09 June Frozen water pipes

The Homeowner’s Ultimate Guide to Frozen Pipes

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It’s wintertime and temperatures are dropping. You turn on the tap but there’s no water coming out of it. You may very well be dealing with a problem that many homeowners in the region dread: frozen water pipes.

Frozen pipes are one of the most common problems that homeowners face during the winter season. The number one reason behind the majority of home insurance claims in Canada is damage caused by water—including burst pipes—with the price to repair this damage costing anywhere between $1,074 and $4,090

Before we proceed, please remember that prevention is the best measure to take against frozen pipes. If you detect frozen pipe problems, it’s best to contact a fast-responding 24/7 emergency plumber to help avoid any incidents of cracked or burst pipes that can cause water damage. If you are in a situation like this, you can skip ahead to this section to learn more about what you can do while waiting for a plumber.

Without further ado, let’s get started! This ultimate guide covers everything you need to know about frozen pipes.  In order to jump to the answers you need right now, feel free to use this directory of topics: 

The Science Behind Frozen Pipes

At What Conditions Do Pipes Freeze?

If you are not currently suffering from a frozen pipe problem but would like to be able to better anticipate when and where it will occur, here is everything you need to know.

The first factor you need to watch out for is temperature. Generally, when weather forecasts show temperatures dipping to 7 C or lower, this means that pipes in the home will generally be prone to freezing. After around six consecutive hours within the said temperature range, that’s when vulnerable pipes will complete the freezing process. 

Some pipes are more vulnerable than others, especially if they are outside, on a home’s exterior wall, or if they are located in uninsulated areas of the home. Pipes without any installed insulation are more vulnerable to freezing than insulated pipes. 

Why Frozen Pipes Crack or Burst (Before They Thaw On Their Own)

If pipes are left to thaw on their own, it can take days. And within this timeframe, cracking or bursting is highly likely. This is due to two coinciding factors: the expansion of frozen water and the pressure that it creates. 

As water freezes and crystallizes into ice, it also expands in volume by approximately 9%. Surprisingly, this alone does not typically cause a pipe to crack or burst. What happens is the frozen water ends up partially or fully obstructing the pipe, and thus water cannot flow like usual. This creates added pressure over time which causes the pipe to bulge further and then crack or burst.  

Pipes in the Home That Are Prone to Freezing

Some water pipes are more susceptible to freezing and getting clogged during the peak of winter. Below are some examples.

  • Exterior water pipes – When the outdoor temperature goes sub zero and in the absence of heating and proper insulation, water pipes fitted outside the house are the first ones to freeze.
  • Pipes in the attic and basement – In some households, these rooms are merely used for storage and are therefore not equipped with adequate insulation. Therefore, pipes located in these areas are also susceptible to freezing because they are not receiving sufficient heating compared to other areas of the house.
Closeup of frozen pipes

Assessing a Frozen Pipe Problem

Signs That You Have Frozen Pipes in Your Home

Quick detection of frozen pipes is key to avoiding further damage from this notorious winter plumbing problem. Here’s how to tell if your pipes are frozen:

  • Lack of water or reduced water flow from one or more faucets (or other water fixtures)
  • Unusual whistling, banging, or clanking noises coming from the pipes or behind the walls
  • A visible bulge and/or crack on an exposed pipe
  • Icy residue found on an exposed pipe

If the frozen pipe is behind a wall and has already cracked then thawed, you may notice decreased water pressure due to the leak. You may also detect signs of moisture on the wall or floor of your home that is closest to the pipe. 

If you notice any of the above signs or a combination of these signs, please contact an expert plumber immediately. We, at PlumbWize, have emergency plumbers ready to respond 24/7. Even if you are unsure about your plumbing issue, you can give us a call and we will advise you on the next steps to take.  

How to Locate Frozen Pipes in Your Home

With some patience and working knowledge of your home’s pipe network, you can take steps to deduce where the frozen pipe is. It’s important to note, however, that time is truly of the essence here. A frozen pipe that’s left for too long will eventually crack. Therefore, it’s always best to contact an expert emergency plumber to get the job done quickly and safely. 

If you would like to take the initiative of zeroing in on the frozen pipe while the plumber is on his way, here are steps that you can try: 

1. Eliminate Exposed Pipes from the List

As mentioned above, exposed pipes are often the first ones to freeze. Before proceeding with the next steps, check if the ice blockage is visible in the feeder pipes or other exposed pipes in your home. Don’t forget to check any exposed pipes near the affected faucet or shower. This is how to tell if exposed pipes are frozen:

  • You’ll be able to see icy residues on the pipe or it might have condensation.
  • You’ll be able to see a slight bulge along the pipe.

2. Determine the Scope of the Problem

If you’re sure the problem isn’t within one of your home’s exposed pipes, then here’s what you need to do next. Try turning on all the faucets and water fixtures within the house and take note of the ones that aren’t working. 

This is valuable information for your plumber too, so whether you find the frozen pipe or not, this step pays off.

  • If all the faucets within a single room aren’t working, it means that the frozen pipe is one that splits from the mainline on that floor. 
  • If all faucets and water fixtures on the same floor are not working, then the frozen pipe would be at the spot where the water line for the first and second floors separates. 
  • If none of the faucets and water fixtures in the house are working, then the frozen water is likely to be in the main water pipe that supplies water to the house. 

3. Identify the Exact Location

Once you’ve narrowed down which pipe is likely to be affected, you can try to locate the exact location where freezing has taken place. If you know where your home’s pipes are, try to feel the wall along those pipes. In some cases, if the pipe is frozen, there would be a difference in temperature that is palpable. Though this is not an exact method, it can help in certain cases.

Close-up of a dripping faucet

Handling a Frozen Pipe Problem

The Limitations of DIY Thawing for Frozen Pipes

DIY thawing of frozen pipes is not recommended for pipes inside the walls because most homeowners are not able to locate them accurately. Even with the right thawing methods in place, focusing on the wrong spot can lead to mistakes that cost time. As the clock ticks, the pipe can crack or burst at any moment, ultimately leading to costly repairs. 

However, in cases where you cannot secure a plumber yet or you’re waiting for a plumber to arrive and you want to make the most of your time, you can try the following safe DIY thawing methods. As you may have guessed, these are usually more effective if you’re dealing with an exposed frozen pipe because the heat can then be applied directly. 

How to Safely Thaw Frozen Pipes

Turn Up Your Thermostat

Turning up the temperature of your thermostat can help thaw frozen pipes. It’s best to use this solution straight away after detecting that a pipe is frozen. This solution saves time because it heats the whole house, therefore, you don’t need to know the exact location of the pipe for it to work! Take note that this probably won’t work for pipes that are outdoors or for pipes that are in uninsulated parts of your home. 

Use An Infrared Lamp

Infrared lamps are more effective at delivering direct heat when compared to standard lamps or heaters. If you are successful in identifying where the frozen pipe is, you can try using an infrared lamp on that spot. This is best done alongside turning up the thermostat if the pipe is indoors. 

Apply Direct Heat

This shouldn’t be a problem if your frozen pipe is exposed. However, if the frozen pipe you have located is inside the wall, you would first need to expose it. For frozen pipes inside dry walls, this step is a last resort and should only be done if (1) you’re sure about where the frozen pipe is and (2) you really cannot get in touch with an expert plumber. 

Some homeowners would prefer to dismantle or cut into a wall (and have it repaired afterwards) than deal with water damage from a frozen pipe that is about to burst. Once you’ve found a way to expose the frozen pipe (or if you are already dealing with an exposed frozen pipe in the first place), you can use any of the following to apply direct heat to the pipe safely and thaw it:

  • Electrical heating pads or blankets
  • Automatic heat tapes with rubber insulation
  • A towel soaked in hot water
  • A hairdryer

Note: In any of the above thawing methods, keep the affected faucet or water fixture open to allow pressure to escape as the ice blockage melts. This will also give you an idea of your progress.

Caution: What to Avoid

Anything that involves direct flame should be avoided. Depending on the material of your pipes, this approach can destroy them. Furthermore, this can result in an incident of residential fire.

Signs That You Need to Call a Professional Plumber

Though we’ve discussed DIY solutions in this guide, please bear in mind that it also has limitations. The safe DIY methods we’ve shared are meant as a last resort or as proactive steps while still waiting for your emergency plumber to arrive. 

Here are some scenarios that can confirm that it’s time to bring in a professional plumber.

  • If you cannot pinpoint the location of the frozen pipe
  • If you are not confident with your handyman skills and are wary about how to unfreeze frozen pipes on your own 
  • If you have a hunch that there could be a bigger problem than just frozen water pipes—let’s say, you live in a period home and you are worried the ageing pipes won’t make it so they need to be replaced immediately

If you find yourself in any of these situations above, it is highly recommended that you contact a reliable plumbing service armed with the expertise and specialized tools to fix frozen pipes quickly and safely. 

Our expert plumbers here at PlumbWize will not only be able to fix your frozen pipes, but they will also be able to give you recommendations about pipe insulation and if it’s time to update your old exterior pipes with no-frosting models. We can also take care of the replacement and installation of such updates.

What Steps You Can Take While Waiting for a Plumber  

As we mentioned before, if you have frozen pipes, you need to call in an expert emergency plumber to help thaw them before they get worse. By doing so, you will save yourself from costly water damage expenses

If you have already called a plumber and are waiting for them to arrive, you can speed up the diagnostic stage by taking steps to locate the frozen pipe. 

Additionally, if you fear that the pipes may burst and leak heavily in your home, you can opt to turn off your water supply using the main shut-off valve in your house.  

Close up of a droplet coming from a faucet

Being Ready for Future Frozen Pipe Problems

How to Prevent Frozen Pipes in the Future

Absolutely nobody wants to deal with frozen pipes. With these tips, you can proactively avoid this costly disaster:

  • Turn off (and drain) water from your outdoor faucets and hoses. These water fixtures will be of little to no use during the winter and their adjacent pipes are also the most prone to freezing.
  • Consider getting pipe insulation installed on vulnerable pipes that are located in uninsulated areas or on the exterior walls of the home.
  • Keep the thermostat at a constant temperature of at least 12 C in your home. 
  • If you are leaving for an extended period of time, make sure to turn off (and drain) water from every water fixture in the house. 

Always Know Who to Call for 24/7 Emergency Plumbing Services

The moment that you observe the signs of frozen pipes, we strongly consider getting in touch with an expert plumber straight away. Time is of the essence in such situations so that you won’t have to deal with bigger issues such as cracked pipes and water damage.

At PlumbWize, we strive to offer top-notch residential and commercial plumbing services in the areas of Burlington, Oakville, Hamilton, Milton, Ancaster, and Stoney Creek. We have over 20 years in the industry and have delivered high-quality emergency plumbing repairs to numerous residential and commercial clients. 

If you are looking to thaw frozen pipes in your home or building we’ve got the right plumbing equipment to safely and quickly deal with the problem. We can also help with pipe replacements in case your frozen pipe has cracked or burst. We are known for our timely response and reliable 24/7 service – so if you are faced with frozen pipes and you need a plumber ASAP, give us a call!

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