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Frozen Pipes Create Big Problems During Cold Weather

MARSHFIELD — Water has a unique property in that it expands as it freezes. This expansion puts tremendous pressure on whatever is containing it, including metal or plastic pipes. No matter the “strength” of a container, expanding water can cause pipes to break.
“Pipes that freeze most frequently are those that are exposed to severe cold, like outdoor hose bibs, and water supply pipes. Pipes located in unheated interior areas like crawl spaces, attics, garages, kitchen cabinets, and pipes that run against exterior walls are especially subject to freezing,” said Bob Schultheis, natural resource engineering specialist.
Schultheis recommends installing specific products made to insulate water pipes like a “pipe sleeve” or installing UL-listed “heat tape,” “heat cable,” or similar materials on exposed water pipes. Many such products are available at your local building supplies retailer.
“Pipes should be carefully wrapped, with ends butted tightly and joints wrapped with waterproof tape. Follow manufacturer’s recommendations for installing and using these products. Newspaper can provide some degree of insulation and protection to exposed pipes – even one-quarter inch of newspaper can provide significant protection in areas that usually do not have frequent or prolonged temperatures below freezing,” said Schultheis.
There are several ways that homeowners can take preventive action during cold weather according to Schultheis.
Disconnect water hoses from outdoor hose bibs.
Keep garage doors closed if there are water supply lines in the garage. Install a weather seal around the door opening.
Open kitchen and bathroom cabinet doors to allow warmer air to circulate around the plumbing.
When the weather is very cold outside, let the cold water trickle from the faucet served by exposed pipes. “Running water through the pipe – even at a trickle – helps prevent pipes from freezing because the temperature of the water running through it is above freezing,” said Schultheis.
Keep the house thermostat set to the same temperature both during the day and night. “By temporarily suspending the use of lower nighttime temperatures, you may incur a higher heating bill, but you can prevent a much more costly repair job if pipes freeze and burst,” said Schultheis.
If you turn on a faucet and only a trickle comes out, suspect a frozen pipe. Locate the suspected frozen area of the water pipe immediately. The first places to look include pipes running against exterior walls or where your water service enters your home through the foundation.
Keep the faucet open. “As you treat the frozen pipe, and the frozen area begins to melt, water will begin to flow through the frozen area. Running water through the pipe will help melt more ice in the pipe,” said Schultheis.
Apply heat to the section of pipe using an electric hair dryer, a portable space heater (kept away from flammable materials), or wrapping pipes with towels soaked in hot water.
“Do not use a blowtorch, kerosene or propane heater, charcoal stove, or another open flame device. A blowtorch can make water in a frozen pipe boil and cause the pipe to explode. All open flames in homes present a serious fire danger, as well as a severe risk of exposure to lethal carbon monoxide,” said Schultheis.
Apply heat until full water pressure is restored. If you are unable to locate the frozen area, if the frozen area is not accessible, or if you cannot thaw the pipe, call a licensed plumber.
Check all other faucets in your home to find out if you have additional frozen pipes. If one pipe freezes, others may freeze, too.
“Be prepared for water leaks from pipes that have been frozen for several hours. They may have cracked and can leak once they are thawed. Know how to turn off the water supply coming into your house to avoid water damage,” said Schultheis.
For additional information on this topic or other engineering concerns, contact Schultheis at the Webster County Extension Center in Marshfield by phone at 417-859-2044, by email at schultheisr, or go to the website at