Water Pipes Freezing and Cold Weather is Predicted — What should I do?

When the recent cold snap with below Zero temperatures approached, I had several calls about the potential for freezing pipes and what a homeowner could do.  This blog post has compiled all those answers and some other information for easy access.

Things you should know about your water pipes.

Location:  Where are they?  Interior walls?  Exterior walls?  Typical plumbing runs pipes through the wall to the cabinet under (or behind) the sink, shower or tub.

If it is an interior wall, you have less chance of those pipes freezing, then if they are in an exterior wall.

Location:  Where do the pipes enter your home?  Into a basement?  Into the crawl space? Under your mobile home?

This can be a problem area.

The weather forecast says “Your Water Pipes Might Freeze Tonight! Knowing where your pipes are enables you to take some simple preventative action.

Open the cabinet doors by the pipes on exterior walls.  This allows the warmer air from the room into the cabinet area.  Check to see and remove any cleaners etc that a child or pet might get into.

Open a cold water faucet at the sink and let it drip slightly.  Moving water does not freeze. It doesn’t need to move a lot, just a little.  If you do this you may need to replace the faucet washer later. Small price compared to frozen pipes.

Don’t lower your thermostat temperature.  Bypass any setbacks on the thermostat. The amount of energy will be a minimal cost compared to frozen pipes.

Don’t leave home in the winter for any length of time *and* turn the heat down.

If your water supply comes in through a vented crawl space, close the vents.  Check to see that insulated pipes have intact insulation and that it is not wet.  Wet insulation is worse than no insulation. This also applies to mobile homes.

If your water supply comes in to a basement that is not heated, check as if it were a crawl space.

You get up in the morning and there is no cold water at one sink.

First try the other faucets to see if this is just at the one sink, or perhaps where the pipes come in.

Leave each frozen faucet open.  As the ice begins to melt, the water will begin to move and that is good.  Moving water will melt the ice faster.

How you identify the area where the pipe is frozen may vary, you will find it in an area that feels cold, and it seems logical to you that no heat is getting there.

You will have to search for the frozen section(s) of pipe. You can do this with your hand. If you touch the pipe and it is really cold,  you may be close or there.  Normally, water coming from a pipe that is under ground, will be between 50 and 55 degrees F. You will feel the difference with a frozen section or close to frozen section of pipe at 32 degrees.  You can also use a contact thermometer.

If you find no water at all faucets, then your frozen section is probably at a point of entry to the home. Older homes, prior to the 1940′s, that were built before running water was brought into the home, will have many varied places to look. If you have lived there very long, you probably already know. Otherwise, it will be in a basement or crawl space, or perhaps an exterior wall.  If you live in a home that is built on a concrete slab, your odds of a frozen entry pipe happening are minimal.

To Thaw the frozen section. Use heat!

Use a blower dryer, a heat lamp, some type of portable heater. You can use a towel soaked in very hot water, and wrung out well.

Do *not* use any type of open flame.  Pipes are almost always close to parts of the home that burn, and that is not a good thing.

Second, stay with your heat source and the frozen pipe.  If the pipe starts to leak during the process, you need to know so you can shut off the water.

When you get the pipe section thawed, and you have no breaks or leaks, great! If you get any type of leaking, get it fixed.

Prevention for the next cold snap.

You should follow the simple preventative steps listed earlier.

For a more permanent solution, you need to create a situation where the pipe section that froze is kept warmer. That means you add heat or insulation and stop cold air movement.

Pipe insulation from the big box or the hardware store could help.  Buy the correct size, it comes molded for 1/2, 3/4 and larger pipes.  This is a foam that you can easily compress.  So, fasten it snugly, but not tightly.  It should fit more like a nice sweater on your arm instead of a tight rubber band.  Since it is squeezable, it is open cell foam and will allow air movement through it. So I would wrap it with something to stop the wind. Tape would be easy, but you could use something rigid, like small pieces of plywood. For tape, you could use packing tape, or duck tape.

Depending on the location of the pipe section, some rigid foam, blue or pink board type, might work better. Typically this would be a pipe near an exterior wall, with room to put the insulation between the pipe and the wall.  You can fasten it to the wall.

Most of these will also benefit, and some instances will require additional heat.  So opening a cabinet door is something you might have to continue. Modifying any type of duct work is not recommended for directing heat at this type of problem.

This leaves those section in an unheated basement or a crawlspace.

You could add a heat tape.  Make sure you have easy access to this to turn it off after the cold snap and to turn it back on for the next one.  If you don’t, you will probably leave it on all winter and that is expensive. You also need to carefully check the sizing of any extension cord. If in doubt, hire an electrician to add an outlet, so an extension cord is not needed. Adding this type of fix is also something to keep your eye on and check regularly. It is a Fire Hazard.  I would not recommend a used heat tape.  Buy a new on and replace it annually, until you get a more permanent and safe resolution.

Permanent and Safe Solutions

These require some thought and planning. They may take a contractor to implement. You may find through the planning process, other problems that will be fixed.

Water Pipes Freezing and Cold Weather is Predicted — What should I do?

Give me a call, if you have frozen pipes and want a permanent solution. I can develop a solution for you. Since I don’t sell the products you might use, I can come up with a solution that works for you! Not one that moves my merchandise.