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How to Thaw Frozen Pipes

This winter in Chicago, fire departments have responded to numerous calls involving frozen water pipes and breached sprinklers systems. Not surprising considering this season’s length of bitterly cold temperatures. What might surprise you? Emergency calls from misinformed homeowners attempting to use blowtorches and propane heaters to thaw them out.

Putting the Freeze on Fire Safety Hazards

For those that don’t understand the issue: Hand held torches, kerosene/propane heaters, charcoal stoves, and most heat lights are not recommended nor even remotely safe methods of thawing out frozen pipes.

Warming up to a Better Way of Thawing Frozen Pipes

According to experts (not ignorant homeowners on message boards), here’s how to thaw frozen pipes safely and prevent their return: First, if the pipes are at-risk of bursting, water to the pipe must be shut off. Surprisingly, they don’t burst where they’re frozen, it is the water pressure between the blockage and the closed faucet that expands and leads to pipe failure. If pipes are not at-risk of bursting, leaving the water on and moving can help thaw frozen water trapped in the pipe.

Identify Frozen Pipes

Find the pipes that are frozen. There may be more. Use an infrared thermometer, or gently tap with the handle of a screwdriver, listening for a difference in tone. Frozen pipes can be short or long, thin or wide. Understand you may not be able to see the frozen portion of the pipe.

Which Pipes are Most At-Risk of Freezing?

  • Pipes in unheated interior areas (basement, crawlspace, attic, garage).
  • Pipes along exterior walls.
  • Pipes in kitchen/bath cabinets.
  • Pipes that connect to an outdoor spigot.
  • Pipes in living spaces above a garage (especially if the garage door is left open).
  • Fire suppression/sprinkler system pipes.
  • Pool supply lines.
  • Water sprinkler pipes.

Pipe Thawing Rules to Live By

It is important to thaw frozen pipes correctly.

  1. Open the faucet.
    First, if the pipe has not burst, open the faucet the pipe delivers water to. Opening both hot and cold handles relieves pressure during the thawing process.
  2. Begin thawing, starting from the faucet-side.
    Work your way down toward the blockage (methods to follow). This ensures melting ice and pressure an escape route. Starting from the other end offers no route for pressure to escape, and increases the likelihood the pipe will burst.
  3. No half-measures.
    Continue the thawing process until pressure returns to full strength.

Safe Methods of Thawing Exposed Pipes

  • Hair dryer
    A hair dryer is one of the easiest, safest ways to thaw a pipe. Simply point-and-shoot, being careful to avoid contact with wet surfaces.
  • Hot towels
    Dunk towels in hot water, then wrap around the pipe. Lather, rinse and repeat until thawed.
  • Infrared heat lamp
    Working similarly to the sun’s rays, fast-working infrared heaters warm objects in a room, not just the air, leaving heat to linger longer than traditional heating methods, and making them an ideal option for thawing pipes.
  • Portable space heater
    Position the space heater per manufacture safety instructions, toward the frozen pipe, removing nearby flammables. Use an appliance with a built-in GFCI, or a GFCI outlet. Remember: Water + electricity = bad, and you may not see fissures in pipes until they thaw.
  • Electrical heating tape
    Purchased from your local hardware store, electrical heating tape is an interesting animal: Apply it to the pipe, then plug in as needed in problems areas. Some kinds turn on/off on their own.

Safe Methods for Thawing Enclosed Pipes

  • Turn up the heat
    Turning up the thermostat on your HVAC system can sometimes provide enough warmth for ice blockages to melt.
  • Infrared heat lamp
    Because of the penetrating effects of infrared heat lamps (discussed above), warmth may be able to penetrate wall covering and allow pipes to defrost.
  • Wall removal
    If the above methods aren’t workable, you can cut out a section of the wall covering to access the frozen pipe, then use any of the methods in the prior section.

Containing the Damage of Burst Pipes

If pipes have visible cracks or splits, turn off the water until pipes can be replaced to prevent damage to your property. Remember, just because it’s not currently leaking, doesn’t mean it hasn’t burst: One of the sinister characteristics of frozen pipes is that water frozen inside can plug leaks, leaving problems unseen until thawing.

For pipe replacements, problems thawing, or inability to locate frozen pipe sections, look to our sister-company Mr. Rooter Plumbing for support. If pipes rain on more than your parade, resulting in substantial water damage, rest assured the pros at Rainbow International® are here to help you mop things up. Contact for a fast resolution to winter woes today.