Parts of the country are used to frozen or burst water pipes, like folks who live in Minnesota. In New Hampshire where I live, we only get severe freezing temperatures every few years. When this happens, plumbers work 10, 12 or more hours a day and they still can't help everyone fast enough so please be patient … they are doing their best.
Today Susan W. from Dover, NH contacted me for help with a short, direct message “… I need to get a heating pipe repaired pronto – can you help?”
Not being sure exactly what type of help Susan needed, I called to learn what she meant by “heating pipe” and the type of help she needed most. It turned out Susan's regular plumber had already been on one job for 8 hours and didn't know when he'd be able to come to her house. So Susan called several other people and she'd already talked to Dennis Turmel who bought my handyman business.
What To Do When Your Water Pipe Bursts
Susan knew she had a problem yesterday when the heat on her second floor stopped working. The heat still worked on her first floor (she has 3 heating zones) so she concentrated on getting more heat to the second floor by raising the temperature on the first floor. So here's what you want to do when you first discover a problem.
- The fastest way to stop a water leak is to turn off the source of water, and if you don't know exactly where the problem is … then you want to turn off the water where it enters your home (read How to Shutoff the Water).
- Next you want to try to isolate the pipe(s) that are frozen or maybe you already have a burst water pipe? Susan tried to solve the problem by getting more heat to the upstairs, but unfortunately hot water heat pipes always run around the exterior perimeter of rooms where they are exposed to the cold when insulation in the walls isn't adequate.
- The pipe that froze yesterday didn't burst until today, and when the water came gushing out of the baseboard heating pipe, Susan knew exactly where the leak was and fortunately knew how to turn off the city water supply to her house right away.
Actions to Take While Waiting for A Plumber
Here is when I called Susan. The help she needed at this point was understanding the best actions to take while she waited for a plumber to come and repair the burst water pipe. The goal now is to try and prevent any more freezing or burst water pipes in Susan's house, to essentially contain the problem and minimize her repair costs. She was fortunate to be home when the first pipe burst and she cleaned up the water immediately.
- It's critical to keep your house warm enough to prevent anything with water from freezing – hot water heating pipes and the pipes that bring water to your sinks and toilets. To avoid frozen pipes near/inside your dishwasher and/or washing machines, run them once a day during extremely cold weather … if they are located on exterior walls.
- With multiple heating zones, you want to manually turn off the zone with the burst pipe. You should find a shut off valve near the boiler and make sure you're turning off the correct zone and never turn off the entire heating system.
- Now you can safely run the other heating zones and Susan was correct to try to generate more heat rising from her first floor to the problem on the second floor, by turning up the heat there.
- As it might take a day or longer to get a plumber to your house, you also want to periodically (every 4 to 6 hours) turn on the heating zone with the burst pipe and leave it open for a few minutes. This will send hot water through the entire heating loop for that zone (see diagram below) to try and prevent another spot on that loop from freezing to the point that you end up with multiple burst water pipes, each one requiring repairs.
- You can also try to supplement the heat in affected rooms with portable electric or propane heaters (be really careful with these) but understand that sometimes the water freezes inside the walls between the boiler and the rooms being heated.
Why You Get Frozen and/or Burst Water Pipes
Making required repairs is your first priority, but you're not done. Now you should go back and determine why the pipes froze in the first place because you don't want a repeat of burst water pipes again. So continue on to part 2 of this article, Protecting Your Water Pipes from Freezing.
What tips can you share to avoid burst water pipes?