USE AN OPEN FLAME TO THAW FROZEN PIPES

That includes a torch, blow torch, kerosene, propane heater, or charcoal-fueled stove. The open flame is a big fire hazard. If the pipe is in an enclosed area like a crawl space, it can easily ignite insulation or other building materials. A flame could also easily apply too much heat, too quickly. The pressure inside your pipes is already building up. Too much heat could make that pressure stronger, causing your pipes to break.

Other Tips

  • Frozen Pipes - Water damaged kitchen wall under renovationIf your pipe is inaccessible, it may need to be exposed in order to thaw it. It’s not an ideal scenario, but if the pipe is hidden inside a wall and can be exposed, it is suggested that you do so. Having to repair the wall will usually be less of a problem than widespread water damage throughout your home.
  • Make sure you apply heat until the water is fully flowing again. Don’t stop the thawing process as soon as you see a few drops coming from the faucet. Heat the pipe and thaw the ice until the water flow is back to normal.
  • If one pipe is affected, there may be others. To save you a headache later, check all areas in your home with pipes and plumbing. Test all toilets, sinks and shower faucets. Look in cabinets and check the walls and floors for signs of leaking.
  • If you don’t have success or have a very large area to treat, call a professional. Plumbing professionals have machines designed for thawing that can warm the affected areas and get your water running again. If you have found water damage to your home, call an emergency restoration specialist immediately. 

How to Prevent Frozen Pipes

If frozen pipes are common in your home, or if you just want to help reduce your chances, consider one of these preventative options.

Before Freezing Temperatures Strike

  • Visually inspect any water supply lines located in unconditioned zones of the home. Look in crawl spaces, basements, or garages, where pipes are not exposed to household heating. If you notice any pipes that are uninsulated, cover them with foam pipe insulation, available at any local home center.
  • Frozen Pipes - outdoor water faucetDisconnect all outdoor garden hoses, drain any residual water from them, and store them dry. If the home is equipped with winterized outdoor faucets, turn off the water supply to each faucet at the indoor valve and drain remaining water out of the faucet. If the faucets are not winterized, purchase faucet insulation kits and install them over each faucet.
  • Seal any openings or structural gaps in walls facing the outside. This helps prevent cold outdoor air from entering wall spaces and freezing your pipes. Caulking can be used to seal any small cracks. For larger gaps, expandable polyurethane spray foam is a good alternative.

When the Forecast Calls for a Hard Freeze

When the forecast calls for a hard freeze, there are several things you can do to prepare your home and help keep your pipes from freezing.

  • If your crawl space or garage incorporates vents to admit outdoor air, close the vents until the freeze warning passes.
  • Keep the interior temperature of the home set at a minimum of 60 degrees for the duration of the freezing weather. Make sure the heat stays on overnight.
  • Open cabinets under sinks and closet doors to allow as much warm air as possible to circulate against walls that may contain water lines.
  • Open faucets to allow a trickle of water to continue overnight. This relieves pressure inside frozen pipes should ice form and may prevent your pipes from rupturing. 
  • Insulate exposed pipes using a foam pipe sleeve, apply heat tape, or use electric heat cable to prevent freezing.
  • Try to keep vulnerable areas exposed to warm air and limit the amount of cold air that comes in.
  • Keep the temperature consistent.  Avoid a lower setting for part of the day when it’s cold enough for the pipes to freeze. If you’ll be gone a long time, keep the heat on.

Frozen pipes are definitely an inconvenience, but they don’t have to cause extensive damage to your home. Preventative measures and quick action by you can usually prevent bigger problems from forming. 

Don't wait!

Did your home suffer water damage from frozen pipes this winter?