What to do if you have a frozen or burst pipe in cold winter weather

A frozen pipe in winter can lead to a damaging burst unless thawed or repaired as a matter of urgency
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Sub-zero temperatures through winter can wreak havoc on homes and buildings. One of the biggest problems a cold snap can cause is a frozen pipe escalating to become a burst pipe with potentially damaging consequences.

Frozen pipes are a surprisingly frequent occurrence. When water inside a pipe freezes, it expands. This solid mass of ice will have a noticeable impact on water supply, one of the telltale signs of frozen pipes.

On occasions, this ice can expand to the point that the pressure it exerts leads to cracks and splits appearing in pipes.

Leaks typically appear as the ice thaws and water returns to flowing at normal pressure, where it will suddenly find the cracks and escape.

The faster the ice turns into water, the greater damage. If temperatures rise from freezing to 10 degrees suddenly – as happened to parts of the United Kingdom during the December 2022 freeze – the chances of serious pipe bursts increase significantly.

Steps which can be taken to prevent frozen pipes include insulating, eliminating draughts and cold airflows and letting taps drip to maintain pressure.

But if it is too late for preventative measures and you are already faced with a frozen or burst pipe because of the winter weather, here is our advice for dealing with the problem.

Signs that you may have a frozen pipe

If the weather outside is frightful (but the fire is so delightful) and you notice an obvious issue with your water supply, then chances are a frozen pipe is the culprit.

A lack of water or a mere trickle coming from your tap can be an indication of problems with your incoming supply. If your sink is not draining properly or your toilet flushing slowly, then ice somewhere in an outgoing pipe may be causing a blockage.

Heating systems are also commonly impacted by frozen pipes. If boiler pipes are frozen, you may notice a gurgling sound coming from your central heating because water is being prevented from flowing effectively.

The boiler itself may flash up a warning. With a modern condensing boiler, the problem is most likely with the condensate pipe. This is a plastic pipe which comes out of your boiler.

Find out where it goes outside and check to see if is frosted over. If it is, then it can be easily thawed out and your heating system returned to full working order.

How to identify a frozen pipe

Away from a boiler system, if you suspect that you have a frozen water pipe then you need to identify it is a matter of urgency.

Exterior pipes which are covered in frost and snow are a good place to start. Interior pipes found in cold spots like lofts, basements, garages or cupboards which sit against external walls are also liable to freeze.

How to thaw a frozen pipe

Once you have found the frozen pipe, you next need to thaw it to get water flowing again and prevent a burst developing.

The first thing to do is reduce flow as you thaw the pipes. Locate your stopcock and turn water off at the mains to prevent a sudden rush through your pipework when the ice is melted and the line unblocked.

To thaw the frozen pipe, it needs heating it up. This can be done in several ways, but should never involve boiling water, a naked flame or a blowtorch. The thawing process has to take place slowly, otherwise there is an increased risk of the pipe cracking.

A warm jug of water poured over the frozen pipe can help to melt the ice. Alternatively, a warm hot water bottle or a flannel or towel soaked in warm water and wrapped around the pipe will thaw its contents.

In indoor settings, a portable heater can be placed nearby to gently warm the pipe. A hairdryer will do the same job, although it is again important that the ice is thawed slowly and the pipe does not become too hot to quickly.

When the frozen pipe has been thawed, the mains water can be turned back on and the taps and heating system run to ensure everything is back in full operation.

What to do if a frozen pipe causes a burst

If the worst happens and you discover that a frozen pipe has burst, then the first action to take is to stop water supply coming onto the property if possible by turning off the stopcock and your boiler.

Opening all taps will drain the system of water. Remember to save some in a bucket for flushing the toilet and handwashing until the mains can be turned back on.

Attention can then turn to fixing the problem. Most people will try and hire a plumber as a first port of call, but this can be difficult in freezing weather through the sheer number of pipes that need fixing.

If you cannot reach a plumber and need the leaking pipe fixed and water and heating restored as matter of urgency, then make the repair yourself with a SylWrap Pipe Repair Kit.

A SylWrap Kit follows a simple two-step repair method which permanently seals leaks and bursts on pipes of all materials and diameters in under 30 minutes.

Superfast Epoxy Putty is used to plug the hole if the pipe is dry and can be isolated. The putty is mixed by hand, sparking a chemical reaction which turns it from a soft material into one as hard as steel.

Whilst soft, the putty is pushed into the crack. It will then cure in under 10 minutes to seal the hole in the pipe.

If the pipe remains live and cannot be isolated, then Wrap & Seal Pipe Burst Tape is instead used. Made from self-amalgamating silicone, Wrap & Seal stretches by three times its length and fuses to form a solid rubber band capable of holding up to 30 bar pressure when wrapped around a leaking pipe.

The second step of the application involves reinforcing the initial sealant with a SylWrap HD Pipe Repair Bandage.

SylWrap HD is water-activated composite wrap which sets rock hard in minutes to provide an impact resistant layer of protection encompassing the repair. Once the repair has been completed, the water supply can be turned back on at the mains.

If the frozen pipe is outside your property

If it transpires that the area of pipe frozen is outside your property, then it is the responsibility of your water company to sort the problem.

As a general rule of thumb, homeowners in the United Kingdom are responsible for any pipework running from their water meter onto their property.

Anything the other side of the water meter outside a property’s boundary is considered the public supply network and therefore falls to the relevant water company to maintain.

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