Dealing with frozen pipes
Frozen pipes are more than just an inconvenience. Besides partially or completely cutting off your water supply, frozen pipes can potentially lead to thousands of dollars in property damage and repair costs. There are a few DIY techniques you can try in order to remediate the situation (these include applying heat with a space heater or a hairdryer to the affected pipes), unfortunately they are not guaranteed to work and you may need to call a licensed plumber if these simpler approaches fail. There are also a few things you can do to reduce the possibility of having frozen pipes in the future.
How to diagnose and find frozen pipes
If exterior temperatures are well below freezing and you have no water in some or all of your fixtures, you likely have one or more frozen pipes. Water supply may not be completely blocked, and a slight trickle of water may still come out when you open your faucet. If you can access the pipe visually, there may be visible frost accumulated on the pipe.
If the frozen pipe is a drainage pipe, your drain may not discharge and you may notice strange smells coming out of the drain.
How to thaw frozen pipes
Once you become aware that you have a frozen pipe, you must act quickly. As more length of pipe freezes, pressure will build up and your pipe could burst.
Step 1: Locate your main water shutoff valve and ensure you have a clear path to it, if your frozen pipe bursts, you may need to get to it in a hurry. Your shutoff valve would have been located for your during your home inspection. It is generally located towards the front of the home, near the water meter.
Step 2: Locate the frozen pipe by first determining which fixtures in your home are affected (don’t have water supply). Your frozen pipe (or pipes, as there may be more than one) will be between the affected fixture and your main water shutoff and will likely be running through a vulnerable location. Vulnerable locations are exterior walls, attics, and basements or any other location that may not receive the same amount of heat as the rest of the home, or areas that may not be properly insulated.
Step 3: Open the faucet or faucets fed by the frozen pipe and open both the hot and cold handles. This allows any pressure produced during the thawing process to be relieved and will allow water to evacuate the pipe.
Step 4: Begin the thawing process near the faucet and work your down to the suspected blockage location. This allows any pressure buildup to escape through the open faucet. Working on the wrong side of the blockage could lead to pressure buildup and a cause the pipe to burst.
If the frozen pipe is accessible, you have several options to apply heat directly or indirectly to the pipe. You should apply heat continuously and starting from the faucet towards the suspected location of the obstruction until water supply returns to full strength.
With a hair dryer, pointing the heat towards the pipe.
With a heat lamp or portable space heater, positioning the device so that the heat reaches the frozen pipe.
Towels dipped in hot water and wrapped around the pipe. Re-heat the towels and repeat as required, applying heat directly to the pipe.
With electrical heating tape. This type of specialized heating tape can be purchased from your local hardware or home center and can be wrapped around the suspected location of the blockage to apply heat directly to the pipe.
Use caution to avoid contact with water when operating any electrical device and follow all instructions and safety measures recommended by the device manufacturer.
If the frozen pipe is not accessible, or you are unable to locate the exact point of the blockage, your options for thawing the pipe are more limited:
Use an infrared lamp to apply indirect heat, by aiming the lamp towards the wall where the frozen pipe is located. The lamp will heat the surface of the wall and the heat will slowly flow towards the pipe.
Turn the heat up in your home, heat will eventually reach the frozen portion of the pipe.
Make an opening in the wall and apply one of the methods described for accessible pipes. Besides the cost of repairing the wall, another drawback for this method is the challenge in locating both the pipe and the frozen section of the pipe.
Under no circumstances should you use an open flame to thaw a pipe. Some materials such as PEX and PVC can be damaged in the process and you run a serious risk of starting a fire in your home!
Do not leave any of the devices described here unattended when trying to thaw a frozen pipe. Even with no open flames, there is always a risk of starting a fire when applying heat to a pipe. There is also the possibility of the pipe bursting and you need to be ready to quickly close your main shutoff valve in order to minimize the damage to your finishes.
Call a professional: if everything else fails or you do not feel comfortable with any of the approaches described above, call a licensed plumber.
How to prevent frozen pipes:
They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. There are several things you can do to prevent your pipes from freezing in the first place:
There are services that can notify your smartphone of upcoming weather events, IFTTT for example (IF This Then That, https://ifttt.com/). Set an automated notification for cold temperatures in your area, so you may implement the rest of these recommendations in a timely manner.
Keep all interior doors open, including cabinets below sinks. This helps the heat distribution throughout the home and helps heat reach more vulnerable areas.
Open faucets to a slow drip. If this doesn’t prevent the pipes from freezing, it will at least allow for some pressure relief and prevent the pipe from bursting. Open both hot and cold faucets when doing this.
Seal cracks and holes to prevent heat from escaping the home and cold air form entering. This will also help with your home’s energy efficiency.
Keep the heat on when away from home. The temperature does not need to be kept at the same temperature you regularly keep it, but keeping it above 10 °C (50° F) is generally a good idea. Most modern smart thermostats have “away” modes that default to similar temperatures.
Apply heating tape or an electric blanket to supply heat directly to the pipes during unusually cold weather. You are more likely to do this if you have already experienced frozen pipes and are familiar with the exact location where the problem occurred. Remember to only use the heating tape when you are able to monitor it and follow the exact instructions from the manufacturer.
Add extra insulation either to the area where the pipe passes through, leaving the pipe on the warm side of the insulation or adding rubber of fibreglass sleeves directly around the pipe. Keep in mind that insulation will not add heat, it will just slow down the heat loss on the pipe.
On another prevention note, make sure you are aware of the specific details of your home insurance policy. If your policy covers damage from frozen pipes, there may be specific requirements that must be followed in order to qualify for coverage (such as maintaining the home at a certain temperature or shutting off water supply during prolonged absence from your home). These requirements tend to boil down to taking reasonable precautions to prevent the problem from occurring and there may be some overlap with the prevention strategies we discussed.