Don’t Freak Out – It’s Just a Frozen Pipe

frozen_pipe

People always talk about the weather. Yes, it’s been cold lately. One of the reasons we moved south was to escape long and dreary winters that come with living in the Northeast. But sometimes it catches up with us even down here. Southern cities like Atlanta get shut down completely over 2 inches of snow. Cameras and social media are documenting 18 hour commutes, children sleeping in school gymnasiums and parents camping out in stores unable to get home. Around here DOT seems to be a bit more prepared, putting down salt and sand on the roads before the weather moves in. Still, schools close pretty much anytime the snow is in the forecast and this winter, simply because it’s “too cold” outside. That’s a first.

It was one of those cold nights when I came back home from work to discover that only a trickle of water was coming out from a kitchen faucet turned on full blast. Temperature outside was in the teens for a couple of days now so a frozen pipe was an immediate suspect. Our two programmable thermostats keep the house at 62 degrees during the day when no one is home and we’ve never had issues with pipes freezing. In our old house we did have a pipe burst, but that was my fault for not disconnecting the garden hose from the sillcock in the fall. As outside temperature dropped below 32 the standing water froze and burst the copper pipe leading to the sillcock. After a relatively easy repair with GatorBITE I learned my lesson and now always disconnect garden hoses and put them in the garage until spring.

Another thing I learned through homeownership is that if your house sits on a crawl space you need to open the foundation vents in the spring and close them in the fall. The reasoning behind opening them is to allow the air to circulate under the house, which should prevent any moisture build up, which can potentially lead to mildew or even wood rot. In the winter the air is much drier and colder so it’s recommended that crawl space vents are closed to avoid pipes freezing. It should also make your house warmer naturally since there is no cold air blowing under the floors. It’s a good idea to follow this advice if you ever experience freezing temperatures in your area.

While I knew that all vents are closed I was still worried about frozen pipes so I went out to investigate. Approaching the crawl space I noticed that the metal door was partially open. What the … ? Still, I did not hear or see any rushing water – a good sign. Our water heater is in the attic so I went to check it just in case and everything was fine there as well.

Since we had water in the morning, I thought that maybe a pipe froze while we were at work so there was not enough time for it to actually burst. Recalling the partially open crawl space door it made sense to assume that it would be a pipe closest to the door that was causing a problem.

It just so happens that the main PVC water pipe connects to the copper pipe running to the water heater right in front of the crawl space door. The copper pipe then immediately bends at a 90 degree angle, which would be a perfect spot for the water to freeze.

I took a picture of the area so you can see what I’m talking about. The setup should be familiar if you read my sprinkler winterization DIY post.

frozen_pipe

OK, so that’s the theory but now what? It’s 7 PM, 15 degrees outside, there is no water, we need to cook dinner, our son needs a bath… We could pick up a phone and call a plumber to come out and fix whatever the problem is. This is an easy, albeit expensive route which doesn’t even guarantee that we would have our water tonight.*

I think a better approach is to at least try to fix the problem yourself. You can always call a plumber later. If our frozen pipe theory is correct then we should try unfreezing the pipe, simple as that. We have a suspect location so now we just need a heat source. Luckily, I already have a trusty Wagner heat gun in my garage. I bought it as part of my DIY Auto Mechanic Tool Collection but quickly found myself using it on other projects. My wife was happy because too I stopped stealing her hair drier. A proper heat gun is also a lot more powerful and a lot less delicate than a hair drier. I highly recommend adding this tool to your assortment if you don’t already have it!

So I grabbed my heat gun, headed back to the crawl space and applied the heat to the 90 degree elbow area. Not more than 3 minutes later I heard my wife calling out in excitement – the water was back on!

And that’s a wrap on the 5 minute frozen pipe DIY fix. Zero dollars spent. No waiting for a plumber. Hot showers for all!

*True story

My wife’s co-worker experienced the same exact problem a couple of days before us. Apparently one of the vents was left open in the crawl space and a pipe froze overnight. Co-worker called a plumber who came in a few hours later and shut off the water heater (I’m not sure why it was necessary). He then went to the crawl space and did *something* there for a while, emerging to tell the family that he found a frozen pipe but must wait until tomorrow to come back and turn on the water heater. He did not have to replace anything and nothing was broken. This family with 2 small children spent 2 days without water and paid several hundred dollars for the privilege.

Conspiracy?

My wife swears she didn’t leave our crawl space door open. Since it’s practically impossible for the door to open itself, our working theory is that an entrepreneurial plumber decided to cash in on the cold weather by opening crawl space doors and vents in our area 🙂

 

4 thoughts on “Don’t Freak Out – It’s Just a Frozen Pipe

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  2. Ha, ha, I like the conspiracy theory! I hope you installed insulation on the pipe after thawing as a more permanent solution. There is nothing more frustrating than fixing something more than once, IMO.

    BTW, PVC pipe is no longer code approved in my area
    (even on cold water line). Must be CPVC…which is less brittle than PVC.

    • Good point. I haven’t yet but probably should at some point. So far so good though and I’m 99% sure it won’t happen again even without adding insulation as long as the crawl space door and vents are closed. The hot air furnace is in the crawl space not too far from the pipes and it gives out enough heat to keep the space warm even on the coldest days.

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