Pipes are basically the unsung heroes of a house — you kind of forget they're there, but they're vital to your everyday life. For example, if you like running water and dislike living with the contents of your toilet, you need them in good working order at all times. Unfortunately, that gets a bit harder during supercold weather. Even when you do your best to safeguard your home in Winter, including taking pipe protection measures, you can still get unlucky.
I'll never forget that scary January morning when we walked outside into a foot of snow, shivering in our bathrobes, and realized we'd forgotten to cover the outside spigot. When we turned it on, nothing happened. Oops. When you fail to cover outside faucets and adequately protect external pipes, the water (or sewage, blech) inside them can freeze. If the pressure on the pipe wall is sufficiently great, it may burst. That means, if your pipes do freeze, you need to get that water thawed as quickly as possible. Here's how.
- Leave the Faucet Open. Flowing water prevents the buildup of ice, which is why fast streams and rivers don't crust over nearly as quickly as ponds in the wintertime. When you turn on a faucet and discover it doesn't flow, don't turn it back off. Leave it open so that as soon as the barest trickle of water starts to flow, it can melt the ice still in the pipe.
- If You Can Access It Directly, Warm the Pipe. If you can access the pipe directly in the basement or on the outside of your house, go ahead and warm it up. The Red Cross recommends heating pads, hair dryers, and space heaters. No open flames, though, so put that blowtorch right back where it came from.
- Heat Until You Have Full Water Pressure. Ice begets ice, which means that if you leave any in your pipe, you're much more likely to have a refreeze. Continue your warming measures until the pipe has reached full water pressure.
- Check Other Pipes. Often, when one pipe freezes, others do too. Check all the taps in your house to ensure you have normal water pressure, as well as the shower. Flush the toilet and make sure it operates normally. If it won't drain and you can't plunge it, that could mean a frozen sewage pipe. If you can thaw them all, great. If not — sewage pipes are especially unlikely since they're almost always under the house — it's time to call in the big guns.
- If You Can't Fix the Problem, Call a Plumber. Sure, no one wants to call a plumber and spend a cold morning standing around looking at pipes, but ask yourself this: would you rather that or step in a puddle of sewage on the lawn come springtime?
- Leave Faucets Dripping in the Future. To protect your pipes until the thaw comes — or in future Winters — leave your faucets dripping slightly. Again, this protects against a buildup of ice. You can also wrap your pipes and put Styrofoam covers over them with a small hole for drips to flow through, keeping the whole structure warmer.
As for us, we were very lucky. We left the faucet slightly open, covered it up, and checked it routinely until it began to flow again. No busted pipe. To this day, I am grateful to the guardian angel of plumbing that smiled down on us and saved us hundreds of dollars. It is said, however, that guardian angels of plumbing help those who help themselves — so get on it!