An ominous scenario on a cold winter’s night: You go for a glass of water and nothing comes out of the faucet, or maybe just a trickle. The likely culprit? A frozen pipe.

The situation could be dire and you need to take action immediately. Since water expands when it freezes, if you don’t deal with the problem quickly the pipe can break, leaving you with water everywhere and thousands of dollars in repair bills. Bursting a pipe is potentially the most catastrophic of wintertime home disasters.

Keep  the Frozen Disaster at Bay

How to find and melt the ice before it bursts:

  • The first step is to locate the frozen section of pipe. It’s most likely a spot that runs through an uninsulated or unheated part of the house, so it might be tricky to access.
  • Check the pipes by touch, feeling for very cold spots that indicate ice inside. Once you find the frozen area, warm it with a hair dryer, heat lamp, space heater or a hot towel. Avoid torches or open flames.
  • Leave the faucet open to encourage water flow while you melt the freeze.
  • Check the other taps in your bathrooms, kitchen and laundry room to make sure they’re working and that you don’t have another pipe frozen somewhere.
  • Your safest bet is to call a plumber to locate and thaw the pipe.

Stop the Freeze Before it Starts

Of course, the best way to deal with frozen pipes is to avoid the scenario entirely by taking preemptive measures:

  • Get your furnace or heater serviced before winter sets in. Make sure it’s in good working condition to diminish any chance of a breakdown during a long, cold January night.
  • If you do lose heat, get it fixed as soon as possible. In the meantime, set your faucets to drip to keep water flowing and reduce the chance of a freeze.
  • Outdoor pipes like hose lines or swimming pool lines are more susceptible to freezes than those indoors. If there are outdoor pipes you know you won’t need all winter, shut off their water supply and drain them before the freeze sets in. Remove any hoses and store them inside for the winter, and leave the outside valves open in case there’s any water left in the lines.
  • If there are pipes that run outside your house that you can’t shut down or some that run through unheated areas like a basement or attic, make sure they are well insulated. Newspaper might work if temperatures don’t drop too far below freezing, but specific products like pipe sleeves, heat tape and heat cable are more reliable.
  • Don’t turn your heat off entirely when you aren’t at home. If you go away for more than a few days have a friend or neighbour stop by periodically to make sure the furnace is still running.

Finally, be sure you know where the main water shutoff valve is in your house. If despite your best efforts a pipe does freeze and burst, turn off the water immediately to limit the damage.