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Thawing and Preventing Frozen Pipes

What You Need to Know to Avoid Burst Pipes

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by Jeff Patterson in Bathroom Plumbing
Thaw and Prevent Frozen Pipes

Frozen water pipes.

Just typing those words give me the willies.

This post shows you how to thaw and prevent frozen pipes because when it happens you need to act quickly.

Here’s the deal:

It’s not the freezing part that’s painful. It’s the thawing.

As a kid I loved watching shows about science. Especially Mr. Wizard on Nickelodeon (yah, I’m a kid of the 80s and wore parachute pants in 2nd grade).

One thing I learned was that water expands as it freezes.

Frozen water has enough force to make your pipes split or burst.

When this happens and you eventually thaw the pipe you’re going to have water gushing from your ceiling or wall.

Seeing this happen first hand is like watching a car accident. You can’t believe it’s happening – TO YOU!!!

I’ve been in a bad car crash and have had water leak from my kitchen ceiling.  Both aren’t much fun.

Here’s what you need to thaw and prevent frozen pipes:

Let’s get started and help you become a DIY Superhero!

 

Figure Out Where the Pipes are Frozen

At one point this year it was -20F here in Pittsburgh.

Why do I remember? That’s the day one of my tenants texted me to say the tub and toilet pipes were frozen!!!

Fortunately she is AWESOME and knew exactly what to do.

The pipes froze in her bathroom because they run along an exterior wall.

How did my tenant get the pipes unfrozen?

First, she’s a smart cookie and has dealt with it before (although not at my house).

Secondly, I gave her some additional advice that I’ll share with you today.

If your pipes freeze you should first locate the water main.

It comes into the house from the street and is likely in a basement or garage.

Locate

Water mains come in through the side of the house and then supply the rest of your home’s pipes.

When temps get below a certain point, pipes that run along an exterior wall are more likely to freeze then pipes that run inside interior walls.

So, it makes sense to begin your search for frozen pipes by starting at the water main and follow the pipes along all exterior walls.

Here’s the deal:

Frozen pipes often times (not always though) have frost on them. Keep your eyes peeled for this clue.

Follow your pipes and turn on faucets or flush toilets. If the faucet or toilet doesn’t run then you know the preceding pipe run has an ice clog in it.

This takes some deductive reasoning and a little Magnum P.I. detective work.

Magnum PI

This was my New Years costume.

I love Magnum P.I.

Once you find your frozen pipe it’s time to thaw it out.

 

THAWING YOUR FROZEN PIPES 

There are a few different ways to thaw your pipes.

First, if you don’t have water running to your bathroom or kitchen faucets make sure to open up the cabinet doors.

Open Cabinet Doors

This allows heat from the home to warm up the pipes.

Secondly, place a space heater in front of the cabinet. Plug it into a GFCI and turn it onto the warmest settings.

Use Space Heaters

This will speed up the thawing process. And trust me, you want there to be urgency involved.

If the water in your pipes freezes too much it will expand inside the pipe. And like I said at the beginning this could cause the pipe to split. Ice can also make soldered fittings come loose.

All this is bad news that could lead to a leak inside your wall. Think about how much a pain that would be. Now you’d have to remove a section of pipe along with some drywall.

If you can stand it, turn up the heat in your house as well. This will protect your pipes from freezing more. Sure, your heating bill will be high but I’d rather pay a few extra bucks for my heating bill than deal with water leaks.

You can also use a hair dryer or heat gun to thaw any visible pipes that have frozen. Apply the heat on the side of the pipe that’s closest to the water source.

Use Hair Dryer

You’ll want to do this so that as the pipe thaws out the water pressure from the water main will push the ice buildup through the pipe.

Oh, I almost forgot. As you’re thawing pipes make sure the faucet closest to the clog is turned on. This helps the process.

I hope that makes sense. You can always ask me your question in the comments in case you’re scratching you head.

Hopefully this section helps you with your frozen pipes. But how do you prevent this from happening in the first place?

 

HOW TO PREVENT FROZEN PIPES: 3 SOLUTIONS TO HELP YOU OUT

You can do a preemptive strike to prevent frozen pipes.

And it won’t cost you a boat load of money.

Certainly open your cabinet doors and apply heat from a space heater if you suspect your pipes might freeze.

This will help a TON.

One of the best solutions out there for preventing frozen pipes is to use electrical heat cables.

These little devices plug into a standard 120V outlet and heat up when the pipes drop to a certain temperature.

Follow the directions that come with the heating cable and you’ll be set.

The one I bought from Lowe’s came in 6ft and 12ft sections.

Heat Cables Rock

It had to be attached to the pipe without any overlap or spiraling. Otherwise the cable would overheat.

You’ll want to use electrical tape to attach the heat cable to the pipe. But make sure your tape has the appropriate heat rating.

The heating cable I bought required the heat rating to be at least 176F. Being an overachiever, I got tape with a 221F rating.

Electrical Tape

Once spring arrives you can simply unplug the heat cable until the fall season comes around again.

Check out this video to see exactly how easy it is to use these cables.

 

The second action you can take is to add foam insulation to your pipes. This will help out immensely and it’s easy to do.

Insulate Water Pipes

Simply separate the slit on the insulation and place it on your pipes. Once you’re satisfied with the positioning make sure to seal the slit by placing duct tape on it. This will preserve the R-Value of the insulation and keep your pipes cozy.

Finally, it’s a great idea to replace all exterior hose bibs with frost-free sillcocks.

Frost Free Sillcocks

These little babies will keep your hose bibs from turning into ice cubes.

And you can use SharkBite push on fittings to make all the plumbing connections.

Here’s the deal, I didn’t replace several hose bibs at my rentals and was nervous as all heck when the temps went below freezing.

 

Learn how to remodel your bathroom, save money, and increase your home’s value with Bathroom Repair Tutor

 

 

What’s Next

Bathrooms should have GFCI outlets – this is especially important when using portable heaters. We have a great tutorial that shows how to install a GFCI like a pro.

Grab our free guide if you’re doing a DIY bathroom remodel – it shares how to remodel a bathroom in 10 days or less

Send Me The Guide

 

Thanks as always for reading, watching, and being part of our awesome community.

Ask your questions below and we’d be happy to help.

Cheers,

Jeff Patterson

 

 

 

 

P.S. Our online store has great supplies for homeowners doing a bathroom remodel. You’ll find shower systems, tiling tools, and more.

35 Comments
  1. important info. Jeff good share! though sorry – admit not a huge fan of the heat cables. The ones I’ve seen have broken down and failed after only a few years (not to mention the energy suck). I prefer the pipe insulation myself – but to install correctly at elbows, tees etc requires patience and a steady head. a little bit of practice and some jacket tape. + it’s not always enough, but it is a start. insulate insulate insulate. I talked more than one person through the polar vortex and really only heard one report of a catastrophe. Myself I ran a space heater in my powder room (a problem area in the past) but remembered to check it frequently – don’t want a fire when trying to thaw. ha! that said – a heat gun on low can be an effective tool in this situation. never too late as I am sure this isn’t the only big freeze we’ll see this season. cheers. warm wishes. ~jb

  2. Betty says:

    I have never heard of heat cables! I have lived in Texas and Southern California. I wonder if they are sold there. In Texas we had many winters with threats of frozen pipes and some instances when the pipes did freeze. Thank you for the informative article.

    1. You bet Betty. I think the home stores would have them. Especially if you’ve had threats of freezing temps. Check the plumbing section of Lowe’s because that’s where I found mine 🙂

  3. oh and remember to install your plumbing with the coldest day in mind. if at allll possible never in an outside wall (some municipalities may even nix this in code), hang tight to framing and keep runs as close to the heart of the house as possible. hiho. ~jb

    1. good tips jb, thanks. I don’t think they did this in my rental. It’s a disaster in terms of plumbing 🙁

  4. Magnum,

    Great subject! I’m now ready to handle the big freeze. In a close call, the night of January 10, we dipped down an Arctic horror of 36.9 degrees! Daytime temps didn’t even reach the 60’s!!! We made it through. It took bundling up in a light jacket and briefly turning on the car’s heater, but we survived to celebrate with a frozen yogurt that week. Unlike Betty in Texas, I don’t think I can even hope to find heat tape in Phoenix.

    We have the opposite problem in our summers. Flaming hot water comes from our cold water lines and has to run for several minutes before cooling down. Maybe they make cold tape…

    1. Holy Batman!! I never even imagined the cold water lines getting volcano hot.

      It’s crazy that temps even got that low in AZ John. Don’t worry, we visited the local Fro Yo when it was snowing here in the City of Champions. Who doesn’t like Fro Yo anyway. LOL.

  5. linda says:

    From a lady into plumbing, the “t” joints are the first place to freeze so check them first and if you have to crawl in the under house space and don’t want to start a fire with flame stuff, hot water in a squirt bottle like a dish detergent bottle that will allow a stream will loosen the ice jam at a “t” joint in a big hurry. All the stuff about opening the faucets still holds so water pressure can assist you.

    1. Good advice Linda. Thanks so much for recommending the hot water in the squirt bottle. You’d think a fire wouldn’t be a bad thing with frozen pipes but that’s not a problem anyone wants!!!

  6. Marta says:

    I need help under my mobil house :(( !!!

    1. What kind of setup do you have for pipes Marta? Are they copper, PEX (which are typically white, blue, or red) or CVPVC (which is white)?

  7. Kristyn says:

    I have a brand new home with tankless water heaters. We live in north Texas, last night it got super cold and now on one side of my house the hot water won’t come on, just the cold water. I’m waiting to hear from the builder and his plumber. We have two tankless. The other one is running fine both hot and cold.
    Any suggestions?

    1. That’s interesting Kristyn. Hot water will freeze faster than cold water due to increased air bubbles in it. You could inspect the pipes to see if there’s a section you suspect is frozen. Then use a heat gun or hair dryer to warm it up. Just a little odd that the other one is working fine.

  8. Beverly Hall says:

    I don’t see anything about thawing out the shower. That’s the only place we have no hot water. The bathroom sinks are fine and are beside the shower. There is no way to visualize where the shower pipes are. Should I just stand here with the hair dryer on pointed at the wall under the shower head?

    1. Thanks Beverly for asking. It’s always hard to say where the pipe might have froze. I’d use a heat gun to warm up the hot water side first, it might take a few minutes to thaw but the heat shouldn’t harm your pipes. Do you have access to those pipes at via an access panel?

      1. Beverly Hall says:

        No we don’t. It’s all tile, top to bottom.

        1. Hmm, that’s a tough nut to crack. You could try a heat gun on the mixing valve. You’ll have to pull the trim and the cartridge from the valve after shutting off the water to the house. You’ll need the water to be off in order to remove the cartridge. I’d apply a good 15 minutes worth of heat to the valve and hope the heat transfers to the pipe inside the wall. This isn’t a perfect fix but better than nothing.

          1. Beverly Hall says:

            I just realized that the shower is all plastic except for the floor, which is tile. The house was built in the early 90’s and isn’t the best quality. We may end up calling a plumber I’m afraid. Oh, we just noticed the outside faucet is also frozen. Same side of the house.

          2. Oh boy, in that case I bet you do have a frozen pipe(s). You could still try to heat up the mixing valve as that shouldn’t hurt the fiberglass surround. That said, if you hvae PVC pipes it could cause an issue with the pipes overheating. Do you know if there are copper or PVC pipes in that wall?

          3. Beverly Hall says:

            I imagine they are copper. We had a pin hole leak downstairs a few years ago and it was all copper and they replaced them with pvc pipe.

          4. You can probably see the pipes inside the shower wall after pulling the trim kit off. If they’re white it’s PVC or PEX. But if there’s copper elsewhere then you likely do have copper in the shower.

  9. Beverly Hall says:

    My husband has removed the shower head and is heating the pipe. I have also put a call in to a plumber. Thanks for the assistance.

    1. Happy to help Beverly. Let me know how it goes. Hope it’s not too big of an issue. I bet you’ll be fine.

    2. Beverly Hall says:

      Just an update. We finally got it to work. Almost immediately after we turned the water on in the jacuzzi it started working. Maybe they were connected in some way. I did call a plumber and they said they couldn’t help unless it was thawed. All I could think was if it were thawed I wouldn’t need him. Thanks for your advice Jeff.

      1. Awesome!! Great job figuring it out Beverly. Happy to hear you’re in good shape. Not quite sure what that plumber was thinking. It’s frustrating to hear they said that to you. Good plumbers wouldn’t do that. Let me know if you have any other questions but sounds like you’re in good shape!

  10. Andi says:

    Does time really play a factor with frozen pipes? The cold water line to our halfbath has froze and the temps outside aren’t going to get above freezing for days. The portion of pipe that is frozen is inaccessible, so not really sure we can do anything besides keep the heat cranked and play the wait-and-see game.

    1. Sorry to hear about your predicament Andi. You could try to heat up any exposed sections of the pipes with a heat gun. If they’re copper you can apply a good 10-15 minutes of heat. It’s best to get that pipe unfrozen because it will expand and possibly burst. Do you have an exposed area of the pipe that the heat can be applied to?

      1. Andi says:

        Picked up a heat gun from the hardware store, applied low heat for about an hour (the frozen copper pipe has been run alongside pex) to the exposed part of the line in the basement and now we have water! Thanks!

        1. Awesome!!! Great job Andi. Bit of a pain to run the heat gun for 1 hour but saved a call to the plumber or a burst pipe.

  11. Squafdonoboles says:

    Leave the faucets trickling in order to keep the water flowing.

    1. Thanks for the tip, yep that’ll work if you’re really concerned. And I’ve done that before with good success.

  12. Sarah Costello says:

    Hey Jeff! It’s super cold here in the Chicago area. We have a shower on an outside wall (not by choice). Is there anything we can do to help keep the pipes from freezing? I’m guessing we are going to have to take down a wall….

    1. Hopefully not Sarah. In that case I would keep a small trickle of water going in the shower until the temps get back above 15 or 20F. Also, keep the door open to the bathroom so that heat from the rest of the house can warm the pipes. You could also (carefully) keep a space heater on and pointed on that wall.

  13. pm laberge says:

    ONe thing about that foam insulation: It can do as much harm as good on outside walls, esp with cold water. (As I found out.) But if you cut it in half lengthwise, cup the 2 halves, and put both on the cold side, leaving the warm side open, PRESTO!

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