As I am sitting down to write this, Jim Black Construction‘s second installment of a three part series on frozen pipes, weather in the Denver Metro Area has continued to be exciting. Snow, ice, and freezing temperatures alternating to 60+ degrees and sunshine, then back to cold. The Farmer’s Almanac warned us that things would be particularly cold and snowy this winter. I think we’ll all be interested to see how things develop around here, especially as we get closer to the spring snowstorms that occasionally shut everything down. (Remember 2003 with the ~35 inches of snow in March? If not, here’s a little reminder.)
At this point, we hope you are continuing to do what you can to minimize the risk of your pipes freezing. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, a pipe will freeze anyway. What do you do then? How do you even tell if your pipes are frozen before water is potentially running in ill-fated locations?
Sometimes there are more obvious signs a pipe has frozen, like frost on the outside of a pipe. Chances are, though, that you aren’t running around checking your pipes for frost or cold spots before you turn on a water source, so frost is better for determining where the pipe is frozen. The first thing that you instead may notice is that you’re getting only a trickle of water or no water at all, sometimes accompanied with a gurgling noise.
If one tap is not getting proper water flow, check if other taps are getting water or not. If they aren’t, you may have multiple frozen pipes or there may be only one freeze in a main section of the line before it shoots off to different areas of the house, which would mean you’re probably looking for the freeze in a basement, crawl space, attic, or even the main line into the house. If other taps are functioning normally, then it’s most likely one pipe and should narrow your search area, though this may still include pipes located inside walls.
If you are still getting a steady trickle of water, leave the taps on, preferably hot water. This goes back to how flowing water is less likely to freeze. The water getting through the ice blockage is warmer than the ice, especially if you’re using the hot water, and will steadily break up the blockage until your water is back to flowing freely.
If you are not getting any water, or had a trickle that stopped, leave the taps open and turn off the main water line. From here you can either call a plumber or try to find the frozen section of pipe. This entirely depends on how comfortable you are with basic DIY projects.
From the main water line through visible portions of the house, look for frost on pipes or feel for particularly cold spots. Once found, you can gently heat the frozen area of the pipe by wrapping a heating pad around it, using a space heater directed at the problem section (though please be careful of flammable materials in the immediate area), or using a hair dryer. When thawing pipes with a heat lamp or hair dryer, always work from an open faucet toward the frozen area. This will keep steam from being trapped by ice and bursting the pipe. Now would also be a good time to check for obvious parts of the pipe that may be leaking from a burst in the line that may have happened when the pipe froze.
Another important safety note to make here: while you may be tempted to use a more direct and higher temperature heating device, like a blowtorch, please do not. One, this greatly increases the chance of other surrounding objects catching fire. Two, even if you are in an entirely concrete area of the basement, heating up a frozen pipe too quickly can cause it to explode. Either option leaves you with much bigger problems than having to stand around for 15 minutes while you give your water pipes a blow out.
After you’ve warmed up the freeze affected areas, you are hopefully safe to turn on the water from the main line. Keep an eye out for wet areas and listen for water continuing to run after you have shut off taps, as this may be an indicator of a burst pipe.
In Part 3 of our Guide to Frozen pipes, we’ll go over finding and identifying burst pipes, which we really hope you’ll never need to know, but part of home ownership is being prepared just in case. Until then, enjoy the weather and be safe!