I’ve seen the damage frozen pipes can cause firsthand. Every winter, my team gets called out to assess plumbing frozen pipe issues and repair lines that have burst. The good news is many of these problems can be prevented.
This guide shares insider tips for identifying pipes at risk of freezing and recognizing the signs of plumbing frozen pipes. I’ll also cover safe thawing techniques and when it’s best to contact a pro. A little preparation on your part working with an experienced plumber can help defend against costly repairs from frozen pipes this season.
Why Freezing Pipes Burst
What Happens to Water When it Freezes
As temperatures drop below freezing, water begins to change from a liquid to a solid ice crystal form. Most people are aware that water expands as it freezes, but many homeowners don’t realize just how much of an increase in volume occurs. When water freezes, it expands by approximately 9%.
The Pressure this Expansion Causes
This expansion puts incredible pressure on any container holding the water, such as pipes. Pipes used in residential plumbing systems are typically made of metal or plastic, which do not stretch or flex like rubber to accommodate the change. The frozen water has nowhere to go, causing the pressure inside the pipe to rise steadily as more water turns to ice.
Why Pipes Burst Under this Pressure
While pipes can withstand some increase in internal pressure, extended periods of freezing temperatures often cause the pressure to exceed the tensile strength of the pipe material. Once this critical stress point is reached, the pipe will suddenly rupture. Homeowners in colder regions recognize the telltale sound of a bursting pipe.
Signs a Pipe May Burst
Even before a pipe fully bursts, other signs can indicate one is freezing or at risk of bursting. These include low water pressure and the sound of water movement through walls. If you notice any such signs, contact a local plumber right away for an assessment to prevent potential flooding and further damage.
How to Identify Frozen Pipes
Being able to identify frozen pipes quickly is crucial to preventing potential bursts and water damage to your home. As temperatures drop, check these areas first:
Check Exposed Pipes Outside Your Home
Pipes running in uninsulated exterior walls or in crawl spaces or attics are most at risk of freezing. Look for pipes with visible ice formations or that feel rigid. Knock gently – a hollow sound indicates ice blocking the flow.
Locate Your Water Supply Lines and Drain Lines
Know the layout of plumbing lines running through unheated areas like a basement. Supply lines bringing water into the home and drain lines carrying it out are common freeze points.
Test Your Faucets
If you detect no water flow and faucets feel cold, pipes may be frozen. Check other faucets and exterior spigots as well. No water flow is a clear sign to call a plumber right away for assessment and repair.
A qualified plumber can use specialized tools to accurately locate frozen sections of pipe. They can advise the safest methods for thawing, which may involve applying heat sources or using specially formulated pipe heating tape and thaw gel.
For severely frozen pipes that have already burst, a plumber’s quick response is key to limiting damage from flooding.
How to Thaw a Frozen Pipe
If you’ve identified a frozen pipe, it’s important to take measures to safely thaw it and avoid potential bursts. But how does one go about unfreezing plumbing lines? Here are some recommended options:
Use Heat Sources Safely
Applying direct heat can help thaw frozen pipes. Safe heat sources include hot water, a hair dryer on a low setting, or a heat lamp/thermal blanket from a hardware store. Maintain contact and move the source along the pipe slowly.
Never Use Open Flames
Avoid dangerous methods like blowtorches, kerosene or propane heaters near PVC or plastic pipes which can melt and leak. The risk of fire makes open flames unsuitable for thawing plumbing lines.
Apply Thaw Gel or Heating Tape
Specialty pipe thaw gels or heating tapes self-adhere to pipes when plugged in, generating internal heat. They’re safer for unattended thawing overnight. Only use products approved and rated for plumbing applications.
Seek Professional Assistance
For pipes that are deeply frozen or in difficult-to-access areas, it’s best to call a plumber. They have the proper tools and experience safely thawing pipes and assessing for damage. A plumber can also advise on insulating pipes to prevent future freezing issues.
What to Do If a Pipe Bursts
Despite best efforts, sometimes a frozen pipe will rupture from the internal pressure. If you hear gushing water or discover flooding, act quickly to minimize damage using these steps:
Shut Off the Water Immediately
Locate your home’s main water shut-off valve, usually near the water meter or where the supply line enters the house. Turn it clockwise to stop water flow to the entire home. This prevents further flooding.
Assess the Damage and Location
Check to determine where the pipe burst occurred and the extent of any water damage. Note this information before contacting a plumber for their assessment and repair estimate. Flooding can involve walls, floors, and household items.
Contact a Local Plumber
Unless you’re very experienced with plumbing repairs, it’s best to contact your plumber right away when a pipe bursts. They have the tools and parts needed to make repairs professionally and safely. Provide details of the location and damage for their response.
In the freeze and thaw of winter, pipes are vulnerable soldiers holding the line against Jack Frost’s siege. With vigilance and quick action, though, homeowners can help pipes survive to fight another day. This battle plan has shown the enemy’s weaknesses and your strengths. Now stay alert for icy ambushes and don’t go it alone – call in reinforcements from your local plumber platoon at the first sign of freeze. Working as a team, you’ll send that frost packing with minimal casualties to cost or comfort. The pipes will pass another winter muster thanks to your command of the thaw.
I'm a licensed home maintenance contractor with over a decade of experience, dedicated to preserving your home's value. My expertise includes roofing, gutter installation and repair, fencing, pool maintenance, deck and patio construction, plumbing, appliance repair, lawn care, painting, garage doors, windows, sump pumps, and steam heating systems.