Frozen Pipe Prevention & Treatment

What you should know about frozen pipes

As temps drop, the risk of having frozen pipes in your home increases. Typical high-risk areas for freezing include pipes within exterior walls, as well as exposed pipes that run through unheated or uninsulated areas such as attics or basements. 

By keeping an eye out for the warning signs of frozen pipes, you can help protect your family from needless hardship and unplanned expenses.

Signs of frozen pipes

Limited water:  Lack of running water is one of the first signs of frozen pipes most people notice.

Bulging pipes: When water freezes, water molecules expand, causing tremendous pressure that can make a pipe bulge noticeably.

Gurgling sounds: If your pipes start making banging or gurgling sounds, it can indicate you’ve got ice traveling through your pipes.

Condensation and cracks: If you notice a pipe that’s covered in a layer of condensation or has small surface cracks, it may be freezing.

What should I do if I notice signs of frozen pipes?

If you suspect frozen pipes, shut off the water. You can turn off the water to the entire house or just the frozen pipe area, whichever is more accessible.

How quickly do pipes freeze?

Pipes can freeze in as little as six to eight hours, meaning they can freeze overnight. If the outside temperature is below 32F degrees and your pipes are unprotected, your chances for a frozen pipe increase. 

Do frozen pipes always burst?

No, but ice does build up inside pipes, blocking unfrozen water from flowing.

Pipes made of copper, steel, PVC, and other plastics are all susceptible to freezing, with copper being the most vulnerable to ruptures when frozen.  PVC and other plastics will freeze but do not always burst.

Will pipes thaw on their own?

Technically yes, but the “wait-and-watch” method carries risk. As that ice begins to thaw, any water caught between the faucet and the ice will cause increased pressure within the pipe. That increase in pressure can lead to frozen pipes bursting.

How to thaw a frozen pipe

You can use multiple methods to warm frozen pipes, including:

  • Portable heater: Position away from flammable materials as needed;
  • Heating cable: Affix to the pipe and plug into a nearby outlet;
  • Electric heating pad: Wrap around the frozen pipe and plug into an outlet;
  • Hairdryer: Slowly oscillate along the frozen pipe section;
  • Towels: Soak in hot water and wrap around frozen pipe, changing when the towel cools;
  • If you happen to have an infrared lamp, you can use that in a pinch.

Never use open flame devices such as a propane or kerosene heater or a blowtorch to thaw your frozen pipes. Also, never leave heat sources unattended.

Preventing frozen pipes 

Contrary to popular belief, pipes don't burst at the point where water freezes. Generally, the failure occurs somewhere between the freeze point and a closed faucet. Winterize your home plumbing, stop frozen pipes before they happen, and prevent expensive water damage by following these few simple actions.

1. Pipe insulation

Your pipes are more susceptible to freezing damage when temperatures drop below 20° F. Pipe insulation provides your first line of defense against cold temperatures and frozen pipes. In Batavia, the average low temperature is 16°F beginning in December, and temperatures drop from there in January and February. For pipe winterization, add a thicker layer of insulation around your pipes.

Insulate the pipes in all unheated areas, as they are most likely to freeze. A hardware or plumbing supply store should have the insulation and tools you need. Wrap the pipes in insulation tubes made of polyethylene or fiberglass. Measure the outside diameter of your pipes to make sure you purchase the correct size of tube. Take extra care with pipes that have frozen during previous winters or have been repaired in the last 12 months, as these pipes are more susceptible to damage. Wrapping pipes in heat-tape prior to insulating adds an extra layer of protection, but make sure you follow the manufacturer's instructions when using heat-tape to avoid damage.

2. Keep a dripping faucet

On nights when the temperature is expected to drop below 20°F, turn on faucets along the exterior walls to create a small, steady drip. This eliminates pressure that can build between the faucet and an ice blockage, so even if a pipe freezes, it may not burst.

3. Open cabinets

You can stop frozen pipes by introducing more heat. Open all sink-based cabinet doors that are along exterior walls to allow more heat to reach the pipes.

4. Fix exterior cracks

Note any cracks or holes along the outside walls and foundation of your home. Filling holes and cracks with spray foam insulation and caulking can help stop the cold air from coming into contact with your water pipes during extremely cold weather.

5. Seal off crawl space

Pier and beam homes with ventilated crawl spaces should be sealed against the cold weather. Cover your vents with heavy-duty pieces of cardboard cut to fit the vents, duct taping the cardboard in place. Don't forget to seal off access to the crawl space. If you have a basement, look for cracked basement windows that could allow cold air to make contact with pipes. Check for worn or missing insulation around garage and utility doors. Reducing the amount of cold air in the area minimizes your pipes' vulnerability to freezing.

Before you leave town

Don’t forget to think about your pipes before you leave.

• Set the thermostat in your house no lower than 55°F.

• Ask a friend or neighbor to check your house daily to make sure it's warm enough to prevent freezing.

• Shut off and drain the water system. Be aware that if you have a fire protection sprinkler system in your house, it may be deactivated when you shut off the water.