Frozen Pipes? Here’s What to Do to Unfreeze Them

By: Diana Rodriguez-Zaba
Updated on: May 23, 2023

You wake up and head for the kitchen. The house is still chilly from last night’s hard freeze. You’re ready to make some coffee, but one turn of the faucet handle snaps you wide awake.

You don’t have any water, and you know why:

Some time during the night, the pipes froze.

If you wait long enough, will those frozen pipes thaw on their own? If they don’t, how careful do you have to be when you start unfreezing pipes?

No matter how many times you’ve dealt with pesky frozen pipes, it’s never easy.

We take care of burst pipe water damage repair in Chicago homes every winter, so we know what you’re dealing with.

Let’s dive in.

How to Tell Where Pipes Are Frozen

Locate frozen pipes by identifying what doesn’t work.

Whether it’s a kitchen faucet that doesn’t deliver water or a toilet that doesn’t refill, inspect plumbing backwards from that point.

  • Look for condensation or a light coat of frost on pipes.
  • Tap pipes with a small tool, and listen for a solid sound.
  • Touch pipe surfaces to locate extreme cold spots.

Take a good look at pipes in the basement and plumbing in crawlspaces. Be sure to check the water main coming into the house, and don’t forget outside faucets.

How to Unfreeze Water Pipes

unfreezing water pipe

Ask a dozen homeowners how to unfreeze pipes, and you’ll get a dozen different takes on everything from tools to techniques.

It’s not all wrong, but it’s not all right either.

If you haven’t prepped the pipes for winter yet, you can still be ready for frozen plumbing headaches.

How to Thaw a Drain Pipe

Before you start unfreezing pipes, shut off the water supply to the section of plumbing you’re working on.

These three techniques are effective for thawing out most frozen drain pipes:

  • Thaw pipes with a space heater or heat lamp positioned at least 3 feet away from flammable materials.
  • Use a hair dryer to direct warm air up and down frozen pipe lengths.
  • Wrap frozen pipe with an electric heat cable, and keep a close eye on the process.

These thawing strategies work on any plumbing that’s easy to reach including pipes in basements and crawlspaces.

How to Thaw Frozen Pipes in a Wall

Locate and turn off your home’s main water valve before trying to thaw frozen pipes inside a wall.

burst water pipe in wall

This kind of plumbing problem is harder to fix than frozen drain pipes because your options are limited:

  • Turn up the furnace, and open closets and cabinets adjacent to frozen pipes.
  • Position a fan heater to blow directly into wall vents located near frozen pipes.
  • Cut a hole in the wall exposing pipes, and follow the techniques outlined in the previous paragraph.

How to Thaw Exposed Pipes

Exposed pipes in the basement and supply lines under sinks can usually be thawed in a few hours. If you’re thawing pipes under a sink, be sure to open the faucet so that melting water can escape.

Unfreeze pipes in the basement and under sinks using the same tips outline in the previous paragraphs.

How to Thaw Enclosed Pipes

Knowing what to do when your pipes freeze doesn’t always make it easy. Most home plumbing systems stretch through spaces that are hard to access. You can’t always reach a frozen pipe by opening up a wall or working under the sink.

If you’re dealing with pipes frozen inside enclosed areas like crawl spaces, it’s best to call in restoration pros.

How to Thaw Frozen Pipes Outside

When you’re deciding on how to thaw a frozen outdoor faucet or exterior pipes, stay safe. Heat tape and hair dryers both get the job done, but be careful using electrical equipment outdoors when it’s wet.

If you’re not comfortable with your options, wrap the pipe or open hose bib with towels. Heat up a teakettle, and slowly pour hot water over the towel wraps.

It may take several tries, but this trick is safer than working with electricity while you’re standing in the snow.

What To Do If Your Water Pipes Burst

frozen pipe burst chicago

All burst pipes need quick repair and plumbing leak cleanup, but there are different ways to take care of different locations.

Depending on where the pipe froze, these tips can make a hard job a little easier:

Burst Kitchen Pipes Fix small leaks under sinks with fiberglass pipe tape, plumber’s putty or a hose clamp. A sleeve clamp kit works best on large pipe bursts in the kitchen.

Burst Pipes in the Bathroom – Frozen burst pipes in the bathroom are usually inside walls behind cabinets and fixtures. Turn off the water supply, and call restoration professionals who specialize in burst pipe repair.

Frozen Burst Basement Pipes – Before taking care of burst pipe repairs in the basement, turn off your home’s electricity and water supply. Don’t try to clean up basement flooding if the water is deeper than 1 inch. This is another job you may want to leave to the pros.

Burst Pipes in the Garage – If frozen copper pipes in the garage spring leaks, temporarily patch them with duct tape or electrical tape. Permanent fixes include fiberglass tape and epoxy putty.

Call a Water Damage Pro – It’s often easier and faster to bring in water damage professionals. They handle everything from frozen burst pipe repairs to water remediation and property restoration.

How Long Does It Take for Pipes to Unfreeze?

Fortunately, most DIY methods for unfreezing pipes gets the water flowing again in 30-40 minutes.

You might be tempted to wait for the pipes to thaw out by themselves. But keep in mind:

Depending on the weather, the process can take days. Pipes typically don’t freeze until the temperature dips to 20 degrees Fahrenheit. By then, the water becomes solid in pipes and exerts pressure that can measure 40,000 PSI.

Still, that time can vary depending on how long the pipes have been frozen and where they’re located.

Will Frozen Pipes Thaw on Their Own?

The short answer is yes, but the longer they stay frozen, the more likely they are to burst. We’re often asked this question, so we include it here with our recommendation: Don’t wait for the pipes to thaw.

If you can’t get to them right away and you’re in the Chicagoland area, give us a call. We specialize in solving frozen burst pipe problems.

If you’re ready to tackle them on your own, these next steps outline everything you need to know about defrosting frozen pipes.

How to Prevent Frozen Pipes

This time of year, most residents are thinking about how to deal with frozen water pipes — especially here in Chicago.

You can’t always stop it from happening, but these tips can reduce the chances of pipes freezing and bursting inside your home or business.

1. Turn up the thermostat, and circulate warm air through every room by leaving interior doors open.

2. When temperatures plunge, let faucets drip to prevent hot and cold water pipes from freezing.

3. Move warm air through the kitchen and bathrooms by running fans and directing them toward open cabinet doors.

4. Keep cold air from seeping into walls by upgrading insulation and resealing window and door frames.

5. Disconnect and drain hoses, insulate outdoor pipes, and cover faucets before the first freeze hits.

6. Live in an apartment in Chicago? Make sure your landlord keeps the temperature set to 68 degrees during the day and 66 degrees overnight; If they’re not doing this you can file a report with 311 and the landlord can be fined up to $1,000 a day.

7. Stay ahead by starting winter home maintenance in the summer. 

When to Call in the Pros

water damage restoration company chicago

No matter how carefully you thaw out frozen plumbing, you run the risk of pipes cracking and leaking.

Even if you’re comfortable with DIY pipe repair, be on the lookout for these signs of trouble:

  • Low water pressure after pipes are thawed
  • Damp ceilings, walls or floors
  • Persistent noises in pipes when all faucets are off

If you notice anything that makes you uneasy or you’re just not sure about how to unfreeze pipes, call in a licensed plumber.

Sometimes, it’s best to relax and let a trained professional do the hard work.

Dealing With Frozen Pipes in Chicago? We Can Help

As long as you’re careful and know when to call in the pros, you and your home’s frozen pipes will make it through another winter.

If you dealt with frozen pipes or broken water pipe repair last year, tell us how you handled the problem.

We hope our overview makes it easier to keep things thawed out around the house, but we’re always here when you need us. ServiceMaster Restoration by Zaba in Chicago provides expert burst pipe water damage repair for Chicago homeowners, and we take care of the suburbs too.

When you need help with frozen or burst pipes in Chicago or the suburbs, call us first: 773-647-1985

Can I unfreeze pipes by pouring hot water down the drain?

Yes. Add salt to very hot water. Pour a cup of the mixture down the drain, wait for a minute or so, and continue. You may need to repeat the process.

Which faucets should I let drip to keep pipes from freezing?

Stay on the safe side by letting all the faucets in your home drip during a hard freeze. If this isn’t possible, turn on faucets connected to pipes located in exterior walls

Can I use a small blow torch to unfreeze pipes?

No. Never use any type of open flame on frozen pipes. The intense heat can damage pipes and fittings, and the open flame creates a serious fire hazard.