Updated: This article was originally posted in early 2010 after the Alabama Department of Health issued the following warning via press release: Prolonged period of cold weather ahead prompts warnings to take winter precautions. While the press release mainly brings up the elderly and methods of preventing hypothermia, I recommend that anyone who will be working or spending periods of time out doors should also read it. The other issue with temperatures dropping this low, is your house ready for it, and how about your water lines?
The simplest thing most of us can do is to make sure we keep the wind off the pipes. The best method is to insulate any pipes exposed to the cold temperatures. For those with unfinished basements – make sure all the windows are closed. For those with crawl spaces – make sure the vents are closed & the door is fully closed. For those with mobile homes or pipes on the outside of the structure, you need to make sure they are insulated. If the temperatures are going to drop down below the 5-degree mark, you might want to consider installing some heat tape or taking other measures.
If you have piping in an exterior wall like your kitchen sink, consider leaving the cabinet doors open to allow heat in there. If you currently have any garden hoses connected to the hose bibs, disconnect them – as water freezes it expands and can cause even a freeze proof faucet to freeze if water is trapped in there.
If for some reason you have a 2nd home, vacation home, you are leaving on vacation, etc… you need to make sure you leave the heat on to help prevent frozen water lines, waste lines & toilets. Once the cold snap is over, I would highly recommend taking a trip to make sure nothing bad has happened.
Extreme preventative measures:
While watching the news tonight, the drip method was being purported on the news to prevent frozen pipes. While this method does work, it is generally a waste of water and should only be used if you were unable to block the wind and the temperature drops down below 25 degrees. As stated above, while the method is commonly referred to as the drip method, they tend to show the water on about a third of the way. If you must resort to using the drip method, please note that it does not require that the water be running as fast as it is shown, nor should it only drip every few seconds. You should turn on both the hot & cold-water faucets so that it is between a minor trickle to the faucet dripping a few times per second.
The second method is placing a heater or drop light in the crawl space, basement or attic to keep the lines from freezing. This method also works but should be used with caution, if the heater or light is too close to a combustible surface, you may end up with a house fire or a leaking melted pipe.
Wait I have no Heat?
If there is no heat at a vacation house, RV, etc… you probably already have (or if you haven’t you should) winterize the house and turn the water off at the street. Now if this is for your main house things can be a little more tricky. Hopefully this will only be a short term issue but if it looks like it will be for a night or more & temps will be dipping into single digits you will probably want to winterize the pipes if possible. P-Traps should be either filled with a special antifreeze or you can empty them out (don’t forget the toilet & showers) If you can find a place to stay that is great but if that isn’t possible you may wish to check out our piece on Shelter in Place: Surviving freezing temps with no power.
To late – they froze:
As long as the pipe hasn’t burst, you can hold off on reviewing all the insurance documents to find out if you are covered, and you can get down to solving the issue before they do burst. If a pipe bursts, you will need to shut the water off at the meter out front immediately. Please also be advised that a pipe can burst while following these steps if you are not careful or in some cases where the pipe has already failed but it is not readily visible.
The first step for troubleshooting the issue if you wish to do it yourself is to figure out if it is just one faucet or all of them. Does it affect both the hot water & cold-water side or just one of them? If it is just one faucet, that helps narrow down the problem pipe(s). The next step is actually very simple, open up all the faucets where the water is not running or is just trickling – if it is just the hot water side – just open that side up. This will help alleviate the pressure on the pipe and allows you to know when it is running again.
Before moving on, carefully read the next few sections. If you are not comfortable with any of these steps, please consider calling in a professional. Granted most plumbers or otherlike us will probably charge you the emergency rate fee, the savings can be tremendous compared to you accidently causing a fire, breaking an undamaged pipe, etc…
If the pipe is for the kitchen or bathroom sink, you can start by emptying out the vanity or cabinet and placing a heater in front of it. If this method does not start working within 30 minutes, you will need to start figuring out where the pipe is frozen before it gets worse. In some cases, you can simply feel along the pipe to find the frozen section (generally located in corners, at T’s, or an area where the insulation is damaged, missing or not installed properly).
If you find the frozen section, we recommend using a regular hair dryer set to high to help de-thaw that section. You should always work from the faucet side down to the blockage. Once the pipe starts thawing out, leave the water running for several minutes to help clear all the ice out. Before you say, “whew, what’s for dinner”, inspect the entire line for any leaks and see about getting it insulated properly to prevent it from happening again.
NOTE: Never use a flame torch because of the fire hazard it creates. Heat guns should also not be used as you can easily damage the pipes and start a fire if you are not careful.
I cannot find the blockage – I think it is in this wall:
Ouch, that one hurts and you have basically three options available; the first option is to turn up the heat in the house and wait. This method is very slow & it won’t always work. The second method relies on radiant heat via an infrared lamp to help heat that section and pipe up. The final method is removing the drywall or paneling in that area to de-thaw it like normal. While the other methods require no demolition or repair work if they do work, you will still need to consider finding a way to keep those pipes warm enough via other means or you will have to have that wall opened up and insulated properly.