Published onSeptember 19th, 2022
Frozen and Burst Pipes: What to Do If This Emergency Occurs in Your Property
Frozen or burst pipes are one of the worst problems a New York City property owner or manager can face. Not only might you be without water and be stuck with expensive plumbing repairs, but your building’s occupants may suffer water damage as well. Here’s what you should do if a pipe freezes or bursts in your building, as well as vital information about identifying vulnerable pipes and preventing frozen pipes with proper insulation.
Signs of Frozen Pipes or Previous Freezing Damage
Know what to watch for
We’ll talk more about preventing frozen pipes below, but first it’s important to know if you have a pipe that’s in danger of freezing and bursting. There are some telltale signs of a pipe you need to tend to right away or that’s likely to freeze during the next cold snap:
- No water or only a tiny trickle coming from the tap the pipe feeds
- Frost or ice on the exterior of the pipe
- Condensation or “sweating” on the pipe’s outer surface
- Pinholes or a leaking pipe (if not visible, you may hear dripping), possibly from prior freezing
- Pipes in the coldest area of the building, especially if the heat is off due to a power outage
How to Thaw Frozen Pipes
If you identify a pipe that is frozen or starting to freeze, sometimes you can fix it yourself. If the pipe has not already frozen solid, open the tap and try to get some water moving through it. That will help prevent complete freezing, which is what causes burst pipes as the frozen water expands beyond the pipe’s containment.
If the pipe is beneath a kitchen sink or bathroom vanity, open the cabinet doors and let warm air into the space. You can make the area hotter by using a portable electric heater nearby (taking care to avoid shock near water) or by blowing warm air around the pipe with a fan.
A hair dryer or hot towels can also be used to gently warm the pipe and melt ice inside. Electrical heating tape, which you can purchase at a hardware or home store, is also an option for accessible pipes.
Sometimes, however, the frozen pipe is behind a wall or other obstruction. In that case, your only option is to call a plumber. Together you can devise a plan to melt ice with the least amount of disruption possible, even if it means cutting into a wall.
What to Do If a Pipe Bursts
There may be a time when despite your best efforts, a pipe freezes to the point of bursting. A winter power outage can make many of the thawing methods suggested above impossible. So, what do you do if the worst happens? Stay calm and follow these steps to minimize damage and injuries:
- Shut off your water at the main valve to prevent interior flooding.
- If water is anywhere near electrical outlets or could reach those areas soon, turn off all electrical power.
- After shutting off the water, turn on the taps to drain any water remaining in the pipes. Be sure to flush every toilet as well.
- Start removing water. You will likely have to talk to occupants during this process, whether they are in their units or you need to gain access in their absence. Depending on the amount of water, you may be able to use a bucket, mop, towels, and shop vac to clean up. However, deeper water will require the assistance of a professional water removal team.
- Locate the area of pipe damage, if possible, and call your plumber for assistance, unless it’s something you can fix yourself (e.g., under-sink pipe).
- Notify your insurance carrier. If they cannot send someone to assess damage immediately, taking pictures or a video will help. If a condo or co-op owner’s property was damaged, be ready to pay for their belongings and deal with their insurance company. Unless a tenant caused the damage, such as by turning off their heat and causing a frozen pipe, you may be responsible for expenses.
- Once you start evaluating the level of damage, contact any other professionals you may need for issues like mold remediation and repairs (carpeting, woodwork, etc.).
Be sure building staff know your protocols in case of a burst pipe emergency, including where to find the main shutoff valve.
How to Prevent Frozen and Burst Pipes
Insulate before the cold season
Building occupants should know not to turn their heat below 55 degrees Fahrenheit in winter, even if they’re not home. Using a smart thermostat will let them adjust the temperature to avoid excessive heating bills when they’re not home.
But the best way to prevent frozen burst pipes is to insulate them in advance of wintertime. These pipes are particularly vulnerable to freezing:
- Pipes carrying cold water
- Pipes that show condensation or sweating
- Pipes running through humid areas of the building
- Pipes on north-facing, shady, or windy walls
- Pipes that don’t have good protection (attics, crawl spaces, etc.)
- Pipes leading to outdoor spigots
- Pipes in empty units, especially if the heat has been turned down
- Pipes that have frozen before or show signs of previous damage (holes, leaks, loose connectors, etc.)
At Sanitary Plumbing, we offer pipe insulation services to help you avoid frozen and burst pipe emergencies. Are your pipes ready for this winter? If you’re not sure, or if you suspect your pipes need better protection, call us at 212-734-5000 today to schedule an appointment before the cold weather hits.