One of the biggest challenges that we face in the winter at our little mountain abode is dealing with frozen water pipes. Our cabin is constructed very similar to an RV in terms of how the plumbing is run. If we don’t pay very close attention to the temperatures, we have learned that we’ll wake up to the unpleasant chore of thawing frozen pipes.
Our plumbing is comprised of what I believe is called PEX tubing. The pipes are made of a flexible plastic material which is really easy to work with but it comes with its own set of problems when it becomes necessary to thaw them out. The main one is that we can’t really apply much heat to them or they become soft and melt.
Today, I’m going to be sharing some tips about things that have worked for us on how to thaw frozen pipes. We’ve had our share of experience with this over the years and I’m hoping that the lessons that we have learned might help you in some way. Keep in mind that I’m merely sharing tips that have worked for us. If you’re having a hard time getting your pipes thawed, the best thing to do would be to call a plumber so they can get your pipes thawed out before they crack or burst.
What To Do About Frozen Pipes
The first thing you need to do when you realize that your water pipes are frozen is to not panic and do something that will end up causing you more problems. Keep in mind that your pipes are frozen because the temperature inside the pipes stayed below 32 degrees Fahrenheit long enough for an ice dam to form. The solution to this problem is to safely raise the temperature of the section of the pipe that is frozen until the ice dam thaws out. This may seem like an easy fix on the surface but if not done properly, you can end up with a big mess on your hands.
I’ve heard some people say that you should turn your main water supply valve off if your pipes freeze. I don’t actually know if this should be done or not. You should call a plumber and ask them if they think you should shut your main supply valve off. If your pipes have actually cracked or burst, water will leak all over when the ice in them finally thaws so if this were to happen to me, I would shut off the water at the main supply valve to stop the water from leaking all over and quickly call a plumber to fix the pipes. That is unless it was a repair that my husband thought he could do. In that case we’d have him fix the broken pipe. If you’re not qualified to do this kind of repair properly, you really should call a plumber.
I don’t know if this is the “proper” way to thaw frozen pipes but we like to leave the main supply valve on when we are thawing our pipes. We also like to turn our faucets on. The reason we do this is because if we’re able to thaw the ice dam just enough to let a tiny trickle of water begin to flow through our pipes, we’ve found that the flowing water will often thaw the rest of the ice dam.
Some people have been known to pull out the old propane torch and start pouring the heat to their metal pipes with an open flame to thaw them out but this can pose a significant fire hazard and should NEVER be done! It’s much safer to apply heat to the pipe at a slow controlled rate than to bombard it with an open flame.
It’s really important to point out that frozen pipes can be much more than an inconvenience. When water freezes, it expands and the expanding ice in your pipes can cause them to burst which will likely result in some expensive water damage repair bills in addition to the cost of having your pipes repaired. If you have frozen pipes and you can’t access them to safely thaw them, you should probably call a plumber who will bring a specialized pipe thawing machine to your house.
My husband can be a bit stubborn and he doesn’t believe in calling someone to do something that he thinks he can do himself. The tips that I’m about to provide you on how to fix frozen pipes and get the water flowing again have worked for us but WE ARE NOT PLUMBERS so if you choose to use any of these tips, you need to understand that you are doing so at your own risk. What worked for us may not necessarily work for you or be the best way to do thaw pipes.
When you realize that your water pipes are frozen, it’s time to act and I mean act right away! This isn’t something that you want to deal with after work. The longer your pipes are frozen, the harder they will be to thaw and the higher the chance that they will burst. Before you do anything, make sure that you know where the water shutoff valve to your house is. This way you won’t waste any time turning the water off if a pipe does burst.
Step one that we take when thawing out our frozen pipes is to try and figure out where the pipes are actually frozen. The fact that you opened a faucet and no water came out doesn’t mean that all of your pipes are frozen. If you caught the problem soon enough, it’s possible that there is just a small section of pipe that is frozen. This is usually going to be in a portion of pipe that is in an unheated area of your home. Some likely culprits are crawl spaces, attics, garages, under sinks, and in unfinished rooms in basements.
We find that it’s often helpful to go room by room and turn on one faucet at at time. We start at the faucet that is closest to the main water supply line for our house and then work towards the faucet that is farthest away and we can sometimes narrow down the source of the problem. Once we have figured out where the frozen section of pipe is, we try to figure out if it is in a location where we can get some heat to it. This may mean opening the cupboards under our sinks and turning the heat up in the house or it may mean placing a space heater near a frozen pipe. If you do this, make sure that you don’t put the heater too close to any combustible materials! You don’t want to have frozen pipes and start your house on fire at the same time!
The main thing is that we try to do something immediately to start bringing the temperature of our frozen pipes up above 32° so that the ice dam will thaw and allow water to flow again. Remember, the longer the pipes stay frozen, the more pressure is building in them since water expands when it freezes. Since our pipes are plastic, we prefer to warm our pipes slowly so we apply mild heat to the frozen pipe with a space heater or a hair dryer on the low heat setting. We’ve even had success by wrapping the frozen section of our pipes with towels that we have soaked with hot water from the stove.
As mentioned above, we’ve had success by opening the faucets that are affected by the blockage so that when we are able to get the pipes warm enough to allow a tiny trickle of water through, the process of water flowing through the pipe will often thaw the remainder of the blockage. Once we get that trickle of water to start flowing, we’re usaully in good shape and the thawing will happen faster and faster until there is no more ice in our pipes.
How To Unfreeze Water Pipes That You Can’t Access
Whenever our pipes freeze, the ice blockage usually occurs in a three foot section of pipe that is buried in the trench that goes from our water storage tank to our house. This means that there’s no possible way of applying heat to the pipe because it’s buried. We’ve tried insulating it as well as we can but nothing seems to keep this section of our plumbing from freezing on really cold nights.
My husband can be quite resourceful and one day he was thinking that what we need to do is figure out a way to apply heat to the blockage from inside the pipe. After letting the problem roll around in his head for a while, he came up with a solution that he thought would work so he headed to the hardware store to buy a few supplies. Keep in mind that our cabin isn’t plumbed like most homes so this method probably won’t work for your home. I just thought I would mention it because it’s a clever method of thawing our pipes that my husband came up with.
What he bought was a brass fitting that had garden hose threads on one end and a 1/4 compression fitting on the other end. The only other thing he bought was a roll of 1/4 flexible plastic ice maker supply line. This is the kind of tubing that you connect to the back of your refrigerator so that it will supply your freezer with water and make ice cubes for you.
Then all he did was connect the ice maker supply line to the brass fitting with the compression nut. He then screwed the fitting of the garden hose connection onto the top of a submersible water pump. What he actually created with these parts is a homemade miniature water jet.
I must admit that I think this device is pure genius and it has worked perfectly for us every time. If you’ve ever had to call a plumber to clean your drains with a water jet, you’ve seen how they thread a hose with a high pressure nozzle down the drain and the pressure from the water breaks the blockage loose. This device works in a similar way except it’s not high pressure that thaws the ice, it’s the constant low pressure stream of warm water that is hitting the ice dam in the pipe that does the thawing.
My husband made another fitting that connects a four foot piece of flexible PEX tubing to the pipe that supplies our cabin with water. It has a cap on it so when he doesn’t need to use it, he just caps it off.
Whenever our pipes are frozen, he first closes the water shut off valve at our cistern and then he places the pump in a five gallon bucket of slightly warm water. He then attaches the ice maker tubing to the pump with the fitting that he bought at the hardware store. He then places the end of the four foot flexible PEX tubing in the bucket. Next he starts feeding the 1/4 plastic ice maker tubing into the four foot section of PEX. When the tubing reaches the ice blockage, he plugs the pump into a GFCI outlet and it starts shooting a steady low pressure stream of warm water directly at the ice dam. Note that this device doesn’t build up any pressure in the pipe. The water simply hits the ice blockage and the excess water just flows back up through the PEX tubing and back into the bucket. There’s no mess at all and as the ice dam begins to melt, he slowly inches the 1/4 plastic tubing further and further into the pipe until it is completely thawed. When it breaks through the ice dam, he just pulls the ice maker supply tubing out, caps the line, turns the water supply valve back on, and we’re back in business. He always carefully checks for leaks to make sure that he made a water tight seal when he reconnected the pipes.
The illustration below is a very rough drawing of the device that he built for thawing out frozen water pipes. You’ll have to excuse my art work but it will give you an idea of what it is that I’ve been trying to describe to you. In the drawing, the brass fitting isn’t screwed onto the pump but when it’s in use, we do in fact screw the fitting onto the pump so that the water will flow out through the flexible plastic ice maker tubing.
2/20/15 Update: I’ve received a few comments from people who had 100 or more feet of buried pipe to thaw. I was pleased to hear that few people who commented said that they were able to get their pipes thawed using this trick. Feel free to read their comments which are located at the bottom of this page after you finish reading this article.
I thought I should mention that we’ve never had to feed that much of the ice maker supply line into our pipes. Theoretically, I guess it could be possible to get the tubing stuck inside of the pipe if you’re feeding that much line into the pipe; especially if the pipe isn’t a straight run. If you’re feeding a long stretch of tubing into your pipe, be very careful that you don’t get it stuck. If it was me, I would carefully feed a few inches in and then pull it out; slowly repeating this process to make sure I didn’t get it stuck in the pipe. If you decide to use this tip, you’re doing so at your own risk and you need to use your own best judgement. It has worked for us many times but your results may be different depending upon your specific situation.
Frustrated With Your RV Pipes Freezing?
Lately I’ve been getting some emails from people who have frozen RV pipes in their motorhomes, 5th wheels, and travel trailers. When we first moved off the grid, we were making use of our 5th wheel to shower in and wash our dishes. We moved onto the mountain at the end of September so as you can imagine, it wasn’t long before we started dealing with the unpleasant problem of frozen RV water pipes.
We found that when our RV pipes froze, the ice dam was almost always in the section of plastic pipe under the RV that runs from the water tank to the pump. The first thing my husband always did was get under the RV and use a hair dryer to thaw that pipe out. Thawing this section of pipe out usually got the water flowing in our RV again. We actually installed a GFCI outlet outside that we could plug the hair dryer into when my husband had to use the hair dryer while he was laying on his back in the snow.
Many RV’s are going to have flexible PEX type plumbing. This means that RV pipes might be good candidates for being thawed with the micro water jet that I described above if thawing the pipe under the RV with a hair dryer doesn’t work. Keep in mind that this device has worked for thawing our pipes. If you decide to make a similar device, you are doing so at your own risk. Thawing frozen RV pipes poses a particular problem for many people because they are usually not going to be made of metal. This means that a plumber probably can’t hook up his pipe thawing machine to start thawing them out.
The challenges that people run into when they wake up to find their RV pipes frozen are that it’s not always easy to access the pipes. Step number one is to get a pen and paper and figure out exactly where the pipes are running. Start at a location where you know there is a pipe and then start following it to it’s next fixture. I find that it’s helpful to draw a little blueprint of where all my RV pipes are so I know where they might be frozen.
Once you have figured out where all the pipes are routed, it’s time to do some detective work and ask yourself where the pipes are most likely to have frozen. I would start by looking at pipes that aren’t exposed to interior heat sources. We’ve found that you can often feel the pipes and tell a difference between the sections that are frozen and those that aren’t with the back of our hands.
After we’ve figured out where our ice dams are located, we need to figure out a way to SAFELY get some mild heat into those areas. We like to use mild heat because we don’t want to start a fire and because our pipes are plastic, we don’t want to melt them. The same rules that I described to thawing frozen water pipes above apply here. Never use an open flame to thaw your pipes and never put your heat source too close to any combustible materials!
If using a hair dryer doesn’t work to thaw our RV pipes we’ve found that the easiest way for us to thaw out our frozen RV plumbing was with the use of our little homemade water jet. We’ve often been able to use this device to thaw the specific section of plumbing that happens to be frozen by finding the nearest PEX fitting and disconnecting the pipe there. We then attach a five or six foot section of flexible pipe to this fitting so that we can put it into our bucket with the submersible pump. This enables us to set up the water jet and funnel the water back into the bucket instead of spilling it out into the RV and making a huge mess. This is where we’ll start feeding the little water jet into the pipe. Keep in mind that our 5th wheel had the type of fittings on it that we could easily disconnect and reconnect. If the pipes in your RV don’t have this kind of fitting, this method won’t work for you. After thawing the ice dam, we reconnect the pipes with the fitting and carefully check to make sure that we don’t have any leaks.
Remember, unless your RV pipes have been exposed to sub-freezing temperatures for a really long time, it’s likely that only a small section of your RV’s pipes will be frozen. It really pays to figure out where the ice dams actually are. Once you find the exact location of the blockage, you can get to work right away and focus your efforts on getting heat to the sections that are actually frozen. This could possible save you a lot of time and help you get the water flowing in your RV much sooner.
Frozen Pipes Are Serious Business
I’ll end this article by reminding you that frozen pipes can be an inconvenience if dealt with quickly but if you don’t get them thawed out in time or you thaw them improperly, this minor distraction in your schedule could result in a very expensive repair bill. When in doubt, call a plumber to get your pipes thawed out! Much of their winter business is devoted to thawing pipes so they are quite good at it and they will usually have specialized equipment that is designed specifically for this purpose.