Winter storm warning: How to deal with frozen pipes

Major winter weather is hammering much of the United States, with many areas seeing high snowfall, ice and freezing temperatures. The wintry weather has prompted flight cancellations and knocked out power for thousands, leaving many in the dark about what to do — and what not to do — about 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.

How to prevent frozen pipes

First, the conditions must be right for the water in your pipes to freeze. If temperatures are going to be below freezing for a sustained period of time, frozen pipes are a possibility. 

To prevent frozen pipes, make sure all leaks are fixed ahead of the freeze. You can also insulate your pipes in a variety of ways.

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How do you know if your pipes are frozen?

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.

Another telltale sign is any frost that has accumulated on your pipes. Pipes that are likely to freeze are ones against exterior walls or in the attic or basement, or in other unheated parts of the property.

Any unshapely-looking pipes could also mean the water has frozen inside and could be near bursting.

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. Moving water cannot freeze as easily.

If the pipe has already frozen, turning on the cold water faucet can also help relieve pressure.

The downside is, leaving the faucet on a trickle could raise your water bill. 

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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 (taking precautions to avoid fire or carbon monoxide poisoning)
  • Wrap the pipe in towels soaked with hot water

Experts advise to never use an open flame as it can cause damage to the pipe. It can also pose a fire hazard.

Can you flush a toilet when pipes are frozen?

Answering 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 on which pipes in your house are frozen.

If your toilet pipe is frozen, your tank won’t refill and you’ll only get that 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.

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Does home insurance cover frozen pipes?

The answer to this question is tricky, too. Maybe. 

Each homeowner’s insurance is different, though insurance is more likely to cover water damage than the plumbing work it takes to fix a burst pipe. If your pipes do burst and you get significant water damage, you may be more likely to file a claim.

This story was reported from Detroit.