As an unrelenting winter weather pattern continues to bring power outages and subzero temperatures across dozens of states this week, many Americans may be dealing with frozen pipes.
Water expands as it freezes, which puts pressure on metal or plastic pipes that can cause them to break.
Many homes, but not all, are built with water pipes nestled within a home’s building insulation to protect them from freezing temperatures. However, with extreme cold temps this week, your house may have weak spots making it susceptible to pipes freezing and possibly bursting.
Homes in the northern parts of the U.S. may be at less risk, but those in the east, mid-Atlantic and South could be more prone to freezing pipes. That’s because the farther south you go, the more likely a home may have pipes that are not insulated.
“Water pipes in the attic, for example, would be more common in the South,” Remington Brown, senior engineering director with the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, previously told USA TODAY.
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Also more at risk for freezing are pipes in basements, garages, crawlspaces, kitchens and other rooms with outside walls such as bathrooms.
If you discover you have a broken pipe, turn off the water at the main shutoff valve, usually found at the water meter or where the main line enters your house, said John Galeotafiore, who oversees testing of home products and power gear for Consumer Reports, which has tips for dealing with frozen pipes on its website.
After that, check all other faucets in your home to see whether you have additional frozen pipes. If one pipe freezes, others may freeze, too.
“Your older houses are going to be probably more susceptible to this because the insulation wasn’t as good back them and they might have routed some pipes in places where maybe they shouldn’t have,” Galeotafiore said. “Having said that, there could be some new construction that people just didn’t do it the right way.”
Here’s how to thaw frozen pipes and prevent it from happening again.
How to unfreeze pipes
If water flow coming from a faucet is slower than usual, you may have a frozen pipe. If you can see the affected pipe, you can attempt to thaw it to prevent it from bursting. Here’s what to do:
• Leave the faucet on and watch for water flow. Running water, even cold water, will help melt ice in the pipe.
• Use a hair dryer to warm the pipe. “It is easy to use and safe,” Brown said. “You would start from the faucet and work your way along to heat that pipe up.”
• You can also use a heating pad, heat lamp or space heater in the room where the pipe is. Towels soaked in water can be wrapped around the pipe, too. Apply heat on the side closest to the faucet, Galeotafiore said, “because if you start on the other end, you can build up some pressure in there and possibly cause the pipe to burst.”
• Continue to apply heat until full water pressure returns.
• If you can’t find the frozen pipe section or it is not reachable, call a licensed plumber.
• Do not use a blowtorch, kerosene or propane heater, or any other device with an open flame to attempt to thaw the pipe. “You don’t want to use anything that is going to ignite,” Brown said.
How to prevent pipes from freezing
Many homes will have exposed pipes within their homes, perhaps under the sink or in a garage or an attic. There are ways to help prevent them from freezing.
• Wrap the pipe in makeshift insulation. A quick fix is to use newspaper or towels, said Anthony Tornetta, a spokesman for the American Red Cross, which has tips to prevent and thaw frozen pipes on its website. “If you can add insulation to those areas, that’s a first line of defense,” he said. “As little as one-quarter of an inch wrapped around the pipe will help, especially if you are in areas that don’t freeze for an extended period of time. This is a deep freeze, but it is going to pass.”
• Open cabinets in the kitchen or bathroom that might have pipes near the exterior of the home. “That allows warmer air within the house to flow through the cabinet to stop those pipes from freezing,” Tornetta said.
• Keep your home warm to help prevent pipes from freezing. Don’t drop the temperature down at night in the home during frigid weather, Galeotafiore says. “That sounds counter-intuitive to what we usually say about energy conservation, but you have to do that because if you have a pipe burst it can be thousands of dollars of damage,” he said.
• Use space heaters safely. If you use it to thaw a pipe or to keep a room warm, make sure it’s not near anything flammable, such as curtains, blankets or those towels you may be using on pipes. “It’s a great resource to heat your home, but you have to use it smartly,” Tornetta said.
• Constantly run a small stream of water from faucets that might have pipes susceptible to freezing. “If the house is heated and you open the faucets up and you open the cabinet doors, even if you are in a really, really cold environment, it should be a pretty good fix,” Brown said.
• If you are not going to be at home, ask someone to regularly check your property to ensure the heat is working and the pipes have not frozen.
Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.
This story was originally published on USA TODAY in January 2019.
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