Frozen Pipes and What You Can Do About Them

Cold Weather Advice From Your

Mohawk Valley Water Authority

 

What are some common reasons for frozen pipes?

 

     Water pipes will usually be more susceptible to freezing when the outdoor air temperature is below the “teens” and “twenties” for more than several weeks. Special attention should be given when the outdoor temperature does not rise above zero degrees during the daytime hours. Some reasons for frozen pipes include:

 

 *  Unheated basement where the water meter and pipes are located;

 *  Uninsulated pipes running against cold outside walls;

*   Open or broken windows near water meters or pipes;

*   Openings or cracks that allow cold air to affect the water meter or pipes;

*   Water meter and water pipes enclosed or boxed in against outside walls.

 

How will I know if my pipes are frozen?

 

     Generally, when a pipe that feeds a certain fixture such as a shower, sink, or toilet freezes, you will not be able to get water from that fixture.

 

Why do frozen water pipes break?

     When water freezes within a pipe, the volume of water expands. The same amount of water takes up more space as a solid than as a liquid. This causes the pipes to expand and possibly break at a weak point. You may notice this immediately, or it may not become apparent until the pipe begins to thaw, with the break occurring only when full water pressure is restored.

 

Does this apply to water service lines (the pipes that run from the house to the street) as well as indoor pipes?

 

     Yes! Water service lines can freeze when the ground frost gets deep enough to encase your service line in ice. However, this generally happens only when your service line is less than five feet below the surface of the ground.

 

By the way, what is a water service line?

     A water service line is the pipe that connects to the MVWA’s water main in the street, and brings fresh water into your home. This line should have valves on it that allow your water to be turned on or off. It’s usually located in the basement. If you have a slab-foundation house instead of a basement or crawl space, your shut-off valve may be at the point where the water supply pipes come up through the slab. Either way, it’s a good idea to tie a tag to the valve, so you can find it quickly in an emergency.

 

Where should I look to find my shut-off valves?

     There are actually two major shut-off valves in your service line. The first valve is called a “curb-stop.” It’s generally located near the property line, and is normally housed in a cylinder with a cap on it called the “curb box.” The other major valve is located in your home, just before the water meter. Other valves may be located near plumbing appliances such as sinks and toilets.

 

Which parts of these service lines are my responsibility, and which are the responsibility of the Mohawk Valley Water Authority?

     The resident’s responsibility for maintenance begins immediately after the “curb stop” and extends through the entire home. The resident is also responsibility for the shut-off valve next to the water meter, although the meter itself is the property of the MVWA. The “curb stop” is the responsibility of the Water Authority.

 

How should I maintain the main shut-off valve?

 

     Keeping the main shut-off valve in good working condition will ensure that you are able to turn your water off if one of your pipes breaks, or in the event of another emergency. Give the valve a turn occasionally to prevent possible corrosion build-up (if the valve is already stiff from corrosion, a little WD-40 will dissolve the build-up). Don’t forget to turn the valve back to the position it was in originally when you’re finished with the test!

 

What if my main shut-off valve won’t work in an emergency?

 

     Call us immediately at (315) 792-0301. We’ll send someone out to shut your water off at the “curb-stop.”

 

What should I do if my pipes freeze?

    Your best course of action is to call a professional plumber, as the Mohawk Valley Water Authority does not deal with frozen service lines or pipes.

 

Can I try thawing the pipes myself?

     Yes, but you’ll need to be very careful! Some improper thawing methods could cause the pipes to burst; others can injure or even kill you! Here are some of the safer methods:


 *  If possible, expose a boxed-in area to the heat within your home;

*   Use a heat gun or a hair dryer to thaw the pipe, but set the controls on “low!” Be extremely careful, as heat from a heat gun (or, in some cases, from a blow dryer) may ignite nearby wood or paper;

*   Rub the pipe with warm, damp rags to slowly thaw the line;

*   Keep the faucet open while thawing the pipe. As the frozen area begins to melt, water begins to flow. This will help melt more ice in the pipe. Apply heat until full water pressure is restored;

*   While you’re at it, check the other faucets in the house to find out if you have any additional frozen pipes. If one pipe freezes, others may freeze, too;

*   The broken pipe will have to be soldered or replaced. You must be the judge of whether you can do this yourself, or whether you’ll need to call a plumber. P.S. – When the break is fixed, make sure the area around the pipe gets plenty of air circulation, so that nearby insulation and other building materials have a chance to dry.


    Whatever you do, DO NOT try to thaw a frozen pipe with a blowtorch. There’s a good chance that you will cause the water to boil within the pipe, resulting in an explosion when the pipe bursts. Also, a blow torch will release poisonous gasses into the air; you might die trying to defrost your pipes! 

 

Would you talk about some preventive measures? How can I prevent my pipes from freezing in the first place?

    There are many things you can do to keep your pipes from freezing in extreme weather. Here are just a few suggestions:

 

*   Keeping the water meter area or pipes on “outside” walls exposed to heat from nearby rooms;

*   Allow warm air to circulate around pipes. Open bathroom and kitchen cabinet doors to allow warmer air to circulate around the plumbing (be sure to move any harmful cleaners and household chemicals out of the reach of the kids);

*   Better yet, insulate your pipes! You can buy products made specifically to insulate water pipes, such as “pipe sleeves,” “heat tape,” “heat cables,” or other similar products. Most of them are available at your local building supply center. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions for installing and using these products;

*   Check your home for areas where water pipes are located, especially those in unheated areas. Look in the basement, crawl spaces, attic, garage, and under kitchen and bathroom cabinets. Both hot and cold water pipes should be insulated – one can freeze just as easily as the other if water is not running through the pipe and the temperature in the pipe is cold;

*   Caulk and seal any openings in outside walls near your water pipes;

*   Got a swimming pool? Drain the water according to the manufacturer’s or installer’s instructions;

*   Remove, drain, and store any hoses used outdoors. Close the inside valves that supply outdoor faucets, and open those faucets so the water can drain out. And leave it open, so that any water remaining in the pipe can expand without causing the pipe to break;

*  Keep the thermostat set to the same temperature both day and night. You may get a higher heating bill by not lowering the temperature at night, but you can prevent a much more costly repair job if the pipes freeze and burst. And, don’t set the temperature below 60 when you go out;

*   If it’s absolutely necessary, keep some tap water running. Not a lot; just a trickle. Moving water doesn’t freeze as readily as stagnant water.  Understand, though that this method will result in an increased water bill;

*  If no one will be home for an extended period of time during extreme weather (going to Florida for the winter?), you might consider turning your main valve off altogether, and hiring a plumber to drain your system, including all water pipes and fixtures. That way, there will be no water in your pipes to freeze! Even if your pipes have never frozen before, there’s always the chance that a severe cold snap could cause an electrical blackout that disables your furnace. Winterizing your water system will ensure that your pipes don’t freeze.

 

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