When Cold Hits, Pipes Can Cause Issues

Specialized tools allow for thawing of pipes in a safe manner when pipes are frozen at a home.
When Cold Hits, Pipes Can Cause Issues
A Roto-Rooter Philadelphia employee opens the back of their service van after arriving on a job site.

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When the temperatures dip below 32 degrees, plumbers know calls about frozen pipes will start coming in.

“When you get this cold, you pray you don’t have too many of those calls coming in,” says Jason Henning, a plumber with Trojan Plumbing Co. in Alsip, Illinois. “Frozen pipe calls are no fun at all.”

Henning recalls a case two years ago where the cold weather split the water main valve, and work had to be done inside and outside the home. The pipe going from the home had to be dug up and repaired. “It was minus 30 out and we put a tent up for some shelter outside so we could get the work done. We had to bring heaters out to warm up the ground so we could dig,” he says. “The machine we used to dig up the pipe kept getting stuck in the snow. It was just a miserable job.”

WHERE TO START

When Ray Patricks, a master plumber with Roto-Rooter Philadelphia, arrives at a home with frozen pipes, he initially seeks to isolate the problem. Patricks, who is also the safety and training manager with Roto-Rooter for the northeast part of the U.S., looks to see if one fixture is affected or the entire house. If it’s one location, Patricks traces the hot and cold waterlines back to find the problem.

If all the pipes in the house are frozen, Patricks checks for water pressure at the meter coupling. If he finds it, he traces the cold waterline path back into the building and work can be done internally. “On some occasions, the frozen waterlines will thaw and open within a few seconds, and other times it might take several hours for a complete thaw,” Patricks says. “Unfortunately, almost every frozen pipe case is unique.”

When Henning arrives on jobs, he evaluates whether the work will be done inside or outside, and if pipes need to be thawed out or completely replaced. He tries to prepare in advance for the different scenarios.

SPECIALIZED TOOLS

While plumbers use special pipe thawing equipment, Patricks says it is not uncommon for homeowners to try do-it-yourself methods before calling a plumber. He has arrived at many job sites after a homeowner has tried a hair dryer or propane torch to get the water moving. Patricks tries to caution people from thawing the pipes themselves since the methods are not always effective and there’s the risk that a pipe could burst.

“The extreme heat from a propane torch meeting the extreme cold of a frozen pipe could actually cause the pipe to shatter, potentially spraying a person with hot shrapnel,” he says. “There is also risk of catching surrounding building materials on fire with a torch.”

The plumber’s thawing machine sends a small electrical charge through the pipe, which heats up the frozen section until the water starts moving again. That slow, steady effort is what works, Patricks says. Roto-Rooter of Philadelphia technicians use Systematics Icebreaker 450s to defreeze the pipes.

“We continue moving the machine down the cold waterline until the entire length of pipe is thawed,” he says. Once the pipes are unfrozen, Patricks walks around the entire property to check everything out.

“Sometimes a copper waterline will split from the extreme pressure caused by ice expanding inside. When the pipe thaws out, the water will rush out of the pipe through the rupture, quickly causing substantial water damage to the property,” he says. “It’s best to be prepared to discover a water leak whenever you are thawing out frozen pipes by knowing where the shut-off valves are to quickly turn off the water so you can minimize water damage as much as possible.”

INFORMING THE CUSTOMERS

Situations like the one Henning experienced two years ago reinforce the importance of prevention by making sure customers know what they need to do to keep their pipes from freezing.

“The important thing is to keep it warm in the home,” he says. “We’ve had two cases this year where people lost heat in their basement and had their pipes freeze up. We go in, shut off the water and repair the pipes. Once the heat is back on, the customer should be good to go and the water can be turned back on.”



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