Your pipes froze—now what? Read this 10-step guide ASAP.

Amanda Maher
Amanda Maher | 10 min. read

Published on January 4, 2018

A rare “bomb cyclone” has just slammed the Northeast. Homes are being battered by inches of snow, hurricane-force winds, and sub-zero temperatures. As of noon on Thursday, more than 50,000 Americans had already lost power. That number is only expected to climb.

The blizzard follows a week of brutal cold that has enveloped the U.S. Many cities are experiencing record lows. In some cases, the cold stretch is the longest on record since at least 1918.

In this weather, your pipes don’t stand a chance.

Take it from me, a homeowner and landlord who has been wrangling with frozen pipes since last Thursday. We enjoyed a few relaxing days away for the holidays, only to return to Boston to find our pipes frozen solid. Just when we resolved the issue in our unit, one of our tenants called to say that her pipes were frozen, too.

The past week has been a crash course on frozen pipes. Here are 10 tips that I’ve learned on what to do if your pipes freeze–and how to prevent this from happening next time.

What to Do if Your Pipes Freeze

Tip #1: Pipes Don’t Always Freeze in the Same Spot

We knew that the pipes in our unit were prone to freezing. Two years ago, one of our pipes even burst due to the extreme cold. Fortunately, I was working from home that day and heard the water spraying in the basement. I was able to run downstairs and shut the water off to our unit before the basement flooded. (HUGE relief.)

After that happened, we wrapped all of our exposed pipes with heating cables. These cables look like a long extension cord that you wrap around plastic or metal cold water lines to prevent them from freezing when the temperature drops. We keep these cables plugged in all winter long. Last year, that’s all we needed to avoid frozen pipes.

But this year, our pipes froze in a different spot. When we came home last Thursday, it was a mad dash to find the problem area. To the best of our knowledge, the pipes had frozen underneath the bathroom sink. We immediately took a hair dryer to the area and that seemed to thaw it out enough to get the water running once again.

Tip #2: A Hairdryer Doesn’t Always Do the Trick

We initially thought we were in the clear. Then we woke up with frozen pipes again on Friday morning. We did the same song and dance again, taking hair dryers to any area we thought might be causing the blockage. We even put a little space heater under the sink to try to warm things up.

This time, it wasn’t enough. The pipes were still freezing.

So I dashed to Home Depot for more heating cables. Thankfully, there were still a few in stock. We brought these home and then jury-rigged our best solution: cutting a hole through the bottom of our bathroom vanity large enough to fit a hand down alongside the pipes. We then fished a heating cable down around the pipes and into the basement. It doesn’t look pretty. There are power strips and extension cords all over the place–but it seems to have worked (for now).

Tip #3: Your Culprit May Be a Drafty Foundation

One of the things we’ve come to realize is that the pipes always freeze along an exterior wall of our home. In this specific area, our brick foundation seems to be crumbling. There are small crevices that we’ve tried to patch with spray foam insulation (the kind that expands to fill the space). We’ve also tucked a layer of fiberglass insulation between the pipes and the interior of the foundation. Obviously, that wasn’t enough to prevent the pipes from freezing, but we figured that it couldn’t hurt.

Patching the foundation is something that’s been on our to-do list for some time now. It’s become clear that we need to make that a priority this spring.

Tip #4: In Sustained Cold, Pipes That Have Never Frozen May Freeze

The jury-rigged solution we came up with to keep our pipes from freezing seems to have worked. We made it through Friday night’s below-zero weather and still had running water on Saturday morning. We seemed to have dodged a bullet yet again. So with that, we felt like we’d be safe to leave town for a few days for New Year’s.

Before leaving, we shut the water off to our water tank. It was an extra precaution, but one that we felt would protect our home in case the pipes froze. This way, even if a pipe burst, the damage would be limited since there wouldn’t be water to feed the leak.

Saturday night passed without issue. We sailed through Sunday into the New Year without a problem–but of course, that only lasted so long.

I woke up to a call from one of my tenants on Monday morning: She had no water in her unit.

In hindsight, I should have suggested that she leave her water dripping through the weekend. I didn’t think to do so because her pipes had never frozen. Indeed, there’s a first time for everything!

Tip #5: The Biggest Challenge is When Pipes Freeze Behind a Wall

We rushed back to Boston on Monday morning to deal with the issue ASAP–but this time, we faced a new challenge: We had already wrapped, taken a hairdryer to, and set up space heaters on all of the exposed pipes feeding her unit. We were stumped. The frozen pipe must be behind a wall (the same exterior wall that had been giving us so much trouble). We didn’t know what to do.

I called a few friends to ask for suggestions. A lifelong plumber told us to crank the heat as high as possible and place space heaters along the wall that we suspected was the issue. After a few hours, that should do the trick, he said.

It didn’t.

By 10 P.M. on Monday night, the unit was 90 degrees, but the pipes were still frozen.

We crossed our fingers and hoped for the best–that the pipes wouldn’t freeze overnight.

Read it on the #BuildiumBlog ASAP: 10 ways to treat and prevent frozen pipes this winter. Click To Tweet

Tip #6: With the Proper Equipment, a Plumber Can Fix the Problem in No Time

The next morning, I bit the bullet and called a plumber. The only other alternative would be to start cutting into walls in search of the frozen pipe–a step that I wasn’t ready to take.

At 9 A.M., I called my local plumber. I told him what had happened, that we believed we had isolated the issue to a specific location, and suggested that we’d probably need someone to come out with a thaw machine (more on that to come).

Fortunately, he’s one of the plumbers who has a thaw machine–not all do.

Unfortunately, he had 47 customers on his waiting list in need of said thaw machine.

Fortunately, I use him for all of my plumbing–far more frequently than I’d like to admit–so I was a customer that he wanted to help out. He got to my house before noon to deal with the issue. In less than 10 minutes, he had the pipes thawed and water restored.

Tip #7: A Thaw Machine Will Be Your Savior

So, what’s a thaw machine? It’s exactly what it sounds like: a portable device that plumbers use to thaw pipes quickly. Picture a car battery with jumper cables running out of either end. You hook one end up to an unfrozen pipe, and the other to the frozen section.

You plug the thaw machine in, flick the switch, and just wait.

The thaw machine sends low-voltage, high-currency electricity through the pipe. As the frozen sections begin to thaw, the warmer water seeps through the ice, helping to melt the rest. Downstream, water will begin to flow out of the faucet in minutes. Best of all, the device can clear lines up to 175 feet long and can be used on either copper or iron pipes.

It cost a few hundred dollars to have the plumber come out and service the unit, but it saved us from having to cut into walls–or worse, thousands of dollars’ worth of damage had the pipe burst behind the wall.

Tip #8. You Really Do Need to Run the Water During Cold Spells

One of my biggest concerns was that the pipes would re-freeze just a few days later. This weekend, the temperature in Boston is expected to dip to record lows of up to -18 degrees (yes, that’s in Fahrenheit!). How could we keep the pipes from freezing yet again?

It’s simple. Your mom has probably told you ten thousand times to keep the water dripping overnight to prevent pipes from freezing. At least, my mom has. I always thought it was an old wives’ tale. But my plumber confirmed that this is the only way to keep the pipes from freezing during sustained cold like we’re experiencing now. Sure, the water bill might go up, but again–it’s a small price to pay to ward off the damage caused by burst pipes.

Tip #9: Hot Water and Salt Can Thaw Drainpipes

While we didn’t have any issue with our drainpipes, our plumber also gave us this tidbit of advice: If your drain pipes freeze, boil a kettle of hot water. Stir a cup of kosher salt into the hot water, then pour the concoction down the frozen drain. This slurry will act like the rock salt you put down outside to melt ice-covered sidewalks. Do this a couple of times, and it should get water flowing through your drain in no time.

Tip #10: Take Steps to Prevent Frozen Pipes–and Have a Plumber on Speed-Dial

Extreme cold presents a real challenge for property owners and managers alike. Take every precaution to avoid frozen pipes–and if your pipes DO freeze, save yourself a headache by calling in a plumber with a thaw machine. Having tried everything else over the past week, I can confidently say that it’s the only fool-proof solution.

So, your pipes froze--now what? Read this 10-step guide ASAP on the #BuildiumBlog! Click To Tweet Read more on Maintenance & Improvements
Amanda Maher

Amanda Maher is a self-proclaimed policy wonk who dabbles in real estate law. She holds a B.S. in Political Science and Sociology from Boston University, as well as a master's in Urban and Regional Policy from Northeastern.

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