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Today’s “Ask the Expert” column features Charles Furlough, vice president of Field Operations with Pillar To Post Home Inspectors.

Q: What can a homeowner do about a frozen water pipe?

A: Water expands when it freezes, causing pipes that freeze to split. Even if a pipe doesn’t split, the ice will block the flow of water, a hallmark of a frozen pipe. Generally, a pipe will freeze only in a small area. If no damage occurs, you can thaw it out without consequence. To thaw a frozen pipe, heed the following imperatives of pipe thawing:

1. First, Do No Harm. If the pipe has split and you thaw it out, you may suddenly have a whole lot of water spraying out. The ice plug may be doing you a favor. If you know where the pipe is frozen, inspect it carefully for splits before you thaw. If it’s split, call a plumber and shut the water to the house off.

2. Have a Backup Plan. Check your main water shut-off valve. Make sure you’ll be able to shut the water off quickly if necessary. Operate the valve to make sure it’s not stuck or damaged.

3. Patience Is a Virtue. The only good way to thaw a pipe is to do it slowly. Never apply a blowtorch, as you could create trapped steam that’ll burst or cause damage by melting a solder joint or plastic valve fitting. Gentle heat, such as a space heater or hairdryer, is a better approach. If the frozen pipe is under a sink, opening cabinet doors may let in enough heat to thaw the pipes.

4. If in Doubt, Call a Plumber. While calling a plumber about frozen pipes is never the wrong thing to do, the following situations definitely require a plumber:

  • You can’t find where the pipe is frozen.
  • You suspect that your water main is frozen.
  • The frozen pipe has a split and will require repair.
  • Your main shut-off valve is corroded and stuck.

Now that your pipes are thawed, how are you going to keep them from freezing again? Here are a few solutions:

Add Some Heat – Often, the most effective short-term solution is to add a heat source to get you through the winter. Adding a space heater in a crawlspace near problem pipes, or hiring a plumber to apply heat tape or pipe wrapping are effective options.

Seal Air Leaks – A common cause of pipe freeze is air leakage—cold air streaming in through gaps around windows or hatches. This is easy to fix with weather strip and caulking.

Insulate While insulating is more complicated, improper installation could make the problem worse. Stuffing blankets around the pipes may block household heat from getting to the pipes. An insulation contractor can recommend a customized solution. If there’s space, add insulation and the appropriate air barrier and vapor retarder. Sometimes, the existing insulation will have to be removed and replaced with more effective insulation (higher R value insulation).

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