Thawing Frozen Pipes

Frozen water pipeIf you find yourself in the middle of a bitter cold spell at either work or home and you're unable to get any water out of your faucets, you're likely experiencing frozen pipes. There are a few techniques that you can employ to save your pipes from bursting and causing significant water damage.

When water freezes, expansion occurs inside the pipe. It may go without saying that you need to act fast to avoid bigger problems than just a frozen pipe. A pipe bursting can cause thousands of dollars of damage, not just in pipes and valves but in drywall, flooring, and countless other problems. In order to avoid all of this damage, thaw your pipes! Before you begin, open the faucet to release any steam that will be created by the thawing of the pipes.

Thawing Pipes Slow and Steady

A safe, gradual method of thawing is to expose a portion of the piping system to the inside heat (e.g. drop ceiling panels.) This is the slowest method of thawing, and you may not have the time to let the pipes warm up gradually.

You can also wrap the pipe in electric heat tape for a slow thaw. Be careful not to overlap the tape when wrapping—this could cause the tape to get too hot and start a fire.

Taking Matters Into Your Own Hands

Just as massage improves circulation in our bodies, rubbing the pipes with warm, damp rags will slowly thaw the pipe and enable water flow. Start at the faucet and work your way toward the other end of the frozen section. As thawing occurs, steam can escape through the warmed area of the pipe rather than getting trapped in an area that’s still frozen, which could potentially cause your pipe to burst. A similar technique you can try is to wrap long sections of your pipe in a large towel or even burlap. Pour very hot or boiling water over the towels, which will warm up and hold the heat next to the pipe. Make sure you have a tub or bin underneath the pipe to catch the water.

A heat gun can also be utilized to thaw your pipes. Remember that you’re playing with fire, though. Keep the gun away from anything flammable. A safer option is to use a heat lamp, space heater, or hair dryer to warm the pipes. If using a heat lamp or space heater, place it on a dry surface approximately a foot away from the pipe. Cover all nearby pipes and valves with aluminum foil to avoid scorching. If you’ve opted for a hair dryer, make sure you’re standing on dry ground. Run the dryer slowly up and down the length of the pipe.

A couple cautionary notes: Never, under any circumstance, use a torch to thaw your frozen pipes. And never use any direct heating methods if your pipe is next to a gas line. Stop immediately and call a professional plumber.

If water begins to trickle from your faucet, you’ve got your first sign of success! Run the water for a while to clear your pipe completely. Shut off water and check for any leaks that may have occurred during the freezing/thawing process. For simple leak repairs, check out our DIY plumbing post.

You can protect yourself from having frozen pipes burst by disconnecting all outdoor hoses in the winter. Keep thermostat set at 60 degrees if you leave town for an extended period of time. And if you’re faced with an issue of frozen pipes and don’t want to take matters into your own hands, don’t hesitate to call a licensed plumber – and fast!


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