A common winter problem in the Midwest is frozen pipes. This can be a minor inconvenience to a major flood when all is said and done. Prevention is important, and will be gone over at the end of this article, but what effects do frozen pipes have and how to deal with frozen pipes are usually more pressing questions.
How do frozen pipes affect the home?
Usually homes have plumbing made of copper, PVC or PEX. When water freezes it expands by about 9%. Copper and PVC are relatively rigid and can’t handle the pressure of water in them freezing. If they burst completely then the water will force the ice plug out of the pipe will pour water into the area around the break. If it splits or cracks then when it thaws the water will pour into the area. PEX is different in that it will expand with the water but joints, fixtures and faucets can still break.
Know your plumbing. If you have pipes that run through exterior walls, through garages or basements, on the outside of the house or other areas that can freeze know where these are so you can handle them if they freeze.
What to do when my pipes freeze
You turn a faucet and no water comes out, it is cold outside, get on it right now! If you find it right away you might be able to get out of this with only a little bit of time spent. If the pipe breaks you should immediately call us and a plumber.
1. Find where the pipe is frozen.
This is easily done by tracing back the line. For a frozen hose spigot it is probably that, but if it is a pipe that is inside your house you may have to follow it through some walls. This is most easily done from the basement where you can see most of the plumbing. Exterior walls are going to be your primary suspects.
If the pipe is sealed up in a wall skip to step three.
2. If the pipe hasn’t burst and you can access it, thaw it out.
If you can see the pipe where it is frozen a simple hair dryer can be used to heat it up enough to thaw it. Electric heaters with a fan also work but take care to not point it at anything flammable. It is not recommended to use a torch, propane heaters, kerosene heaters or other direct flame sources of heat. These can melt the pipes themselves if the pipes are PVC or PEX and can damage the joints on copper.
Sometimes you can catch it before the pipe has enough pressure to break.
3. If you can see a split, break or the pipe looks significantly swollen, or if you can’t find where it is frozen, turn the water to your house off and drain your plumbing.
Turn the water off at your main shutoff. Turn on all the faucets in your home, including any in the basement, so that the pressure is no longer in the pipes. If the water is pouring out this will stop the flow and this will save potentially thousands of gallons of water from getting into your home in places that you don’t want them. If the pipe is broken and no water has started coming out you can easily save yourself a lot of heartache and cleanup by doing this.
4. While you drain the plumbing call us and a plumber even if it is still frozen
If you cannot immediately find the pipe, if it is broken, split or cracked or even very swollen you will want us out to your house to help find and handle any water that has gotten into your home. The plumber will be needed to replace or test any pipes that are or might be damaged.
We respond 24 hours a day to help get the water stopped and everything dried out. For clean water like the kind that comes out of supply pipes we can dry most materials a home is made from as long as we get to it quickly enough. Delaying a day can mean the difference between drying a carpet out where it is and removing it to replace it.
Most plumbers will also have 24 hour emergency services as well. The water in your home will need to stay off until you have repaired to plumbing so the extra cost is worth it.
5. Once everything is repaired do preventative actions.
Once all is said and done you will want to make sure you have all your preventative measures in place. You can actually set these up before hand and probably save yourself the whole problem, but your insurance company will raise an eyebrow if it happens twice.
Make sure outside pipes are drained in cold weather. A plumber can install a shutoff valve several feet inside the house which you shut off, and then turn the spigot on to drain the line. This will keep your hose bib or any lines outside that are above the frost line from freezing.
Insulate the walls behind any pipes on outside walls. There are also products available from hardware stores for insulating or heating the pipes. Consult your plumber on which he recommends based on the type of plumbing in your home.
If the pipe was froze in a crawl space or basement consider a heater when the mercury is predicted to drop below 20F or -7C outside. This is the temperature at which we see pipes start freezing. The same thing can happen in attics. If you are setting a heater up it is vital you make sure that there is nothing that can catch fire nearby as well, fire and wind are the only things I know of that will destroy a house faster than water.
What about frozen drains?
This is a very rare problem. Most drains are inside the house and will stay well above freezing. Drain pipes, unlike supply pipes, are set up so that water will flow out of them and into the sewer. The only place water stays in a drain is in a toilet bowl or the P-Traps. If you have a toilet or drain that are going to be exposed to freezing weather a plumber can recommend what to put into these so that they do not freeze.