Bitterly cold weather has gripped the majority of the Midwest and Northeast. Even Niagara Falls has frozen! These record-breaking temperatures are wreaking havoc on people's pipes. A frozen pipe, if left untreated, can burst--causing thousands of dollars' worth of damage along the way.
Many landlords, property managers, and HOAs will need to take steps to prevent frozen pipes immediately--and to treat them if they do freeze.
Here are 5 proven ways to thaw frozen pipes–before they rupture.
As soon as you suspect that a pipe has frozen, try to find the problem area. It might be in your basement. It might be under a sink. Pipes located along exterior walls are most susceptible to freezing, so that's a good place to start. Run an electric hairdryer along your pipes to warm them up and get water flowing again.
If you don't have a hairdryer handy, try this technique. The hot towels may slowly thaw the blockage. This strategy is best used on copper or galvanized steel piping, as metal conducts heat. It will be less effective on PEX piping. As the towels gradually cool, you can place a bucket under the pipe and continually pour hot water over them. (It might be a bit messy, but if it works, it's worth it!)
Heating cables and heat tape can be a lifesaver when cold weather strikes.
Heating cables are self-regulating, automatically varying their heat output based upon the surrounding temperature. You wrap the cable around your pipes (ideally before they freeze--but you can do so afterwards to thaw them as well) and then plug the cable into a regular electrical socket. The cable can be overlapped to provide extra protection.
Heat tape is a flat tape coated in rubber. The heat tape must run flat along the pipe and cannot overlap itself. Be sure to read the manufacturer's instructions for installation. Some heat tapes cannot be used safely on plastic, such as PVC water lines.
If you plan to use either heating cables or heat tape, measure the length of your pipes before heading to the hardware store. This will help you to determine how much heating cable or tape you need. The cords come in various sizes, usually ranging from 30" to 80". Once applied, the cords will help to slowly thaw your frozen pipes; and if left plugged in, they can prevent your pipes from freezing again in the future.
The first three solutions won't do much good if you can't access the frozen pipe. If the frozen pipe is located behind a wall, one of your best (and only) options is to crank the thermostat. Sometime, heating the problem area is all you need to thaw the blockage. To speed the process along, consider using space heaters and/or infrared lamps against the wall where you suspect the frozen pipe is located.
When all else fails, it's time to bring in the pros. Most plumbing companies will have at least one thaw machine on hand. A thaw machine is a small, portable unit that a plumber will connect between a working pipe and a frozen pipe. Once the connections have been made (which look similar to jumper cables), the machine will then shoot electricity from one end to another. This heat conduction process is usually enough to thaw even the most stubbornly frozen pipes.
One thing that you should never do is use a blowtorch to thaw frozen pipes. It may seem like a logical solution, but the high-pressure heat could actually damage your pipes. You're also creating a fire hazard if there are combustible materials nearby. Frozen pipes are bad enough--the last thing you want to do is burn the house down trying to fix the problem!
If frozen pipes continue to be an issue, considering hiring a property manager. An experienced property manager will be able to manage these stressful situations for you. They should also be able to give you sound advice on issues of all kinds, including preventing frozen pipes in the future.
In the meantime, let's hope this cold snap ends soon! Costa Rica is looking better by the day!
P.S. For more helpful tips on thawing and preventing frozen pipes, check out this post: What to Do If Your Pipes Freeze