Unfrozen Water: Tips for Thawing Pipes

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Credit: Photos.com Here are some tips for safely thawing frozen pipes.

Credit: Photos.com Here are some tips for safely thawing frozen pipes.

Editor's Note: Unless you are one of the lucky few who either lives or travels to a warmer climate for the winter months, then at some point you have had to (or will have to) deal with frozen water, whether in pipes or in place of where your horses should be drinking liquid water. This month we'll look at various ways to keep water unfrozen, ranging from tips on thawing pipes to heated buckets and automatic waterers to using heat tape. I would encourage you to share your tips here or in the Finding Out Forum.

As water freezes it expands, and that can cause no end of problems as it causes leaks or ruptured pipes.

When a bitter cold snap hits, it is not unusual for some pipes to freeze even with the best of precautions, particularly in horse barns. What is the best way to handle this situation to avoid a plumbing catastrophe?

Thawing pipes is best done in a methodical, step-by-step process. First, open the faucet attached to the frozen pipe to release any water or pressure that develops as you work on the problem. Keep in mind that when the water thaws you want to be prepared for it so it doesn't cause a puddle (or lake) that can freeze, causing icy walkways.

Then, begin thawing the pipe starting at the faucet and working backward toward the frozen area. Work from one end toward the frozen area so that water and ice fragments can flow out as the pipe thaws. A slow thaw works best, particularly for plastic pipe.

Thawing is accomplished with any number of heat sources:

  • Hot water can be poured over fabric that is wrapped snugly around the frozen pipe and faucet. This is messy, to say the least, and is not advised for plastic pipe.
  • Use an infrared lamp aimed at the frozen area, particularly on pipe that is located within a wall and easily exposed--you might need to leave the lamp plugged in for a while to warm the area. Unlike heat lamps, infrared lamps don’t heat the air, so their energy is directed entirely to warming the frozen pipe and surrounding walls.
  • A heat lamp, either infrared or incandescent, works to warm an exposed frozen pipe.A helpful tip: Place a cookie sheet behind the pipe so heat from the lamp radiates back onto the pipe.
  • Use a hair dryer directed back and forth across an exposed frozen pipe. The cookie sheet trick applies here as well.
  • Instead of a hair dryer that you have to operate manually, use a portable heater placed near the frozen pipe. Be sure to protect flammable materials from the heater, and protect the electric heater from the possibility of water spurting out of the pipe.
  • Wrap the frozen pipe with electrical heat tape and plug it in. Applying a layer of foam insulation over the heat tape greatly improves the efficiency.
  • An electric heating pad wrapped around the frozen area also works, but this is not advised for use on plastic pipe or over soldered joints.

For metal pipes, it might be tempting to use a propane torch with a flame-spreader nozzle to heat the pipe by gently moving the torch back and forth. This is problematic for several reasons--heated solder joints can melt and create a bigger mess, and an open flame creates a big fire risk. In addition, it is possible that heated water within the pipe could explode.

Preferred thawing methods are those listed above. And, whenever in doubt, call a licensed plumber.

If it is a drain pipe that is frozen, the hot water method works well. Insert a flexible hose into the drain pipe as far as it’ll go until you reach the area of ice. Elevate the end of the hose and pour hot water into it using a funnel. As the drain pipe thaws, use a container to catch the backflow that exits the hose.

Prevention is always the best key to avoiding major plumbing problems. Consult with your plumber about how to install preventive measures within your unique plumbing system.