Pipe breaks are a leading cause of winter flood damages to your home or business. In most cases, pipes break during freezing weather. As temperatures fall, water expands and causes localized pressure. When the pressure becomes too great, a break or fracture occurs. This may create a pinhole leak, hairline break or large crack.
Thawing is the first step.
Frozen pipes must be thawed out. To do so, locate the coldest part of the pipe with your hands. The coldest part indicates the location of the block and where heat should be applied. Heat can be applied by a number of different ways. These include:
Heat gun – Set the gun on low and move the nozzle back and forth near the frozen section. Do not place the nozzle directly on the pipe. If your heat gun is equipped with a shield, use it. Be careful when using heat guns around flammable materials or near plastic pipes to avoid overheating.
Hair dryer – While it generally cannot reach the same temperature as a heat gun, a hair dryer may be used as an alternative for thawing frozen pipes. Always keep the nozzle of the hair dryer moving back and forth and do not place the nozzle directly on the pipe. Be careful when using a hair dryer around flammable materials or near plastic pipes to avoid overheating.
Electric space heater or heat lamp – Both of these appliances may be used to thaw out frozen pipes. Again, do not allow the heater or lamp to touch the frozen pipe. Be careful when using these appliances near flammable materials or plastic pipes to avoid overheating.
Electric blanket – This is considered a relatively safe method for thawing pipes although it may take longer than some other methods. Wrap the blanket around the pipe and turn it on.
Electric heat tape – Also known as heat cable, this is plastic-coated wire that is wrapped around a surface to keep it from freezing. NOTE: Use extreme caution when using electric heat tape. The US Consumer Products Safety Commission has issued a safety advisory on electric heat tape, noting that it can cause fires if not installed correctly or if it is allowed to deteriorate. There are different types of electric heat tape. Be sure to use the correct type for the job. Always read and follow installation directions carefully.
Light bulb – Take the shade off of a lamp and place the lamp and light bulb near the pipe. Again, do not let the light bulb touch the pipe. Be careful if using the light bulb around flammable materials or plastic pipes to avoid overheating. Hot water – Wrap rags or towels around the frozen pipe and pour hot water over them.
Regardless of the thawing method used, continue to apply heat until water begins to drip from the facet. As the ice melts, drips of water will also appear at the break site.
Never thaw frozen pipes with an open flame as this may cause a fire. Always use caution when thawing out pipes with an electrical appliance such as heat gun or hair dryer. If the pipe should burst while thawing, there may be a risk of electrocution. Never use electrical tools or appliances to heat a pipe if you are wet or if there is standing water nearby.
An Ounce of Prevention
The best way to deal with frozen pipes is to keep them from freezing in the first place. Here are some important tips to follow to help prevent pipes from freezing during cold weather.
- Wrap foam pipe insulation around pipes. This material is readily available in hardware and home stores and may be precut to match the diameter of pipes. Installation is relatively easy: Just slip the insulation around the pipes and seal the seams with duct tape.
- Install electric heat tape. Use extreme caution when using this product. Be sure to use the correct electric heat tape for your particular pipes and always read and follow installation directions carefully.
- If a sudden cold snap catches you off guard, here’s a quick solution to help protect your outdoor pipes and faucets: Wrap them with rags or newspapers. Cover with plastic and secure with string or wire.
- Seal up small cracks and holes around doors and windows with caulk to keep cold air out. Be sure to use high-quality, long-lasting caulk.
- Remove all hoses from outside faucets. Drain and shut off the water supply to these fixtures.
- Shut off and drain all underground irrigation systems. While you may be able to shut off the system yourself, draining will likely require the services of an irrigation or maintenance company to pump out the water.
- During extremely cold weather, give your pipes added protection by opening the highest faucet in your house and allowing water to trickle out. This will help prevent freezing pipes because running water, even a minor trickle, has a lower freeze point than static water.
- To warm pipes below sinks, open the cabinet doors to allow warm air to move around them.
- If you leave your house empty for long periods of time during cold weather, consider winterizing your plumbing.