In this basic plumbing emergency post, we look at frozen pipes and how to patch a leaking pipe. This information is presented to give homeowners a rudimentary understanding of what’s involved and what they can do working alongside a plumber.
How to Thaw Frozen Pipes
During cold weather, pipes in your walls, attic or under your floor can freeze. Frozen pipes crack or burst because as water freezes it expands. Note: The cracks may not be dramatic and immediately visible, but they will leak when the ice melts. Unless it’s in a high traffic area, chances are you won’t even notice until water begins pooling and damage is done.
If a frozen section of pipe is noticed in time, there may be no damage; but it must be thawed before any more freezing occurs (see below about thawing pipes).
Protecting pipes from freezing is the best course of action. Don’t wait until the first freeze or the dead of winter and a pipe freezes solid. Depending on the severity of the damage, you will need to call a plumber.
There are numerous ways to protect pipes, ranging from buying insulating caps or foam materials from an area home improvement center, hardware store, or plumbing supply to wrapping outdoor faucets with an old towel, T-shirt, plastic bags and duct tape. The goal is the same: not to let the cold air in through the pipes.
And remember: If the conditions outside are freezing, leave a tap on downstairs and upstairs (if applicable) to allow water to trickle out or drip before going to bed at night. It does not need to be a wasteful steady flow of water. It’s easy to remember if you live in an apartment — all those signs around the complex reminding you to open the faucets to drip, but it’s easy for homeowners to forget.
Locate the Frozen Pipe
If a pipe is frozen but there is a slow trickle at the faucet, leave it open. The trickling water may help to melt the blockage.
Continue with the following steps to ensure the pipes thaw completely. It’s good to try these before calling a plumber or plumbing contractor. It’s like rebooting your computer before calling tech support.
- Locate the section of pipe that is leaking or appears to have a leak. Sometimes broken pipes are very noticeable and dramatic. Other times the damage is harder to see and you will need the assistance of a plumber. Remember, plumbing isn’t one of those things you want to mess around with because, when something fails, it can go wrong quickly, dramatically, and expensively.
- Turn off the spigot or water source, if possible. If you are unsure, you can always turn off the water at the main.
- To determine whether a section of pipe is frozen, feel it. Frozen pipe will feel very cold, while pipe with free flowing water will feel notably warmer. In some cases, there may be a small bulge or rock solid feel to the pipe where water is frozen inside.
- If you are not sure, find a nearby pipe through which water is still flowing to compare. After a couple minutes of running, the pipe should be around 50 degrees.
- If you have an infrared thermometer, it makes finding frozen pipes easy. But how many homeowners have infrared thermometers laying around the house?
- If there is no water at any of the taps in the house, the main water line may be frozen somewhere between the meter and where the water line enters the house. Typically this line is buried at the locally mandated depth to protect it from freezing. There is little to be done to thaw a buried water line. If this is an issue, you will want to work with a plumber. The best course of action is to re-bury the line deeper, below the frost line, to ensure against future freezes.
- In serious freezes, there may be multiple frozen sections of pipe in various vulnerable locations. The first point to inspect is where the water line comes out of the ground and where it enters your home. Any exposed pipe is vulnerable if it is exposed to outside air, even if it is in your attic, unconditioned basement or crawlspace.
- Exterior walls, even when insulated, may get cold enough to freeze pipes inside the wall. Pipes that pass near an exterior vent in your home are subjected to colder air and are a good place to start hunting. If there is no water in only one part of the house, then the frozen pipe is probably in an exterior wall, attic, crawl space or basement.
- Once you locate the frozen section, if the pipe is accessible, inspect it visually and by running your fingers over the pipe to feel for cracks or splits. If you find damage, and it is a repair you feel you can make, get the repair materials before thawing the pipe.
- Before you start the thawing process, open water taps on the frozen line to allow water, steam or pressure to escape. This will allow water to drain out as the ice melts and will tell you if you have succeeded in melting the obstruction.
- How you heat the pipe depends upon the type of pipe and the location. But in all cases start nearest the tap and work outward. Never heat a pipe with direct flame or boiling water — an idea many homeowners think is good. Heating a pipe too quickly can result in bursting, damage and injury.
If you are uncertain about thawing a frozen pipe, work with a plumber, particularly if the pipe is inside a wall or there appears to be significant damage. Frozen pipes are not something to be taken lightly as they lead to other problems once thawing occurs.
How To Patch a Pipe Leak
Here are some steps to help you deal with a pipe leak or burst pipe. These are temporary fixes. A permanent fix depends on what is involved and the nature of the problem and may require calling a plumber for assistance.
- A water supply is under pressure, typically somewhere around 40 to 60 psi. This means that simply covering a leaking pipe with a rag will have little effect other than redirecting the water and soaking the rag.
- A patch on a leak requires counter-pressure as well as a compressible material to help in molding it to the shape of the crack, hole or damage to the pipe.
- Turn off water at a local water supply valve. Otherwise turn off the water at the main where it enters your home or at the city water meter/valve.
- Next, you will need a piece of material to cover the hole. Ideal materials include heavy gauge rubber such as an inner tube or the rubber lid-opener used in the kitchen. Another possibility is a piece of flexible leather, possibly from an old belt, purse or wallet. If you have PVC pipe available, roughly the diameter of the pipe being patched, you can cut a length of PVC, then cut out a chunk along the length creating a piece you can snap over then broken pipe. The patch must be bigger than the crack in the pipe.
- Now a device to hold it in place is needed. An ideal device is a band clamp. It must be the right size to fit around the pipe and be able to tighten down on the pipe. Another possibility is locking pliers.
- Place the patch over the hole. If you have band clamps, unfasten them all the way, wrap them around the patch and the pipe. Ideally, place one to the left and one to the right of the break and then a third directly over the break. Tighten them down enough to seal the leak, but not so tight that they crush the pipe (a risk greatest with plastic or copper pipe). If you only have locking pliers, close them over the patch and pipe, then tighten them by hand. Now unlock them and tighten them about one more turn; then re-lock them over the patch. If they cannot be closed with moderate effort, they may need to be loosened a fraction of a turn. If they are too loose, tighten them some more and try locking them over the patch again.
- Turn the water back on and check whether your patch is working. Keep an on the patch until you can affect permanent repairs as the leak may worsen.
Remember: Patching a pipe leak is temporary. You may be lulled into a false sense of security when the patch works. You have not solved the problem, just delayed it from leaking again. If you cannot permanently fix the pipe yourself, work with a plumber who has the knowledge and expertise to fix it quickly.