Burst pipes can be a disaster. And you won’t just need a plumber, either. While the plumber will replace the pipe—and should ensure it doesn’t happen again—even a small crack can release hundreds of gallons of water into your home each day, destroying possessions, causing structural damage and creating the kinds of conditions that dangerous molds love.
First a little physics: Why do pipes burst?
Water expands when it freezes. Think of ice cubes—when you first put the tray in the freezer, the water is neatly contained in its little compartments. If the tray is filled a little too full, however, when you go to add a cube to your drink, you’ll find they’re all frozen together. At some point the water in each compartment expanded, overflowed and fused with its buddy in the next compartment over.
The same principle is at work when pipes burst.
Interestingly, though, it’s not usually the outward pressure of expanding water on the pipe walls that causes the pipe to burst. Here’s why. When a pipe is completely blocked by ice, water gets trapped between the ice dam at one end and the closed faucet at the other. As water expands further down the pipe and freezes, pressure builds up between the blockage and the tap…and the pipe will burst at its weakest point.
Think prevention: Winterize your plumbing
They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure…and in the case of frozen and burst pipes, a little prevention will save you whack of cash and some huge headaches, too.
Here are four tips worth taking as winter gets closer.
- Wrap up to stay warm. Check that any pipes close to the exterior walls or floors in a basement or crawlspace are properly insulated. Insulation value increases with the thickness of insulation you use, so don’t be afraid to wrap to the max. Not sure if you’ve got enough insulation? Call a plumber to do a quick assessment.
- Keep the heat in…and the cold out. Seal up any air leaks near your interior pipes to make sure they aren’t being exposed to freezing outdoor air. Cover any nearby outside vents that could let cold air. Don’t forget to check that there aren’t any gaps or cracks where the pipes enter your house, too.
- Turn off the taps. Outdoor water taps are a recipe for pipe disaster if the pipe running between the tap and the interior pipe freezes and bursts. Turn off the exterior water source…and don’t forget to turn on the taps to drain all remaining water.
- Keep the heat on. If your furnace quits, your basement pipes won’t stay warm for long. Invest in a little proactive heating maintenance to keep your water flowing well all winter. Even if your furnace is functioning properly, if your thermostat is turned down too low or you’ve closed all the vents in your basement, it may not be warm enough to keep pipes from freezing.
Plumber’s wisdom: How to fix a frozen pipe
Sometimes our best efforts at prevention aren’t successful. Or an early cold snap catches us unawares. If you turn on your tap and nothing comes out—and this is problem your neighbours aren’t also experiencing—here’s what you should do.
- Stay calm. Just because your pipe is frozen doesn’t mean it has—or will—burst.
- Turn off your main water valve. This is absolutely necessary if you know your water pipe has burst, as it’s the only way to stop the flow of good ol’ H2O. But it’s a good precaution if your pipe is frozen, just in case there’s a small crack you’re unaware of because the water is frozen.
- Try to locate the frozen section. This will be a part of the pipe that is noticeably colder than the rest…and there may be more than one if you have multiple blockages.
- Turn on the cold water tap closest to the frozen section of pipe. This will let the water escape safely down the drain when it melts.
- Warm the pipe. A hairdryer is best—unless the pipe has burst and there’s been a flood, in which case you should never operate electrical devices in the area. Start near the closest tap and work your way towards the frozen sections. Never use an open flame to thaw a pipe—it’s a fire hazard and could harm your pipes.
- Inspect the pipe for cracks. You’ll want to know you won’t cause a flood when you turn your main water valve back on.
- Fix the problem. Call in a reputable professional plumber to assess the situation and make recommendations.