Ah, winter! There is an undeniable charm to be found in the beauty of ice.  Icicles hanging from trees, frosted grass in the morning sun, frozen ponds, lakes, and waterfalls, even frozen castles. Ice in your pipes, however, is the antithesis of charming.

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A burst pipe as a result of pressure caused by freezing

When water freezes it expands, potentially wreaking havoc on your less than malleable pipes. The pressure from the frozen water in conjunction with the pressure caused by the blocked water flow can cause your pipes to crack or even burst to result in a hefty maintenance bill and many hours spent sopping up water. The pipes that are more prone to freezing are those that are away from the heat of your home and less insulated. This can include pipes in basements, attics, and exterior walls.

The most noticeable sign of a frozen pipe is a lack of water flow.  You turn on the faucet or flush the toilet and it becomes immediately clear that something is missing.  Other signs include bulging of the pipe, frost on the pipe, or even an odor coming from the faucet.

​What to do About It

The first thing to do is find the freeze; use the signs above to locate the culprit. If you notice evidence of damage to the pipe, proceed no further without shutting off the water supply to that pipe or the entire house, and you might even want to just give your plumber a call at this point.  If there is damage, most of the mess is going to be the result of the thawing process. If there is no damage to the pipes, leaving the water on while you thaw can actually help move things along.

Next, you’ll want to open the faucet before you start.  Thawing the freeze is going to result in steam and water, meaning more pressure.  Leaving the faucet opens gives this pressure an outlet and prevents a potential burst.​Now you can start thawing your pipes.   Always work your way from the open faucet down to prevent a buildup of pressure. Failing to start from the faucet can lead to a burst pipe! The method you use is mostly going to be decided by where the freeze is located and how accessible it is.  An exposed pipe can be pretty easy to tend to. Firstly, NEVER use an open flame to thaw your pipes, this is a fire hazard that can lead to more damage than it’s worth.
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Electric heat tape can thaw a frozen pipe and help prevent future freezes

One of the easiest ways to solve your problem is a hairdryer, simply point it at the freeze and wait.  A portable space heater or heating lamp will also do the trick in most instances. The same concept as the hairdryer, point it in the direction of the freeze and wait for the magic to happen.  Wrapping the frozen pipe in hot towels is a slower method but can also be effective.  Lastly, for accessible pipes, you can wrap them in electrical heating tape.  The most convenient part of heating tape is that it can be left on the pipes and plugged in as needed, making it not only an effective way to thaw your pipes, but also an effective way to prevent a future freeze.

What if the Frozen Pipe is not Accessible?

If you cannot physically access your frozen pipe, not all hope is lost, but it does prevent you from seeing if the pipes have sustained any damage prior to starting the thawing process.  What you do next is going to be determined by your comfort level. One thing you can do to thaw a pipe you can’t get to is crank up the heat.  If you know the location of the freeze, you can also try directing an infrared lamp at the wall behind which the pipe is located.  Another DIY option for an inaccessible pipe is to make it accessible.  If you have the know-how, cut out the section of drywall between you and the freeze then use your desired method.  Of course, never do something outside of your comfort zone and call a plumber instead.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” – Ben Franklin

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Insulating exposed pipes is a very easy and inexpensive way to prevent freezing.

If you would simply prefer to circumvent the entire thawing process your best bet is to do everything you can to prevent your pipes from catching a chill in the first place. If you have exposed, uninsulated pipes the temperature only needs to drop to 20 degrees Fahrenheit to run the risk of freezing.  Keep your garage door closed and your cabinets open.  If your garage houses water lines it is best to keep the door closed as often as possible. Conversely, leaving open the cabinets inside your home that house pipes will help keep them warm.
Make sure your home is properly insulated, especially the basement, the attic, and crawl spaces. You can also insulate the pipes themselves. Check for cracks in the walls where pipes live and repair them right away. On the coldest nights, allow your faucets to drip cold water.  Just the tiniest bit of water flow will do volumes to keep everything from freezing over.  If you’re concerned about your water bill, bear in mind that the damage caused by a burst pipe can easily surpass $5,000 dollars, according to the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety.  As warm weather comes to a close, be sure to drain and shut off outdoor water lines as well.

In most aspects of homeownership, prevention is your best measure.  It also wouldn’t hurt to check with your insurance company to verify what your policy covers.  Some policies will only cover the damage to the pipes and not the water damage caused by the resulting leak. Often times you will find that you are only covered if it is clear you did everything in your power to prevent the catastrophe in the first place.

Protect your pipes, protect your home, and try to stay warm this winter!