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Pro Tips on Dealing with Frozen Pipes

Dropping temperatures have your pipes freezing over? Here's what to do to get that water flowing. 

Photography by: Bryan Gardner

It's bad enough having to brave the outdoors in sub-freezing temperatures, but when frigid weather starts wreaking havoc on your pipes, winter can reach all new levels of frustrating. Get things under control with these pro tips from Brian McMahon, the owner of Chicago's Rocket Plumbing, who helps you figure out what to do about frozen pipes every step of the way.

Preventing Frozen Pipes


Dealing with frozen pipes is often a process that starts even before winter comes, since prevention is the best policy. The key to keeping your pipes protected from the cold, according to McMahon, is insulation. "The most important is knowing where you have exposed pipes and protecting those," he says. "Whenever piping is inside the wall, it's pretty insulated already and it’s fine. But when you've got pipes in places like underneath the stairs, that's where you need to be cautious." To keep the pipes insulated before the winter, McMahon recommends keeping a space heater around the area to keep the surrounding air from getting too cold. Another recommendation is to use heat tape, which McMahon notes is definitely more of a preventative measure than something to use as a tool once the pipes are already frozen. 


Another trick? Keep a little trickle of water running so that there is always a bit of motion in your pipes. "That's going to keep the waters shifting," says McMahon, and that in turn helps prevent the pipes from freezing. 

Identifying the Frozen Pipes


If winter comes around before you have a chance to insulate your pipes and you find that one of your pipes has become a casualty to the cold, the first step to take is identifying where the frozen section is. "Sometimes people will think that the pipes are frozen all throughout," says McMahon, "but you really want to pinpoint and focus on the specific area. The trick is to test them all. Turn on each individual fixture at one time, and you'll see that the problem is usually isolated."


[WINTERIZE: These tips will help you make your home cold weather ready.]

Unfreezing the Pipes


Once you've pinpointed the problem area, McMahon says that unfreezing the pipe can be as easy as tackling it with a blowdryer. "Most of the time, you really can just use a hairdryer to heat up the area and thaw it out," he says. Another method can be once again turning to a space heater. Even if you didn't have a heater in the area to keep the pipe from freezing, McMahon says that you can definitely use the heater to help warm it up once it has frozen, which will also help it thaw and open it up again. 

Dealing with Frozen Drains


Sometimes, if you've got a drain trap, it's possible for your drain to freeze in addition to just your pipes. If that happens, McMahon says that all you really need is a little bit of hot water to thaw it out. "All you really need to do is boil some water and pour it on the drain to unfreeze it," he says. In order to prevent drain freezing, either before it freezes or to prevent further freezing once you've thawed it with water, McMahon recommends pouring a bit of corn oil or antifreeze down the drain. "Because they don't freeze, the liquids will help prevent the drain from freezing, too."


[LEARN: Get more tips on dealing with your frozen pipes this winter.]

Dealing with a Split or Break


Because every pipe freezes differently and some cases are more severe than others, it's possible that a pipe actually crack a bit as a result of freezing. When that happens, McMahon says that the best bet really is to just enlist the help of a professional. "If the pipe splits and leaks, the water needs to be shut down entirely. And in those cases, the problem with sometimes be the whole pipe instead of just a section." Because an issue like that would require action like draining the pipes, cutting them down, and soldering them,  McMahon highly recommends bringing somebody in to help with that process instead of trying to go it alone.