How to Thaw Frozen Pipes: A Step-by-Step Guide

Even when outdoor temperatures start to plummet, people can usually rely on more comfortable conditions in their homes. So, it’s all the more annoying when winter manages to creep inside and cause trouble. A particularly frustrating problem is when the pipes of your plumbing system freeze up. Dealing with frozen pipes can range from inconvenient to a widespread, costly mess.

Many people choose to call their plumber to take care of frozen pipes, and that’s never a bad idea. But you can also thaw them out yourself with just a few items from your house. To help you resolve this irritating plumbing problem, here’s a step-by-step guide for thawing frozen pipes.

Step 1: Locate the Frozen Pipes

The first and sometimes most time-consuming step is locating the frozen pipes. Running all your faucets may help you narrow down possible locations. If one faucet isn’t running, you can follow those specific plumbing lines and hopefully locate the frozen pipes. The pipes themselves might not be obvious to spot unless ice is visibly covering them.

Instead, you can run your hands along the plumbing until you notice a sudden drop in temperature. Once you’ve found where the plumbing is coldest, you’ve probably found the frozen pipes.

This method won’t work if every faucet isn’t running. You’ll need to check the main water line at this point as it’s the source of your home’s water supply. Each set of plumbing lines will gradually lead back to the water main. You’ll typically find yours in the basement or crawlspace. But if your home doesn’t have either of those things, check near the water heater or in the garage next. If you still can’t find it, go and find your home’s water meter on an exterior wall, as the main line can often be found on the other side.

Step 2: Flush Your Plumbing System

After verifying the pipes are frozen, shut off the main water supply. You can’t thaw the pipes with ice cold water on the inside, so you’ll also want to run every faucet if you haven’t already. This flushes the leftover water from the plumbing. Toilets will need to be flushed as well.

Once the plumbing is drained of water, it’s time to start the thawing process. Gather a couple of things before you begin:

    • A source of heat: This could be a hair dryer, a heat lamp, a heating pad or even just a bucket of hot water.
    • Some towels or cloths: Spare rags can help apply heat onto the frozen pipes. Or, if the pipes have burst, they can help you mop up.

Step 3: Apply Slow, Even Heat

You don’t want to heat up the pipes too quickly, as that can damage your plumbing. Depending on your heat source, focus on the edges of the frozen area. This keeps the process slow and stable. Also, try to heat the pipes closest to the nearest kitchen or bathroom faucet. If any steam or water is produced by the heating process, it’ll flow in that direction.

Slowly inch your way along the pipe, heating sections a bit at a time. Some homeowners will also turn up their thermostats, using the warmer air to evenly thaw all the pipes at once. As long as this is done slowly, it shouldn’t cause a problem. With some luck, you’ll have successfully thawed your frozen pipes. But there’s one more step to complete.

Step 4: Reopen the Water Main and Check for Leaks

Head back to the water main. Open the supply line, but only a little. This delivers enough water to check for leaks without leaving a mess. A leak ought to be fairly obvious to find, and you should shut the water main off again if you do. At this point, it’s probably best to look for a plumber. They’ll have the tools and experience to repair the damage, including replacing the broken pipes.

If there’s not a leak, however, you can open the main water line the rest of the way before getting to all the faucets.

Frozen Pipe FAQ

Sometimes thawing out frozen pipes is a little more difficult. Let’s talk about some of the most likely complications and what you can do to work around them.

How long should it take to drain a frozen pipe?

30 to 45 minutes is a good rule of thumb, with more severe icing requiring more time. Don’t try to speed the process up with more heat as this may damage the plumbing and make the problem worse.

What should I do if a pipe bursts or leaks?

Without the correct tools and experience, it’s better to contact a trusted plumber in the U.S.. Not only can they resolve things more quickly and effectively, but they’ll have a better chance of recognizing if other plumbing problems are nearby.

How can I reach frozen pipes if they’re behind walls?

A lot of your plumbing is hidden behind walls, making them especially tricky to thaw out. Heating the nearest accessible area could work, or you could try heating the section of the wall closest to the frozen pipes. Heat lamps and your thermostat will be the best options. If these don’t work, you might have to pop out a section of the wall to get close enough to begin the thawing process.

How to Prevent Pipes from Freezing

The best way to thaw frozen pipes is to stop them from icing over in the first place. Pipes closest to unheated spaces or the exterior of your home are at the most risk. It’s not impossible for other pipes to freeze over, but this is less common as they’re usually close to insulation or between the floors of your home where it’s warm-->

    1. Keep your home warmer than 55 degrees: You’ll almost certainly prefer warmer temperatures than this, but 55 degrees or more is a good rule of thumb if you won’t be home.
    1. Insulate your pipes with electric pipe heat tape or insulation wrap: These materials keep pipes warmer, significantly reducing the risk they’ll freeze over.
    1. Keep a small amount of water trickling through the plumbing: Running water is much more difficult to freeze than stagnant water. You’ll want to do this with every faucet, and your water bill shouldn’t spike.
    1. Open cabinets and other doors to ensure even heat distribution: Closed doors and cabinets are unexpectedly good at keeping heat out. Leave these open in serious cold to keep warm air moving freely.

If you stick to these steps, you’ll either keep pipes from freezing or have a straightforward way of thawing them out. If you’d rather leave the work to a professional, call your nearest plumber in the U.S.. They’ll make sure your plumbing is taken care of safely.

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