When the weather drops to freezing temperatures during the winter, there’s a chance your pipes may freeze if not properly protected and winterized. There are a few telltale signs to look for that indicate your pipes may be frozen, which we’ve outlined below. We've also included some tips on what to do if your pipes freeze, and ways to prevent frozen pipes in the future.
Signs that Indicate Your Water Pipes May be Frozen
If you notice any of these symptoms, it’s important to take quick action to try and prevent the pipes from bursting.
Decreased Water Flow
The most telling indicator of frozen pipes is reduced or no water flow to your faucets, toilets, or showers. If your pipes are partially frozen, you may notice the water comes out in a trickle. If the pipes have fully frozen over, the water will stop flowing completely.
Frost & Bulging
If your water pipes are visible on your property, you may notice bulging or excess accumulation of frost on the pipes—both of which can be bad signs.
If you notice odd smells coming from one or more of your drains (especially your kitchen sink), it can be a sign of blockage indicating that your pipe is frozen down the line. When waste builds up and has nowhere to go, it can create an odor that permeates throughout your room. While this can indicate a regular blockage unrelated to frozen pipes, if it’s winter and you notice this symptom there’s a good chance it can be due to frozen water.
Leaks & Water Damage
The worst symptom of frozen pipes is signs of water damage in your home. If you notice a damp or moldy smell in any of the rooms in your house, it could be due to water leaking somewhere in your home. You may also notice paint or wallpaper bubbling, which is another indicator that water is leaking behind the walls.
Small leaks will often create indicators that can take a while to notice, but there is also a chance that a burst pipe can send water gushing into your home, which can quickly lead to severe structural damage that requires a lot of repair and cleanup.
If you notice any of the above symptoms, it’s a good idea to contact a plumber as soon as possible so they can diagnose and fix the issues quickly before the problem worsens.
Why Are Frozen Water Pipes Dangerous?
Frozen pipes have the potential to burst, which can lead to flooding and structural damage that can be expensive and time-consuming to repair and clean up. In addition to water causing damage your home’s structure, it can lead to mold when not quickly and thoroughly cleaned.
This mold can be extremely bad for your health and can lead to a variety of health conditions. Plus, it can spread behind walls and into hard-to-access places throughout your home, which can make proper removal difficult.
How Quickly Can Pipes Freeze?
The pipes in your home can freeze in as little as (approximately) six hours. Once the outside temperature drops to around (or below) freezing temperatures, pipes can start to freeze if the temperature remains at that level for six hours or longer. The colder it is, the faster your pipes can freeze over if not properly winterized.
How Quickly Can Frozen Pipes Burst?
There’s no set amount of time it takes for frozen pipes to burst. In some cases, frozen pipes may not burst at all. Sometimes pipes will burst while in the process of freezing over, but a more common scenario is the pipes will burst when they begin to thaw. The more pressure that has built up in your pipes during the freeze, the more likely they are to burst due to water that begins running through the pipes as they warm up.
Steps to Take if Your Pipes Have Frozen
If you notice any symptoms of frozen pipes, you should take immediate action to prevent and mitigate potential damage. Ideally, the first step you should take is to contact a local emergency plumber. They can assess your situation and take the proper steps to help prevent bursting.
How to Thaw a Frozen Pipe
If water is still able to flow through your pipes (even at a reduced rate), turn your faucets on enough to achieve a slow trickle. Running water is less likely to freeze, so it’s worth taking this step even if it adds a increases your water bill a bit.
Even if water is not able to flow through your pipes, opening your faucets can help alleviate pressure, which is especially important for when they thaw (if the built up pressure has nowhere to go, it’s more likely your pipe will wind up bursting).
Next, your goal should be to gradually increase the temperature of the frozen pipe if you’re able to access it. Before you focus on thawing your pipes, make sure you have towels and a mop handy, as there’s a good chance water will rapidly flow out once thawed.
Using a hair dryer or space heater (or other source of heat), you can work on raising the temperature around the pipe to help slowly thaw it. Don’t apply direct heat to the pipe, and instead focus on raising the temperature around the pipe to help warm it up gradually. Drastic temperature changes can damage the pipe and lead to cracking, resulting in leaks—exactly what you’re trying to avoid.
Alternatively, if you have access to hot running water, you can soak towels in it and wrap them around the pipe. However, you’ll need to re-soak the towels whenever they cool down (likely every 20-30 minutes or so).
Important: Be sure to continuously attend your pipe as you warm it, and don’t use an open flame to heat your pipes (candles, torches, gas-powered heaters, etc.).
Alleviating pressure and gently warming the pipe when possible should help buy you some time and limit the risk of bursting until a professional can arrive to assist.
Will a Frozen Pipe Thaw on its Own?
A frozen pipe will indeed thaw on its own as the temperature outside rises. However, letting your pipes thaw naturally can increase the risk of bursting, so it’s better to take a proactive approach and contact a plumber.
How to Prevent Your Pipes from Freezing
The best way to deal with frozen pipes is to prevent them in the first place. Taking the time to properly winterize your home before the first cold front rolls in can help prevent potential headaches and save you a lot of time and money.
There are several steps you can take to prevent your pipes from bursting during the winter, such as insulating your interior pipes and draining your outside water pipes.
One of the best ways to ensure your pipes are protected is to allow them to drip water slowly and continuously during freezing periods. For internal pipes, this means turning your faucet handles on slightly until water starts to drop.
For external pipes, the easiest and most efficient way to protect from freezing is to install a Freeze Miser on each external faucet around your premises. This helps ensure that your pipes are protected without having to remember to set your faucets to drip each time the temperature drops to freezing levels.