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Preventing Burst and Frozen Water Pipes (And How to Fix Them)

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December, January, and February are the most common months for frozen pipes throughout the country. If outdoor temperatures are below freezing, there’s a quick drop in temperature, your home has poor insulation, or your thermostat is set too low, you are susceptible to a frozen pipe.

The next unexpected cold spell or deep freeze could bring homeowners a host of plumbing problems, like frozen water pipes or pipe bursts. Any located along a poorly insulated exterior wall, under sinks, and in unheated crawlspaces are especially vulnerable to become freezing pipes. How can you know when your pipes are freezing? Can you prevent a burst? How can you protect your plumbing? Luckily, there are some things you can do to get your home ready for a freeze and prevent frozen pipes.

How Can I Identify Frozen Pipes?

If there’s no water coming out of your faucet, your toilet won’t refill after flushing, or a water line is coated in frost — then a pipe is probably freezing somewhere in your home. To narrow down the location of the freezing pipe, you’ll need to turn off the main water supply and turn on all the faucets in the house. See which ones are not working. If no faucets work, it's likely somewhere close to where the main service line enters the house. If all the faucets in an area of the house don't work, it’s likely between the split from the main water line. If you are unable to locate the frozen area or the frozen area is not accessible, call a licensed plumber near you.

How Do I Prevent Pipes from Freezing?

Frozen pipes are no joke. To protect your home from this kind of winter headache, use these tips to prevent pipes from freezing:

  • Keep your heating system running, even if you leave for a period of time. Keeping your home thermostat set above 50 degrees Fahrenheit should provide enough heat to keep the pipes warm.
  • Locate pipes at risk of freezing and add insulation to them. High-risk zones include the garage, crawl space, attic, unfinished basement, and other unheated or poorly insulated areas indoors. Your local hardware store should have pipe insulation, or pipe sleeves, as well as outdoor spigot covers and other insulating products. The higher the insulation's R-value, the better.
  • Outdoor plumbing should also be protected, if possible. Disconnect garden hoses and drain your sprinkler system. You don't want water trapped in there, waiting to freeze and expand.
  • Seal cracks and other holes in your exterior walls, including those around any light fixtures, outdoor electrical outlets and, any phone or cable lines coming into your house. Drafts from these openings can not only chill the pipes in your walls but also waste your heating budget!
  • Open the cabinet doors below kitchen and bathroom sinks if you're worried heated air isn't reaching the pipes inside.
  • Turn your faucets on just enough to slowly drip. Most pipes burst between an ice blockage and the faucet, not between the blockage and the source of your water supply. Opening up the faucet reduces the pressure in the pipe, hopefully enough to avoid a rupture.

How Do I Thaw a Frozen Pipe?

Make sure to thaw the pipe as soon as you can to prevent it from bursting and causing extensive damage to your property. Open the affected faucet all the way and when the water begins flowing, close all the other faucets to a trickle. There are a few ways to thaw freezing or frozen pipes, but the safest is probably just wrapping the troubled area in thermostatically controlled heat tape. Do not close the affected faucet until you’ve completely thawed the pipe and water flows freely.

If the pipe is located indoors, and there isn't any standing water nearby, you can apply heat around the pipe. Do this by turning on a space heater and pointing it at the exposed area to thaw a frozen pipe. A hair dryer or hot water can also do the trick. Try to avoid using an open flame if at all possible. If you cannot thaw the pipe, call for plumbing repair service right away.

How Do I Keep a Frozen Pipe from Bursting?

  1. Locate pipes at risk of freezing and add insulation to them. High-risk zones include the garage, crawl space, attic, unfinished basement and other unheated or poorly insulated areas indoors. Your local hardware store should have pipe insulation, or pipe sleeves, as well as outdoor spigot covers and other insulating products. The higher the insulation's R-value, the better.
  2. Outdoor plumbing should also be protected, if possible. Disconnect garden hoses and drain your sprinkler system. You don't want water trapped in there, waiting to freeze and expand.
  3. Seal cracks and other holes in your exterior walls, including those around any light fixtures, outdoor electrical outlets and any phone or cable lines coming into your house. Drafts from these openings can not only chill the pipes in your walls but also waste your heating budget!
  4. Don't set your thermostat too low on freezing nights, or while you're on a winter vacation. Your home's heating system helps prevent pipes freezing.
  5. Open the cabinet doors below kitchen and bathroom sinks if you're worried heated air isn't reaching the pipes inside.
  6. Turn your facets on just enough to slowly drip. Most pipes burst between an ice blockage and the faucet, not between the blockage and the source of your water supply. Opening up the faucet reduces the pressure in the pipe, hopefully enough to avoid a rupture.
  7. If you turn on a faucet during cold weather and little or no water comes out, you may have a frozen pipe. Turn any closed faucets on, turn off your water main, turn up your thermostat and call a plumber to help you. Many DIY thawing methods can actually damage your pipes, so it is best to rely on a professional.

Reasons to Insulate Your Pipes

According to insurance carrier esurance, water damage claims are the second most frequently filed in the U.S., averaging $10,000 for residential properties. Arguably, one of the simplest types of water losses to prevent is leaks caused by pipes from freezing. Before temperatures plunge, you might want to consider these reasons to insulate your pipes now and avoid a future frozen pipe dilemma.

  1. Protecting your pipes is easy! There are a variety of DIY ways to minimize your risk of pipe breaks, and most of them are inexpensive. Speaking of costs...
  2. Pipe bursts are expensive. While your homeowner's insurance may cover claims due to pipe breaks (be sure to ask your agent if you don't know!) you’ll still have to pay your deductible. If your claims adjuster finds that the break was preventable, you may be stuck with the entire cost of your loss.
  3. Pipe bursts are inconvenient. Since temperatures typically drop at night, odds are good that a break will happen when you're not awake to catch it. Even if you do, you may have a hard time finding emergency help. Sadly, that's only the start of the inconvenience. If you work outside the home, prepare to take time off to deal with your insurance company, disaster recovery service, and other repair people as they come in and out of your house for days or weeks.
  4. Did we mention they’re expensive? Your insurance may foot the bill for your water loss, but they may not pay for the repair of the burst pipe. Depending on where the leak is, that cost may be hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
  5. Some things aren't replaceable. Flooding can damage personal mementos like photos, scrapbooks, Grandma’s wedding dress or an heirloom quilt. It's a good idea to store such things in waterproof containers anyway, but they are one more reason to prevent any flooding you can. 

Freezing Pipes Repair Service from ARS/Rescue Rooter

Since 1975, ARS/Rescue Rooter has been a leader in residential and commercial plumbing services. In addition to heating and air conditioning service, we help customers with all sorts of plumbing issues, including frozen water pipes.

If you need your frozen pipes repaired or believe a pipe has burst at your home, find your nearest ARS/Rescue Rooter location and schedule service with our trained plumbers. We’re available for emergency plumbing service near you 24/7 too!

This was originally published in January 2018, but updated in September 2021.

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