Frozen Pipes: Facing a Cold Reality

In the frozen pipes war, the seasonal truce ends as winter begins. A little preparation can keep your house from becoming a casualty in this cold war.

Since the dawn of indoor plumbing, the war against frozen pipes has been waged in the depths of winter. Homeowners have maintained two tactical battle fronts; prevention and treatment.

Frozen pipe blockages can be a real hassle. Pipe bursts are likely to be a bona fide household mess. Remember, freezing pipes and the pipe bursts are closely related. Understanding this relationship can be the difference between an inconvenience and a nightmare.

An Ounce of Prevention
Without question, prevention is the preferred strategy.

  • Leave a small stream of water running (just beyond a drip) on vulnerable lines.
  • Shut off and drain lines leading to the exterior of the house. Install shut off valves to the exterior line if they’re not already there.
  • Insulate pipes before winter and seal air leaks in the foundation. Crawl spaces and attics are often miserable any time — they’re much worse in winter when pipes are frozen.

A Pound of Cure: Keeping Bad from Getting Worse

A little known fact…After a pipe freeze, the point of highest risk for a burst is not the location of the original blockage. Internal pipe pressure is greatest between the blockage and the outlet. Thus, as the frozen water blockage grows, the risk grows for burst beyond the blockage and closer to the outlet. Waiting for warming conditions to “naturally” melt the blockage may not be the best strategy.

  • Shut off the water flow to the affected pipe(s). This may mean turning off the house’s main supply valve.
  • Open outlets to permit thawed water to escape.
  • Inspect frozen pipes for wet areas (most likely cracks) which require immediate repair.
  • Apply a heat source (hair dryer, electric heater, etc.) to the suspected pipe section, BUT work backwards from the outlet/faucet toward the freeze. This minimizes burst risk and relieves the areas of highest pressure.
  • Avoid using a propane torch. Beyond possibly igniting nearby combustibles, the intense heat can create steam inside the pipe, increasing risks for bursts or even explosions.