Frozen exposed pipes in a home.

Frozen Pipes: What to Do & How to Prevent Them

Frozen pipes are a common issue during the colder months, and they can wreak havoc on your property if not addressed properly. Not only are frozen pipes an inconvenience (making it impossible to use your sinks, bathtubs, and toilets), but they can also require costly repairs if they burst--they'll need replacing, and potentially require repairs for water damage.

Fortunately, there are steps that you can take to reduce the chances of catastrophe if you notice signs of frozen pipes and act quickly. We'll look at warning signs to watch for, steps to take if you notice potential problems, and steps to take to prevent frozen pipes in the future.

Understanding the Causes of Frozen Pipes

Understanding the causes of frozen pipes is essential in preventing this frustrating and potentially costly issue.

One common reason for frozen pipes is exposure to cold air, which can happen when pipes are in unheated areas, near drafty windows or doors, or exposed outside (such as faucet supply pipes). Lack of insulation can also cause pipes to freeze.

When temperatures drop below freezing, water inside the pipes expands and puts pressure on them, which can lead to cracks or bursts. Though the pipe will burst when the water is frozen, you may not notice the leaking until the temperature rises and the ice melts back into water.

The Risks of Frozen Pipes

Frozen pipes can be a homeowner's nightmare, causing major damage to both the property and your wallet.

A frozen pipe may burst, which can lead to water leaks (and even flooding) in your home. The resulting wader damage may require extensive repairs and can potentially cause health hazards such as mold growth if not properly cleaned up and repaired quickly.

Burst pipes don’t just affect you financially—they can take a toll on you emotionally as well. The stress of dealing with unexpected issues and emergency repairs can be overwhelming. Depending on the severity of the damage, you may even need to find a temporary place to stay while the damage is cleaned up and repaired.

Signs of Frozen Pipes: Symptoms to Watch For

It is important to be vigilant during the colder months in order to avoid burst pipes.

There are several signs that you can keep an eye out for that may indicate your pipes are frozen, including:

  • Little or no water coming from your tap
  • Unusual noises coming from your pipes
  • Strange smells coming from your drain
  • Frost on the outside of an exposed pipe

When you notice any of the above symptoms, there may still be time to act before your pipes burst (they may not burst at all, regardless of whether you take precautions—but it’s not worth the risk to find out). However, it’s vital to act quickly.

There are also more severe signs that your pipes have frozen and have burst or started leaking:

  • A bulge or crack in a visible pipe
  • dampness or rings on your home’s ceiling or drywall

In these cases, damage has already occurred so you’ll need to get professional help immediately.

Steps to Take to Thaw Your Frozen Pipes

Below, we’ve outlined the steps to take if you suspect you have one or more frozen pipes. While this process is often effective, there’s a chance damage has already been done to your pipes. If you aren’t comfortable with any of the steps, you’re unsure about whether or not you’re making progress, or if you’re worried your pipe(s) may leak when they thaw, it’s a good idea to contact a local reputable plumber to ensure the problem is dealt with swiftly and completely.

1) Turn Off Your Water

While this step is optional, it helps prevent or limit potential damage caused by a burst pipe. You may not realize a pipe has burst while it’s frozen, so you may encounter a leak as it thaws. By turning off the water to your home, you can be sure you won’t be caught off guard.

If you decide to take this precaution, you’ll want to turn the water off at the shutoff valve, which is usually located where your water line comes into your house. There’s also often a valve located near your water meter, so if you’re unable to locate one valve, look for the other.

2) Turn on Your Faucet

Next, turn on all your faucets to relieve the pressure in your plumbing system and assess where there may be blockages or ice buildup.

3) Turn Up the Heat in Your Home

It’s a good idea to turn the heat up in your home to help thaw your pipe faster. If the frozen pipe is located under a sink, open the cabinet door to expose it to the warmer air.

4) Apply Direct Heat

Use a hair dryer, heat lamp, or space heater to apply direct heat to the affected pipe. Alternatively, if you have an electric heating pad, wrap it around the pipe to warm it.

Important: Never use an open flame such as a blowtorch or propane heater - this can cause damage to your pipes and can be a fire hazard.

5) Be Patient

Be patient during the process. It may take a while for the ice blockage within your pipe to fully melt, so avoid turning up the heat too high as this can also cause damage.

How long does it take for pipes to unfreeze?

If you don’t take steps to speed the process along, pipes may remain frozen until the weather warms enough to naturally allow the water in your pipes to thaw. If you follow the steps above, you can expect the pipes to thaw in around 30 minutes to an hour, though this varies depending on how long the pipe has been frozen, how severe the buildup is, and the weather outside.

6) Stay Alert

Once you’ve got the ice melted and water is flowing properly again, keep an eye out for any leaks that may occur due to damage the pipe sustained from the freeze. If you notice leaking water, call a plumber immediately to minimize damage.

If these methods don't seem to work (or if you’re not sure), it's important to call a professional plumber who knows how to tackle these issues so they can make necessary repairs before damage occurs.

Of course, instead of dealing with these hassles and risking potential damage, it’s a good idea to take preventative action to avoid having to go through this process in the first place.

What to Do If Your Pipes Burst

If you notice a leak, you’ll need to act quickly to minimize damage.

1) Turn Off the Water to Your Home

The first thing you should do is turn off the water supply to your home or building so that the damage doesn't escalate any further. This valve is usually located where the water line comes into your home, typically outside near the front wall of your home. There’s often a second valve near your water meter as well.

2) Unplug Electronics and Move Valuables

If you have any electronics plugged in near the leak, carefully unplug them to avoid electrical shock—you may want to turn the breaker off to kill the power to that section of your home first.

Once you've got the water shut off, move anything that may be sitting in water or underneath a drip to a dry area. If your belongings have been soaked, put them in a dry, warm area with a dehumidifier if you have access to one.

3) Call an Emergency Plumber

After any important items have been moved, call an emergency plumbing service to schedule the next opening they have. You may need to call around until you find one who is able to assist you quickly—but be sure to only choose a reputable company.

With your plumber booked, it's time to start cleaning up as much water as possible.

4) Clean Up Water

Use mops, towels, blankets, buckets, and anything else you can get your hands on to soak up any standing water in affected areas. It's crucial to act fast here since allowing moisture to linger for too long increases the chances of mold growth and other types of damage.

If you don’t own a wet/dry vacuum, renting one is a good option to help remove large amounts of water quickly. If you have any portable fans, you can aim them at the affected areas to assist with and speed up the drying process.

5) Consult With Your Plumber

Once the plumber has arrived, they can assess the damage and make necessary repairs, and let you know what other steps you need to take to ensure you’re not at risk of mold or structural damage due to the leak.

Don’t attempt DIY repairs unless you’re absolutely confident in what you’re doing—this could lead to more damage and problems that require event costlier repairs to fix.

6) Take Inventory of The Damages

Once you’ve gotten the water cleaned up, it’s time to take inventory of the damage. Make notes of what items have been damaged and document damage to your belongings and home with your phone’s camera. Be sure to keep receipts for any repairs you have made and equipment you’ve purchased or rented (such as a wet/dry vacuum, dehumidifier, etc.) so that you

7) Contact Your Insurance

About 1/5 of all homeowners insurance claims are related to water damage, so it’s a fairly common problem that your agent will likely have plenty of experience with. You’ll likely be covered for these damages, so reach out to your agent as soon as possible to get the claims process going.

Tips for Preventing Frozen Pipes Before They Happen

When it comes to dealing with frozen and burst pipes, prevention is key. Fortunately, the steps you need to take to greatly reduce the chances of frozen pipes are not terribly difficult and can be completed fairly quickly.

When the weather starts reaching near-freezing levels, take the following actions:

To protect indoor pipes from freezing:

  • Let the furthest faucet from your water supply line drip cold water
  • Keep your thermostat above 55°F
  • Open cabinets under sinks to allow warmer air to circulate
  • Insulate exposed pipes in colder areas—such as basements, attics, etc.

Outdoor pipes can require more work to protect because they’re exposed to the elements and more prone to freezing. There are several options available to keep your pipes and outdoor faucets from freezing, including heating cables, heat tape, and hose bibs.

While these can work, electric heating solutions are prone to failure and can stop providing the warmth needed to protect your pipes during power outages. Plus, wrapping your pipes can be a tedious and time-consuming task.

Hose bibs require installation and removal every time you need to access your faucet, don’t protect pipes, and don’t prevent freezing at extreme temperatures.

Instead, there’s a simpler and more efficient way to protect your outdoor pipes and faucets: The Freeze Miser®.

A Freeze Miser installed on an outdoor faucet.

At under $30, the Freeze Miser® is an affordable and hassle-free solution to protect your outdoor plumbing. It can be installed in less than 2-minutes, and you can enjoy protection all winter long.

Unlike manually dripping outdoor faucets, the Freeze Miser® will automatically release the minimal amount of water required to prevent faucets from freezing and will stop dripping as the temperature rises.

Simply install a Freeze Miser® on each outdoor faucet and hand-tighten (no tools needed), then turn the water all the way on so the pressure is available to allow dripping when required.

Take Steps to Prevent Frozen Pipes & Act Quickly If You Suspect Problems

As you can imagine (or you may know first-hand), burst pipes can be a nightmare. From costly repairs and dealing with insurance to potentially having to relocate while repairs are made, leaking pipes can cause a lot of problems.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to help prevent frozen pipes, and actions you can take if you notice a pipe has frozen—as long as you act quickly, there’s a good chance you can avoid a burst pipe.

Whenever the weather starts to drop, stay alert and keep an eye on the forecast. When the weather nears freezing levels, take swift action… a little bit of prevention can be the difference from staying warm and comfortable during a cold front and potentially dealing with leaking pipes, emergency clean ups, costly repair, and insurance claims.