No power? Here’s how to deal with frozen pipes

Major winter weather hammered much of the United States this week, with many areas seeing rare snow and unusually low temperatures. The wintry weather knocked out power for millions, leaving many in the dark about what to do — and what not to do — in order to avoid bursting frozen pipes. 

As water freezes, it expands, which could lead to pipes bursting, something the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety says is a leading source of property damage. 

Here’s what the experts say about how to prevent frozen and burst pipes. 

Low water pressure during a freeze

If you turn on a faucet and only a trickle comes out, suspect a frozen pipe, the American Red Cross says. It is possible only a portion of your pipe could be frozen, though, which is why less water is getting through. 

Pipes that are likely to freeze are ones against exterior walls or in the basement. 

If pipes are frozen, should I leave the faucet on?

Experts say leaving the faucet to drip or trickle during cold weather can prevent freezing. And, if the pipe does freeze, it can help relieve some of the pressure. 

But in Houston, where residents have been hit hard this week by a statewide power outage and freezing temperatures, the Public Works department put out a notice not to leave faucets running

"Houston’s water system is different than other systems in that we don’t use water towers to provide pressure to the system. We use ground storage tanks & pumps. Dripping the system can stress pumps and cause system-wide pressure issues, & possibly lead to a boil water notice," the statement read. 

How to unfreeze pipes

To thaw a frozen pipe, you’ll want to apply some heat to the section of the pipe you know is frozen. The American Red Cross recommends the following methods: 

  • Wrap an electric heating pad around the pipe
  • Use a hairdryer 
  • Set up a portable space heater 
  • Wrap the pipe in towels soaked with hot water 

Can you flush a toilet when pipes are frozen?

The answer to this question is trickier, because it depends. 

You can flush a toilet when the pipes are frozen, but then you might be out of luck. It depends which pipes in your house are frozen.

If your toilet pipe is frozen, your tank won’t refill and you’ll only get one flush. You would be able to continue flushing your toilet, though, if you were able to somehow refill the tank’s water. 

If it’s not your toilet pipe that’s frozen, your tank should continue filling up as normal and you can flush as normal. 

Toilet pipes are more likely to freeze if they’re on exterior walls.