How to Thaw Frozen Water Pipes in a Wall
“I can’t make it today, sorry.”
Such were the unfortunate words from my buddy. Our plan for a night of games and beers had been hijacked by frozen pipes at one of his rental properties. Being a landlord comes with a never-ending list of responsibilities, but my friend had yet to deal with this particular predicament. As fun as our night would have been, the thought of burst pipes spilling slush all over the basement made his decision easy.
Check Pipes When Weather Turns Cold
The occurrence wasn’t surprising since winter is especially brutal in Minnesota. Going outside for more than 30 seconds results in full numbing of the face and any other exposed skin. Taking out the dog involves more time layering than actual walking. Dogs simply do their business and flash an I’m-not-spending-any-more-time-out-here-than-necessary look and turn back to their houses.
Caught Early, Frozen Pipes Can Be an Easy Fix
I’ve never had to thaw pipes personally, so I was curious to hear exactly how my friend handled the situation. Turns out all he needed was a hair dryer. In his case, the pipe in question was in the basement and easy to access. He just ran the hair dryer along the pipe until things began to move out through the faucet.
How to Approach More Complex Situations
My buddy had a relatively easy fix for his situation but what if your frozen pipe is inside a wall? Before you panic and take a sledge to your living room, try these four steps:
- Locate the frozen section of pipe
- Open the faucet associated with the frozen pipe
- Target a heat source where ice has dammed the water flow
- Keep water moving until temperatures rise
Pinpoint the Frozen Area
First, identify where the pipe is frozen as accurately as possible. If it’s behind a wall, you’ll want to narrow down, as much as possible, exactly where in the wall it is before you cut into it. The wall will most likely be cold to the touch. If you press a small child to the wall and they scream, you’ve probably located it. If the wall is wet, it’s probably too late. If the child is wet, well that’s a different blog.
Create A Flow
Turn on the faucet associated with the pipe so the thawing water has an escape route. Once water starts thawing, the pipes are at greater risk for rupture.
Turn Up the Heat
The simplest thing you can try is turning up the thermostat. Who doesn’t love a sauna in January? Certainly, the small child you froze a minute ago will appreciate it. Increasing the temperature in your home may be enough to get things moving. Make sure air flow around the frozen section is maximized. Open doors and cabinets to allow warm air to circulate as efficiently as possible. You can try a space heater in the area, just be sure not to leave it unattended or your sauna could become a bon fire.
Focus Your Thawing Efforts
If raising the room temperature fails to get things moving, you’ll need a more focused approach. An infrared light aimed at the wall can target the frozen area. Heat lamps can be effective as well but run greater risk of damaging the walls. Don’t leave heat lamps unattended either, because, like the space heaters, they carry bon-fire risk. You’ll want to aim your heat source toward the faucet end of things so the melt can escape.
Last Resort, Structural Surgery
If none of these tactics gets your copper river flowing, you may need to cut into the drywall to reach the pipe. In the long run, it’s a better option than having water explode inside the wall and having to replace the wall, the carpet, the furniture and your angry spouse. Cut into the drywall with a utility knife and remove a small panel.
Once you have direct access to the pipe, use any of the above methods, including the hair dryer, to warm the pipe and move the ice flow toward the faucet. A trick, when possible, is to use a cookie sheet on the backside of the pipe to reflect the heat and protect the surface behind it.
Keep the Water Running
If you’ve unlocked the frozen section of pipe, leave a trickle of water running. Moving water is less likely to freeze. When your dog tells you he’s ready to walk around the block again, it’s probably safe to turn off the faucet – the pipe’s not going to freeze again.
Dealing with frozen pipes can be an unexpected hassle. Catching the problem sooner rather than later is key. It may be a bummer to give up your game night but it’s a lot better than having your house turn into a water park.