Fixing a Frozen Pipe

Tips on How to Repair a Frozen Pipe

By Mark J. Donovan

It won’t be long before winter is upon us once more. For those of us living in northern climates we’ll have to get use to bundling up and shoveling snow again. And for some unfortunate homeowners they’ll also have to contend with frozen pipes during the winter months. I’ve personally had to deal with fixing a couple of frozen pipes in my homes over the years and in the subsequent paragraphs below I provide tips on how to make your own frozen pipe repairs.

Preventing Frozen Pipes

When it comes to frozen pipes the best solution is to make sure they never happen. You can do that in multiple ways. If you are having a home built make sure the plumber routes all plumbing lines on inside walls, and in particular the supply lines.

No supply line should be installed on exterior walls. Even the best insulated exterior walls cannot always be adequate enough for preventing a water pipe from freezing. Likewise, foam wrapped around plumbing supply lines is just as inadequate for protecting them from freezing when placed in exterior walls. Also make sure no plumbing supply lines are routed into cold attic spaces. A frozen pipe located in an attic that breaks and then subsequently spews water down onto your finished drywall ceilings is a major and expensive disaster.

If you have an existing home with plumbing supply lines in exterior walls I highly recommend paying the price and having them moved. It is a controlled expense that you can plan for when acting in a preventative manner, versus an uncontrolled and much more expensive situation when the pipe breaks unexpectedly during a cold winter night.

How to Fix a Frozen Pipe

If water will not flow out of a faucet when you turn it on, or you are no longer getting any heat out of your baseboard heaters, and you can’t find a water leak in your home, you may be fortunate in that you only have a frozen pipe, and not a broken one.

Frozen copper pipe

In this situation, identify the possible frozen areas of the pipe and gently heat them up with a hair dryer. If you are lucky the water will begin to flow again and you’ll have avoided a major catastrophe. After the water is confirmed flowing again through the pipe insulate it well for the short term. At some point down the road you may want to move the location of the pipe to prevent it from freezing again.

How to Fix a Frozen Pipe that Breaks

If you do have the situation where a frozen pipe breaks, make sure to first shut off water to the pipe and open the faucet at the far end of the pipe to drain any residual unfrozen water from it.

Next, carefully inspect the pipe that has frozen and broken to identify all the areas where it is damaged. Make sure to look for not just cracks, but also holes, including pin holes, in the pipe. In addition, check the entire length of pipe where it is exposed to cold temperatures, including if it runs into crawl spaces, or cold attic areas.

Once you’ve identified the broken section of copper supply pipe use a hair dryer to warm it up and to get the ice in the pipe to melt and drain. Once drained, cut out the section of pipe with a hacksaw or pipe cutter and replace it with an appropriate length. You’ll need a couple of straight fittings, as well as the length of replacement copper pipe. In addition, you’ll need a propane torch, flux, rag, emery cloth and lead-free solder to replace the section of pipe.

After cutting out the section of damaged pipe clean the ends you’ll be installing the new pipe to with a rag. Then lightly rub them with the emery cloth to make them shiny clean. Likewise use the emery cloth on the replacement length of pipe and the fittings. Then wipe the fittings and all the ends of the pipe down once again with the rag.

Next apply flux to the replacement pipe ends and the inside sections of the fittings and hand assemble them altogether. Similarly do the same on the ends of the pipe where you will install the replacement pipe section. Then install the replacement pipe section onto the ends of the existing pipe.

Once the new section of pipe has been hand installed, use the propane torch to melt a bead of solder around all the joints. After flowing a bead of solder around each joint immediately wipe it down with a moist rag. After soldering all the joints turn the water back onto the supply line and check for any leaks. If you were careful in your work you should have no leaks. Lastly wrap the pipe with foam insulation, followed by batt insulation. In the spring consider permanently relocating the pipe away from the cold areas of the home, or adding electrical pipe-heating wire to the sections of the pipe that are exposed to cold areas.

If you don’t feel up to making the repairs yourself, then at least wrap the broken areas of the pipe with duct tape or electrical tape for a temporary pipe repair. Then call your plumber to make the permanent repair as described above.

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