Frozen pipes - the ultimate winter disaster

By Tom Phelan - ReminderNews
Featured Article - posted Wed., Jan. 29, 2014
- Contributed Photo

How many times this winter have you heard the term "arctic" or "wind chill factor?" Since there is still a good bit of winter before us, we might just be hearing the term "frozen pipes" more often as well.

Though you might never have experienced such a disaster in your house, don't consider yourself "safe at home." I know of two families who have dealt with burst pipes this winter. Ask some of your neighbors and friends if they have ever endured such an ordeal. You will hear a tale of woe that should give you some apprehension, and that should be enough to make you assess your own exposure.

You are most susceptible to freezing pipes in weather such as we have experienced if you have any exposed plumbing in areas such as crawl spaces, unfinished and unheated basements, attics and garages. Your kitchen cabinets may even hold the potential for frozen pipes. These are all areas where pipes might run in or behind exterior walls. Those walls may or may not have adequate insulation. Or, if they are insulated, the pipes could be unprotected.

Older homes may not have been constructed up to today's standards. Varmints living clandestinely in your home could have exposed plumbing to the frigid temperatures outside. Homes that have been expanded or upgraded might have made your living space more inviting and functional, but what you can't see could present an exposure you didn't have before.

Sometimes in winter I can't tell if I have opened the refrigerator or the dish cabinet. Both are against an outside north-facing wall. I know the wall is insulated, but that was more than 40 years ago. If you have the same experience, leave your cabinet doors open at night, so warm air can circulate inside.

Even heating pipes are not exempt from the frigid temps if they pass through or behind an exterior wall. Multi-story homes may have "dead" spaces that were not insulated. Pipes passing through these spaces have been known to freeze.

Look for areas in which water or heating pipes just might be exposed to critical temperatures. Examine the plumbing if you are able, and consider installing or adding more insulation around the pipes. Foam pipe insulation sleeves have a very low R-value, but it might be enough to stave off the sub-zero cold. Wrapping those pipes in fiberglass insulation offers more R-value.

If you plan to be away for a few days, at least shut off the main water valve, limiting any disasters to the water left in the pipes. Leave the thermostat set to 55 degrees or more. Forget about the heating bill. That's easier to deal with than the damage from a plumbing disaster.

If you come home to a faucet that offers only a trickle of water, your water pipe has almost certainly frozen. Check the other faucets; there may be more than one frozen pipe. If your pipe has frozen, shut off the main valve. Don't immediately reach for a propane torch or other open flame tool to thaw the pipe. A hair dryer is a better solution. Start with the pipe closest to the faucet, and work toward the frozen area. You might also try safely operating a space heater, a heating pad or a (UL listed) heat tape designed to wrap around the pipe.

You may have to remove some drywall in order to reveal the frozen section. Consider that a small price to pay, especially if the pipe has burst. And opening that space up will show you just how well it is insulated.

If you don't think you have what it takes to deal with such adversity, call a plumber who has the equipment and know-how to make it right.

Even if you skate through the winter without frozen pipes, think about some remodeling to relocate exposed pipes or adding insulation where needed in your basement, attic and crawl spaces.

Let us know what you think!
Please be as specific as possible.
Include your name and email if you would like a response back.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the code without spaces and pay attention to upper/lower case.