Pipes can be a big problem when the water in them freezes, expands and breaks the pipe. Water filling up a basement, kitchen or bathroom when a pipe breaks during cold weather is not only an inconvenience, but also expensive to fix when a person has to fix the pipe and any water damage that may have occurred.
The recent freezing temperatures have prompted the University of Missouri Extension to give out some helpful tips on how to avoid a pipe break and help unclog frozen pipes.
"With temperatures staying well below freezing, even people who have never had a pipe freeze could have problems," David Hedrick, director of the MU Extension's Fire and Rescue Training Institute, said. "Any pipes that run along an outside wall may be at additional risk."
Some outbuildings, especially in rural areas where farmers may have plumbing in their barns, stables and around their corrals to water their animals, could also have freezing pipes if those buildings do not have a heat source.
Extra insulation around the pipes would prevent them from freezing, according to MU Extension, but there are other ways to prevent frozen pipes.
Opening cabinet doors below sinks can help heat get to the pipes more easily. Be sure to move all cleaning supplies and other items that might be combustible from the cabinet. Also, putting a non-combustible heat source near the pipes, such as a shielded light bulb or a hair dryer can also help. Don't put either near combustibles because it may ignite a fire.
Though many have heard that letting all the faucets in a household run a small, steady trickle can prevent pipes from freezing because running water doesn't freeze as fast as water that is not moving, Hedrick warns against this. "That could create problems with water pressure and storage water in public water systems, which could affect the available water for firefighting purposes," Hendrick said.
There are some ways to unclog pipes if they do freeze. "The object is to thaw the pipe at the same rate that it froze, so it doesn't damage the pipes," Ronn Phillips, MU associate professor of architectural studies, said. "Nothing damages a pipe faster than dislodging the joints on a soldered connection. The joints are the weakest point."
He said relieving pressure in the line by turning on the faucet is the first step. Then, apply heat to the frozen section of the pipe. "Something as simple as a light bulb will work," he said.
Whatever heat source is used, the importance is that it needs to be able to heat the pipe slowly. "Blowtorches or kerosene and propane heaters heat up too quickly and could cause the pipe to break," Phillips said.
Plastic pipes can melt at lower temperatures than copper. Phillips said homeowners need to be careful with plastic pipes because it can become brittle and rigid at low temperatures. "Plastic is renowned for busting before copper," Phillips said.