Winter Woes: Preventing and Treating Frozen Pipes

With temperature fluctuations off the charts this winter—especially thanks to something called a “polar vortex”—and with the mercury too often snaking down into the one-digit range, we figure it’s time to hear what expert Bill Raymond, co-owner of Frank & Lindy Plumbing & Heating Service Co. in Peekskill (we also consulted the American Red Cross’s Guide to Preventing and Thawing Frozen Pipes) has to say about how to address and avoid plumbing mishaps during the deep freeze(s).

Why pipes freeze:

The most common recipe for frozen pipes, says Raymond, is an unheated house: “People go away and turn their heat off, and this is a really bad idea.” But pipes can freeze when the heat is on, too, especially if they run along an exterior wall. Other factors that put pipes at risk are poor insulation, location in a basement, attic, or crawl space, and cracks in exterior siding.

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The most obvious sign of a frozen pipe is lack of water flow from a faucet. Technically speaking, ice blocks water flow, and water expands as it freezes, so frozen water can put tremendous pressure on the pipes containing it, potentially causing the pipes to burst. This is what you want to avoid.

When do pipes freeze?

During extreme cold. And prospects dim when wind is thrown into the equation. Says Raymond, “If it’s cold and windy, the wind will find any crack in your house and blow air on a pipe.” The most common culprits are kitchen sinks (often along exterior walls) and pipes that run along garage ceilings.

How to prevent pipes from freezing:

“Keep heat higher than you normally would [when the weather is exceptionally cold], make sure that doors are open on kitchen and vanity cabinets adjacent to exterior walls [to allow heat in], and if you know that you’ve got a faucet in your house that’s frozen in the past, you can leave it dripping, and that will help,” says Raymond. The Red Cross also recommends keeping garage doors closed and ramping up insulation, as well as maintaining a constant thermostat setting day and night, no lower than 55 degrees—even if you are away.

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They’re frozen, now what?

If you suspect your pipes are frozen, shut the water off. Says Raymond, “Know where the main water shut off is and make sure it works. You’d be surprised by how many people don’t know how to turn off the water in their own house.” Once that’s taken care of, if the pipe’s location allows (like inside a vanity), he recommends carefully positioning a space heater near the freeze. Exercise caution though, because ice could be filling an unseen crack in the pipe, which will leak as water melts. If you’re unable to thaw the pipe, or if there’s a severe leak or burst pipe, call a professional.

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