Beware of Frozen Pipes in Your Home
Unprotected plumbing can freeze, clogging drains and bursting water pipes, and potentially flooding the house. Frozen pipes can be an inconvenience even if they don’t burst, but if they do it can result in a much more serious situation than a temporary loss of water.
Correctly installed pipes don’t usually cause problems as long as the house is normally heated, however older homes and renovated homes sometimes have plumbing installed in less than desirable locations.
Sometimes insulation upgrades cause pipes to be isolated from the warm space that used to keep them thawed. Another common problem is burst piping caused by outdoor faucets not properly installed, or not completely drained and shut off before winter.
By ensuring proper installation and taking preventive steps before cold weather you may never need to worry, but if you do wake up to frozen pipes some winter morning here are some steps you can take:
1. First open the affected faucet so steam created by your thawing efforts can escape.
2. Identify your main shut-off valve and make sure it works, just in case you need to use it!
3. Start thawing pipe at the open faucet, and work back toward other end of the frozen section. As you melt ice, water and steam will come out the open faucet. Don’t start in the middle – steam produced by melting ice could get trapped, building up pressure and bursting the pipe.
Some ways to thaw pipes:
A popular and safe method is to use hot water. Wrap and secure a heavy towel around the frozen pipe to concentrate and hold heat against it. Place a bucket under the pipe to catch run-off water, and then pour hot water over the towel.
A less messy however potentially dangerous tool is a propane torch equipped with a flame-spreader nozzle. You must be extremely careful to prevent torch flame from burning combustible building materials near the pipe, and NEVER use a torch on plastic piping! A scrap of fireproof material between metal tubing and nearby surfaces is a good precautionary measure, but the way you use the torch is most important. Keep the flame moving back and forth, and never leave it in one spot very long.
Be very careful near soldered pipe joints, passing the torch over them quickly to avoid melting solder and causing leaks – or you might end up with a more serious problem than just a frozen pipe!
To avoid the mess of thawing with hot water and the dangers of a propane torch, try a heat lamp or hair dryer. These will take longer but they’re much safer.
To thaw a frozen drain, remove the trap and insert some garden hose into the drain pipe. When you can’t push hose any farther, it has probably reached the ice. Raise your end of the hose and feed hot water in through a funnel. This way, the hot water is sure to get to the problem area.
Be careful using hot or boiling water. Until the ice melts and drains down the pipe, the hot water you pour in can back up toward you. Have a bucket ready to catch the overflow, and be careful to not scald yourself.
Food for thought:
Whether you thaw a pipe yourself or you decide to call a plumber, you should correct the plumbing installation right away, because anything that happens once can happen again – and it may be worse next time!
Turn off the water supply when you go out at night, even if you don’t plan to be away all night. During extreme winter weather conditions, your plans may be changed for you – and the only thing worse than coming home a day or two late, is coming home to a flooded house!
Check your insurance policy, especially if you’ve sold the house and intend to move out before the closing date. Even if you pay an extra premium for coverage during vacancy, and even if you have the house checked every day, an overnight piping failure might not be covered by your insurance policy.
Read the fine print.
Gil Strachan, Certified Home Inspector