What do you do if your pipes are frozen?

March 18, 2021
By: Abacus Plumbing, Air Conditioning & Electrical
Posted in: Plumbing TIps

Frozen water pipes are a serious risk during very cold winter weather, especially in Central Texas where freezing weather is infrequent. When water freezes in a pipe, it expands and can exert pressure at over 2,000 pounds per square inch.

That’s easily enough pressure to rupture any house plumbing pipe. Initially, there may be no water actively leaking, since the frozen water can completely block the pipe. But, as the frozen pipe defrosts, the ice becomes liquid water and your home is on the verge of a major flood. This water damage can be extensive, especially if you are on vacation. It doesn’t take long for a small leak to cause tens of thousands of dollars in damage to walls, ceilings, and floors. A burst pipe can easily spill several hundred gallons of water per hour, and that equates to enormous damage to your home.

Pipes are most susceptible to freezing when they are located:

  • In an outside wall that adjoins freezing outdoor temperatures
  • In a cabinet under a sink (especially when located near an outside wall)
  • In an unheated crawl space or basement
  • Near outdoor faucets (hose bibs) used to connect garden hoses 

If your pipe is frozen but not yet ruptured, you must thaw it right away. There are a few thawing techniques to try, depending on where the frozen pipe is located. Never use a blow torch or other open flame to thaw a pipe. This presents a serious fire hazard and can quickly damage the pipe.

Locating a Frozen Water Pipe

One of the earliest signs you have a frozen pipe reveals itself at a faucet. When you turn on the faucet in very cold weather and you only have a trickle of water, or no water at all, tIt is likely the pipe is blocked by ice somewhere in the line.  To prevent pipe damage, you need to take immediate action.  First, shut off the water to the home at the home’s main water shutoff valve.  Open the faucet that is supplied by the frozen pipe, even if you aren’t sure where the blockage is located. Then try to identify the frozen pipe and locate the blockage by following the pipe back from the faucet to where it runs through cold areas, such as an exterior wall or unheated crawl space. Look for areas of the pipe that are colder to the touch than other parts of the pipe or have frost or ice on the exterior of the pipe. The frozen area of the pipe may also be slightly bulged or fissured.  Once you have located the ice buildup, you can decide how to efficiently and safely thaw the pipe.

If you are lucky, the frozen pipe is exposed, like in the cabinet under a sink or in an unheated garage. If this is the case, you have several options for thawing it. Whichever remedy you use, plan to begin warming the pipe from the faucet side toward the frozen area. This allows water to flow out of the open faucet as the ice melts. There are several heating tools you can use to thaw the ice in the pipe:

  • Hairdryer or heating pad: Almost every home has a hairdryer or a heating pad, so it is usually the easiest and safest way to thaw a pipe. If you have enough space, place a cookie sheet behind the pipe to help radiate heat onto the backside of the pipe.
  • Heat lamp: If you have one, you can use an infrared or incandescent heat lamp. Try not to get the heat lamp too close to the pipe or the surrounding building materials. You can use the cookie sheet to protect the wall behind the pipe and reflect heat onto the pipe.
  • Portable heater: A small, powerful heater works great for warming pipes in the cabinet under a kitchen or bathroom sink. Direct the heater onto the frozen section of the pipe. Keep a close watch on the heater as you are heating the pipe.
  • Electric heat tape: Heat tape is a ribbon-like wrap that contains electrical heating elements, which you wrap around the pipe and plug it into the wall. The temperature of the tape is controlled with a thermostat. You can find heat tape at your local hardware store.  You can also use the heat tape to prevent pipes from freezing in critical areas. You can leave the heat tape on the pipe and plug it in only when needed

If you aren’t so lucky, you find the frozen area of the pipe is inside a wall or some other difficult spot. Or, you might not have found it at all. To defrost the pipe, you can:

  • Turn up the heat in the house and wait. Make sure to open all of the cabinet doors in the kitchen and bathrooms and open closet doors. Try to create as much warm air circulation through the house as possible.
  • Use an infrared lamp to help heat the wall section where you believe the pipe is frozen. Infrared lamps are better than regular heat lamps because they radiate through the air without heating it. This directs more energy to warm the wall and frozen pipe. And there is less of a chance that the infrared lamp will dangerously overheat the wall materials. 
  • If you are sure you have located the frozen section, you can cut out a section of the wall or ceiling to access the frozen section of pipe, then thaw the pipe.

Tips for Preventing Frozen Pipes

The best way to fix a frozen pipe is to prevent it from happening. There are a few steps you can take to prevent freezing pipes from occurring again:

  • Leave the faucet dripping slightly during the coldest times. The steadily flowing water will keep the pipes slightly above the freezing point and prevent them from freezing. No one wants to waste water, but it is better than dealing with burst pipes. Or, if you have the space, you can use a bucket to reclaim the dripping water and use it for something else, like hand washing dishes. 
  • Open cabinet doors to allow the heated air from the room to reach pipes inside the cabinet. This is often sufficient to prevent kitchen pipes from freezing on the coldest nights.
  • Wrap the problem area of the pipe with electrical heat tape and operate it when the weather is especially cold. 
  • Insulate your pipes with foam insulation wrap, especially those that run through unheated spaces. Insulation slows the transfer of heat, so it will not prevent a pipe from freezing if the surrounding air is cold enough. ​However, insulated pipes allow your hot water in the pipes to stay warmer and you won’t waste as much water waiting for it to reach your faucet regardless of the weather.
  • Install a permanent heater to keep areas with pipes above the freezing point. For example, an unheated garage can be fitted with a permanent baseboard heater near the pipes to keep temperatures above freezing. Do not use portable heaters, which should never be left running unattended.
  • Remove garden hoses attached to outdoor faucets (hose bibs). If the faucet is not a frost-proof type, winterize the pipes by adding an insulation cover or by turning off the water to the faucet inside the house and draining the exterior section of the pipe and faucet.
  • Have your Abacus Plumber perform an annual plumbing inspection. During the inspection, your plumber can identify all kinds of potential plumbing problems and help you protect your pipes.

Most of the options for thawing a frozen pipe are pretty easy, if you discover it early. It’s the really frozen pipes that are already damaged and leaking that are the biggest concern. If you have any visible signs of damage to pipes, call you professional plumber immediately. You might have to wait for an appointment, because you might not be the only one with frozen pipes. You should also call if you see water ponding outside or even from the ceiling or walls.  

In addition to calling for a plumber, file for insurance help ASAP The Texas Department of Insurance says most homeowner policies cover sudden and accidental water damage. This is damage caused by things like a burst pipe, tub or toilet overflow, or a broken appliance hose. Most policies also cover damage if water gets into your house through a storm-damaged roof or window.  Coverage varies by policy, so read your policy or talk to your agent to know what’s covered. If your policy doesn’t cover water damage, you might be able to add the coverage to your policy. Check here for tips on cleaning up after a pipe burst.