How to Prevent and Treat Frozen Pipes

I woke up this morning and went down to brush my teeth — no water.

Damn it! I instantly knew we had frozen pipes. Thanks a lot, Minnesota.

It’s really no surprise, considering it’s -21 degrees in Chaska (-39 windchill, mind you), and our 120 year-old home has little to no insulation around the pipes in our basement crawl space.

Why Frozen Pipes?
I’m no Dr. Science, but apparently water expands when it freezes. Frozen water exerts thousands of pounds of pressure per square inch on a pipe, and with no room to expand, the pipe becomes weak and breaks or cracks.

If water from a faucet in your home isn’t flowing, check other faucets. In fact, check them all just to be sure. If none of them work, the source of the problem is probably at the meter. If some work and some don’t, then it’s probably an isolated freeze in an exterior wall or crawl space. The frozen area of the pipe may be frosted or have ice on it. If the pipe is bulging, you best call and plumber and get to work. It’s close to blowing!

How to Treat Frozen Pipes

  • Never try to thaw frozen pipes with blowtorches, boiling water or lighters.
  • Some say to turn off the main water valve to help relieve the pressure when it thaws. Others say to leave it on so that the water can help you with the dethaw process. I’m a fan of leaving it on.
  • Open faucets so steam can escape during the thawing process.
  • Use a hairdryer on the frozen area of the pipe. If you have multiple hairdryers, use one in each hand and target the same area.
  • If the pipe is close to the wall or ceiling, place a cookie sheet behind the pipe to help radiate heat onto the back side of the pipe.
  • You can also use an electric heating pad wrapped around the pipe, infared light, portable space heater or wrap pipes with towels soaked in hot water.
  • Heat the pipe from the faucet toward the frozen area. The idea is that water can flow as it melts, and the pressure in the pipe will force the ice out.
  • I recommend starting with the hot water pipes first, because they usually thaw quicker and will give you a boost of confidence that it’s working.
  • Keep applying heat until full water pressure is restored. Have patience. Remember, you’re melting ice with a hairdryer.
  • If you are can’t find the frozen area or it’s inaccessible, be sure to call a plumber before it’s too late.

How to Prevent Frozen Pipes

  • First off, insulate your outer walls and pipes. Duh.
  • Open cabinet or maintenance doors to let warmth from your house in.
  • Consider setting up a portable space heater in the freezing-prone area. You just need to get the temperature to just above freezing, around 40°F.
  • If you know you’ve had problems in the past, a dripping faucet is one of the better solutions, since running water makes freezing difficult. It’s worth the water bill compared to a major blowout and clean-up.
  • Install electric pipe heat tape, which is a ribbon type wrap that has electrical heating elements in it that warm up when you plug it in. Some come with a thermostat.

More info (much of which I stole to write this post) here, here and here.

Have your own home remedy? Please post in the comments.

1 Comment so far

  1. Frozen Pipes « Greg Swan (pingback) on January 16th, 2009 @ 1:30 pm

    […] January 16, 2009 · No Comments Yesterday I wrote a detailed guide on treating and preventing frozen pipes over the Minneapolis Metblog. […]



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