Preventing and Thawing Frozen Pipes

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Got frozen pipes? Blame hexagons. 

Pipe Physics: The normal water molecule (H20) looks like a mom holding hands with two kids. When in the liquid state, these triangular molecules slide freely around each other, but when frozen, they rearrange themselves into a hexagonal lattice structure. By volume, water expands about nine percent when frozen. 

Winter Headaches: That measly nine percent causes countless headaches when Father Winter comes knocking. Burst water pipes can rot out subfloors and damage ceilings – and problems only escalate. Once wet, untreated wood and carpet can mold and mildew, causing sickness and requiring renovation. Older pipes installed prior to the 1970s may leach toxins, like lead, when ruptured. Once damaged by major water leaks, a home may even lose its insurance eligibility.

A water supply pipe pumps water into the home; a sewer pipe flushes waste water to a municipal treatment facility. Between the two is a 3D labyrinth of pressurized water. Each one is at risk. If ice builds in a pipe, similar to plaque in an artery, backup pressures can rise to 3,000 psi. That is 75 times the pressure of a car tire. A 1/8-inch crack in a supply pipe can uncork 250 gallons of water every day. 

Protect your home this winter from frozen pipes.
Protect your home this winter from frozen pipes.

Preventing Frozen Pipes: The best cure is prevention. Before Jack Frost comes to play, a homeowner should:

• Drain water from seasonal pool lines, outdoor hoses, garden drip lines, etc. Store the hoses and pipes appropriately.

• Insulate any remaining outdoor water lines to outbuildings, guest houses, and built-in jacuzzis.

• Caulk and seal window trim gaps, cracked door jams, dryer vents, and any other gaps around the home where cold air can infiltrate.

• Insulate pipes that run along exterior walls. Attics, crawl spaces, garages and basements often have little insulation, particularly if they are additions. Naked pipes should be covered with commercial sleeves, insulation wrap or UL-listed heat tape, but even one-fourth an inch of newspaper is better than crossed fingers.

• If needed, pipes can be relocated by a licensed plumber.

Preparing for the Worst: But what happens when the mercury plummets? What happens when, as in the winter of 2013-2014 in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, temperatures do not rise above zero degrees for 75 consecutive days?

• Keep all exterior doors closed. Seal the garage. Barricade the patio. It’s a war, and the exterior doors are the front lines of the offense.

• Promote air circulation by opening cabinet doors, leaving doors cracked open, and let cold water drip from faucets served by exposed supply pipes.

• If leaving for the weekend, keep the thermostat temperature no lower than 55 degrees Fahrenheit. If traveling long-term, shut off and drain the water supply system.

Thawing Frozen Pipes: But sometimes Murphy’s Law kicks in. Pipes freeze despite the homeowner’s best efforts. A sharp drop in water pressure can signal a plugged pipe and requires immediate attention.

• Pipes that are frozen but unruptured can be wrapped in hot, wet towels. But be aware that once frozen, a pipe is more likely to burst the next cold snap.

• If a frozen pipe restricts all flow, the main water supply valve should be shut and the faucets left open.

• Burst frozen pipes require a 911 plumbing call.