How to Fix Frozen Pipes and When to Call the Pros

How to Fix Frozen Pipes and When to Call the Pros

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One of the worst things on the planet is waking up on a cold, winter’s morning and having no water. Frozen pipes happen all too frequently, and always at the worst possible time. And the plumber is going to charge you a small fortune to fix frozen pipes.

That means no shower, no coffee, and likely no breakfast. Calling the plumber is the last thing anyone wants to do. The good news is that many times, you can fix frozen pipes yourself. But knowing when to call in a pro and how to prevent frozen pipes is also good.

What Causes Pipes to Freeze?

Cold, of course, but it doesn’t act alone. When pipes freeze, it is caused by a lack of proper preparedness for cold weather. In that respect, there are several things that homeowners can do before cold hits to protect their pipes.

Just a brief list of preventative measures:

  • Insulate susceptible piping
  • Heat the space around piping
  • Leave your water trickling on freeze nights

We’ll discuss each of those with a more in-depth look later.

Recommended Read: How to Unclog a Toilet Without a Plunger

What Happens When You Don’t Fix Frozen Pipes?

The extent of the damage you experience can range from mild to extreme. Locate the area of the frozen pipe first. Most often, this will be in a basement or the crawl space under your home. For homes on a slab foundation, most of the piping is likely routed through the attic.

If pipes are merely frozen but not broken or cracked, you can repair them by thawing the pipes.

The Damage That Can Result

Freezing water expands. When trapped inside a solid object, such as a pipe, this expansion can cause piping to burst. As seen in the image below, ice has expanded just above a joint, leaving behind a gaping wound.

Fix frozen pipes: Image shows a small burst in copper piping caused by freezing

Image from Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0 license

Much of the damage from frozen pipes isn’t caused by the pipes freezing, but from water if a pipe bursts. Once a pipe bursts, the only way to repair it is to replace that section of piping.

There are many instances in which a homeowner can complete repairs. We do recommend contacting a professional at any point that you feel overwhelmed.

Many homeowner’s insurance policies have provisions for frozen pipe repair. Check your policy and be aware of those before beginning your repair. In some cases, a failed home fix-it may void insurance coverage, so please read your policy carefully.

What Do You Mean “The Basement Is Flooded?”

Having a flooded basement is never fun. If you have a heated basement, you usually won’t experience frozen pipes along most of your piping. You may have problems with lines leading to outdoor fixtures.

Fix frozen pipes: Images shows ice formed on a basement downspout pipe
Image from Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 2.0

Another potential problem is the main stack drainage line that carries wastewater out. This line is vented through your roof and can freeze, as seen in the above image.

Depending on the age of your home, you likely have a floor drain also. With small amounts of water leaking into the basement drain through the floor drain, freezing can also occur between your home and the main sewage line. This prohibits water from draining correctly and may cause flooding.

Being aware of your home’s drainage system and water system is an excellent way to stay prepared. This video describes a typical home plumbing system:

If It Looks Like Ice, It Probably Is Ice

The first sign that you may have a frozen pipe is no water pressure. If nothing comes out of a faucet, it is time to check the pipes. This should only take a few minutes.

Pipes will generally freeze at their most vulnerable point. Along outer walls, in non-insulated attic spaces or garages, or at entry points connecting to the exterior of your home.

If you aren’t sure that a pipe is frozen, treat it as if it is.

How to Fix Frozen Pipes

Knowing how to fix frozen pipes can save you a bundle in plumber’s fees. It can also help you prevent extensive water damage in your home should you have a burst pipe.

The Tools You Need

First, the obligatory warning — DO NOT use a torch to thaw frozen pipes. Just because you saw the plumber do it last year doesn’t mean you should attempt it this year.

You likely won’t need everything included on this list. Most of the items are everyday household items. We’re just repurposing them for use thawing your pipes. That said, here are things that will be useful if you need to fix frozen pipes:

  • Hairdryer with adjustable heat settings or heat gun
  • Small area electric heater
  • An electric heating pad
  • A cookie sheet or other reflective surface

Once thawing is complete, you may need to make a trip to the hardware store for parts to repair a burst pipe. Duct tape won’t work here, but we’ll discuss that shortly.

Using a Blow Dryer to Thaw Pipes

Before beginning this task, open all faucets so that you know when water begins to flow.

First, you need access to the pipe. Once you find the frozen pipe, you will need a blow dryer and your trusty cookie sheet. Place the cookie sheet behind the area of piping that is frozen.

The purpose of the sheet is to concentrate the warm air from the blow dryer, reflecting it onto the pipe. If you don’t have a cookie sheet, you can use a similar item to serve the same purpose. Wrapping a piece of scrap cardboard in aluminum foil will work in a pinch.

Using your blow dryer on a low to medium heat setting, focus the warm air onto the piping section, moving back and forth over the surface. This may take a while, so be patient. Once water is moving freely, you will hear it flowing from your open faucets.

Using a Small Space Heater to Heat the Area

Open the faucets in your house before beginning this process.

If you don’t have a blow dryer or can’t gain direct access to the area where the pipe is frozen, you can use a small portable heater. Try to get the heater as close to the frozen section as possible, but not directly under any pipes.

While you may want to turn it to the highest setting, don’t. Since pipes in crawl spaces are usually in cramped quarters, it shouldn’t take too long. Remember, you’re not trying to raise the temperature to 72 degrees — you only need it above 32 degrees.

Please do not leave the heater unattended. Place the heater near but not directly under the piping. With the blower, small heaters push heat a few feet out from the base. This should be sufficient to warm the area, allowing the pipe to thaw.

Waiting on Mother Nature

Pro tip — Don’t wait on Mother Nature. Unless you expect a 20-degree temperature rise within 30 minutes, waiting could make your problem worse.

Using a blow dryer is the preferred method. Alternately, you can warm the area with a small space heater.

If all you have is a heating pad, you can wrap it around the pipe and turn it on. Use the low setting, and don’t forget to open your faucets.

Recommended Read: 5 Effective Ways to Fix an Air Lock in Pipes

What to Do If Your Pipes Burst?

Generally, this is the point where you call in the pros. But some homeowners are comfortable repairing piping on their own. If that is you — kudos.

Repairing Burst Pipes on Your Own

We aren’t going to give a lot of detail on pipe replacement here. Some shortcuts and quick-fixes can keep you rolling until you can get a plumber in to check things out, though.

Perhaps the quickest temporary fix is to use the Fix-It Stick by Oatey. You can purchase this online or at most local hardware and plumbing supply stores. It is designed for pinhole leaks, though, and may not work as well on a larger burst pipe. Fix-It Stick is easy to use and requires no plumbing knowledge.

Using SharkBite fittings and PEX piping are other quick ways to replace sections of copper piping. The video below explains the processes for this type of fix. You will need to have some special tools and equipment, though:

When to Call in the Pros

This really depends on your confidence level. Our purpose was to help you gain the confidence to handle a frozen pipe on your own. Although not all frozen pipes are manageable, many times a homeowner can thaw the pipes without a problem.

emergency plumber

Preparing for Winter Weather

Ultimately, avoiding frozen pipes should be your goal as a homeowner. While it may cost a few dollars to winterize your piping, the resulting cost of a frozen pipe could be much higher.

Adding Pipe Insulation

Adding a layer of foam insulation is a quick way to prevent frozen pipes. As noted in the video above, foam is easy to work with. Simply measure your pipes and purchase the amount you need.

An important note is that you don’t need to insulate every pipe in your home. Concentrate on the piping most exposed and vulnerable to freezing. These will be pipes that run along exterior walls, that go to outside fixtures, or are in the unheated crawlspace.

Using an Incandescent Light

If you can’t insulate your pipes, an easy way to warm the area around vulnerable pipes is to use a low wattage incandescent bulb. A photographer-style clip light works really well. The incandescent bulb generates enough warmth to keep the temperature a bit higher.

This trick works well in crawl spaces and under sinks. If you have a well, using a lamp near the inlet piping can keep the cold water from freezing up your pump. Remember to check the bulb before retiring on really cold nights.

VIVOSUN Clamp Lamp Light with Detachable 8.5 Inch Aluminum Reflector…

  • SOLID BUILD:With non-marring spring clamp on grips, the clamp is a bit hard to open but that just guarantees the lamp…
  • FLEXIBLE: With a ball joint connection so it can be more easily aimed. So the light is more filter to where you need it…
  • PRACTICAL:The reflective definitely improves efficiency of a light bulb.And the metal shroud can detached from the base

Fluorescent bulbs do not generate enough heat, so make sure you are using incandescent bulbs.

Leaving the Water Trickling on Cold Nights

This last method is the least reliable, and should only be used if you can’t insulate piping or leave a light on. This method isn’t always a fail-safe and your pipes could still freeze. Leaving your faucets open slightly, allowing a trickle of water to flow will help and is better than nothing.

Running water does help prevent complete frozen blockages. Although your pipes may still partially freeze, they won’t freeze solid, which reduces the risk of burst pipes.

Always open at least two faucets, with both hot and cold. You want a good trickle, but not a full stream of water. We recommend the kitchen faucet and the bathroom faucet farthest from the inlet or hot water heater. This allows water to flow through the entire system.

Your Home is An Investment Worth Protecting

This video illustrates everything we discussed above.

Many times you can fix frozen pipes without calling a plumber. We hope that we have helped you build confidence in your abilities.

Let us know what you think in the comments. Tell us if you have any tricks you use during cold snaps to protect your home from Jack Frost.

Last update on 2021-01-02 at 15:56 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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