Frozen pipes: how to thaw them and what to do to avoid burst pipes
With cold weather comes the risk of frozen pipes – and if they burst the damage can be devastating. Here's what to do
Worried about cold weather – it’s coming – causing frozen pipes, or worse, burst pipes? Freezing winter weather and sub-zero temperatures can wreak havoc on our homes, and frozen pipes that crack or burst can be amongst the most destructive.
A harsh frost can very quickly, and often unexpectedly, freeze water solid in pipes. This leads to cracks or breaks appearing in the pipes, followed by water leaks either dripping or worse, cascading, down and through a house, damaging decor and furnishings, flooring, and blowing plasterwork and electrics as it goes.
So, it’s worth preparing ahead both to avoid frozen pipes in the first place, and to know what to do if they do burst to minimise damage. And, of course, all of this is all the more important if you are planning to be away from home for any length of time.
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How to prevent frozen pipes
Use these simple hacks to stop pipes freezing in the first place.
1. Keep the water in the pipes warm
If you allow your heating to turn off completely at night, then your water pipes will cool down and potentially freeze – so if very cold weather is forecast, keeping the heating on consistently low is a wise move.
2. Keep the water in the pipes moving
If freezing weather is forecast, keeping the water moving will stop pipes freezing. You can do this by regularly running water through taps – especially taps that are exposed, perhaps outdoors. Even leaving the tap to drip off and on will help stop the water in the pipes freezing.
3. Insulate pipes to stop them freezing
Insulating pipes indoors and out will protect them from the cold – and it’s easy to do. You can use foam insulation on exposed pipes or insulate attics and cavity walls to protect them from the cold.
4. Keep your home’s cold spots warm
If you have an unheated closed porch, boot room or pantry with water pipes in them, ensure the pipes are insulated or – as a short term fix – leave an adjoining door that leads to a heated room indoors open. Better to be chilly for a day while you work on getting the insulation done than suffering burst pipes. Similarly, garage doors should be kept shut if there is water supply there, too.
5. Invest in a smart thermostat
Some smart thermostats, such as the Nest Learning Thermostat, can monitor your heating system and let you know if your pipes are in danger of freezing before it happens.
6. Invest in a smart sensor
Smart sensors are another piece of smart tech that can combat frozen pipes before they become a problem. Grohe’s Sense and Sense Guard, for example, can monitor the temperature of incoming water and detect leaks in key places in your home – which it will then notify you about with a message to your smart phone. If fitted on a mains water pipe, it will even let you switch off your water supply remotely. And you can set it to detect burst pipes automatically and turn off the water supply for you.
7. Look out for the signs of frozen pipes
These are the three clues to look for:
- Your taps or drains are giving off an unpleasant smell.
- The water runs weakly from the taps.
- There is frost on the outside of the pipes.
- If boiler pipes are frozen, you might notice a gurgling noise and an error message. Always alert a professional to help you with this.
How do you unfreeze frozen pipes?
Here's what to do:
1. Turn the water off at the mains
The first thing you want to do is minimise the flow of water as you thaw the pipes. The tap to do this is often near a water meter, boiler – inside or outside – or under the kitchen sink or possibly the bath in an old, unrenovated house.
2. Use warm water to unfreeze pipes
There are various ways to do this – a hot water bottle filled with warm to hot (not boiling) water and tied to the frozen section of the pipe will start the job. Or, you can pour a jug of warm – again, not boiling, which might make the pipe crack – water over the frozen pipe to melt the ice. Or, a face flannel or towel soaked in warm water wrapped around the pipe (and refreshed regularly) will help thaw the frozen water inside.
3. Use a hairdryer to thaw frozen pipes
Hot air aimed at a frozen pipe can thaw it gently. Don’t allow the pipe to become quickly too hot to avoid cracking, and be sure to keep the hairdryer away from water.
4. Warm up the room
The heating won’t be on, obviously, but a portable heater near the frozen pipe can warm up the room it’s in enough to thaw it gently.
5. Turn the heating back on
With the frozen pipes thawed, and assuming there are no leaks and the boiler is functioning safely, turn the water back on at the mains and run the taps and heating system.
6. Revisit your home insurance
Many homeowners don’t have plumbing as part of their home insurance – now is the time to check yours covers frozen and burst pipes or boilers damaged by freezing conditions.
Lucy Searle has written about interiors, property and gardens since 1990, working her way around the interiors departments of women's magazines before switching to interiors-only titles in the mid-nineties. She was Associate Editor on Ideal Home, and Launch Editor of 4Homes magazine, before moving into digital in 2007, launching Channel 4's flagship website, Channel4.com/4homes. In 2018, Lucy took on the role of Global Editor in Chief for Realhomes.com, taking the site from a small magazine add-on to a global success. She was asked to repeat that success at Homes & Gardens, where she has also taken on the editorship of the magazine.
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