Signs of Frozen Pipes (And How to Unfreeze Them)

As temps drop, your risk of a frozen pipe increases. Read on for all you need to know about preventing and unthawing frozen pipes.

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Winter is synonymous with heavy snowfalls, cold temperatures and harsh whipping winds. But winter can also bring about expensive damages, like frozen pipes.

Typical high risk areas for freezing include exterior piles and pipes within exterior walls, as well as exposed pipes that run through unheated or uninsulated areas such as attics or basements. According to the Insurance Information Institute, “water damage and freezing” claims account for 29.4 percent of all homeowner insurance claims in the US.

The good news is, by keeping an eye out for the warning signs of frozen pipes, you can help protect your family from needless hardship and unwanted expense.

Signs of Frozen Pipes

Limited Water: Did the water from your kitchen faucet dribble out when you tried to make coffee this morning? Lack of running water is one of the first signs of frozen pipes most people notice.

Bulging Pipes: When water freezes, water molecules expand, causing tremendous pressure that can make a pipe bulge noticeably.

Gurgling Sounds: If your pipes start “talking,” making banging or gurgling sounds, it can indicate you’ve got ice traveling through your pipes.

Condensation and Cracks: If you notice a pipe that’s covered in a layer of condensation or has small surface cracks, they may be freezing.

Smelly Water: A sewage smell emanating from your faucets usually accompanies a freezing exterior sewer line.

What Should I Do If I Notice Signs of Frozen Pipes?

If you suspect frozen pipes, shut off the water. You can turn off the water to the entire house or just the frozen pipe area, whichever is more accessible.

How Quickly Do Pipes Freeze?

Pipes can freeze in as little as six to eight hours, meaning they can freeze overnight. If the outside temperature is below 32 degrees F and your pipes are unprotected, your chances for a frozen pipe increase. Indoor pipes are more protected, typically requiring 20 F or lower for freezing to occur, according to the International Code Council.

Do Frozen Pipes Always Burst?

Thankfully, no. But ice does build up inside pipes, blocking unfrozen water from flowing.

Pipes made of copper, steel, PVC, PEX and other plastics are all susceptible to freezing, with copper being the most vulnerable to ruptures when frozen. PEX, PVC and other plastics will freeze but do not always burst.

Will Pipes Thaw on Their Own?

Technically yes, but the “wait-and-watch” method carries risk. As that ice begins to thaw, any water caught between the faucet and the ice will cause increased pressure within the pipe. That increase in pressure can lead to frozen pipes bursting.

How to Thaw a Frozen Pipe

Start by gathering a mop, bucket and any extra towels you can use to clean up leaks. When a frozen pipe thaws, water rushes out.

Next, you’ll want to raise the temperature of the frozen pipe carefully. You can use multiple methods to warm frozen pipes, including:

  • Portable heater: Position away from flammable materials as needed;

  • Heating cable: Affix to the pipe and plug into a nearby outlet;

  • Electric heating pad: Wrap around the frozen pipe and plug into an outlet;

  • Hairdryer: Slowly oscillate along the frozen pipe section;

  • Towels: Soak in hot water and wrap around frozen pipe, changing when the towel cools;

  • If you happen to have an infrared lamp on hand, you can use that in a pinch.

A word of caution: Never use open flame devices such as a propane or kerosene heater or a blowtorch to thaw your frozen pipes. Also, never leave heat sources unattended.

Frozen Pipe Prevention

An ounce of prevention really can have a huge impact on keeping your pipes from freezing this winter. Help prevent frozen pipes by:

  • Draining exterior water lines to prevent pressure from building up;

  • Insulating water pipes in unheated exterior walls, the basements or a crawl space;

  • Using sleeve-type insulation to help keep interior pipes above 20 F;

  • Keeping faucets open, even just a trickle, whenever temperatures are close to freezing;

  • Using space heaters for uninsulated areas or during extreme cold snaps. If possible, close room doors after unplugging a space heater to keep areas warm longer.

Dealing with freezing pipes can be frustrating. Implementing a few good habits when using heat sources can not only help you solve your frozen pipe problem, but help keep your family safe. Never leave space heaters or other heat sources unattended. If you leave the room or go to sleep for the night, unplug them. And never let children or pets play nearby.

Ana Chevalier
Ana Chevalier, MBA, is an award-winning writer specializing in engineering, technology, construction and HVAC. Her work has appeared in The Independent (UK), Huffington Post, The Telegraph (UK), The Chicago Sun-Times, The Los Angeles Times and Forbes, among others. Ana has also ghostwritten for Fortune 500 and Fortune 100 technology companies, as well as global leaders in the building engineering and industrial construction sectors. Ana is a self-professed supply-chain geek, a restorer of century homes, a lover of Min Pins, and, in her off-hours, writes award-winning short fiction.