How to deal with frozen pipes during Christmas snow storm

Two pipes that Matt Pattison replaced where they froze and burst. Matt Pattison, who does property maintenance, demonstrates things that can be done to winterize a home, at a rental property in Oley Tuesday afternoon November 12, 2019. Ben Hasty - Re

This Christmas will be one of the snowiest and windiest we've experienced in recent memory and the likelihood of losing power is very high. When that happens, there are some important steps to take to prevent your pipes from freezing and bursting.

Winter storm warnings are posted and go into effect at 7 p.m. this evening and run through Saturday morning at 4 a.m. 

Winter Storm Warning begins at 7 p.m. in Michigan - here's when the snow starts falling

How to prevent frozen pipes

First, the conditions must be right for the water in your pipes to freeze. If temperatures are going to be below freezing for a sustained period of time, frozen pipes are a possibility. That's going to be true for this weekend as we'll have temperatures well below freezing and wind chills near negative 10.

To prevent frozen pipes, make sure all leaks are fixed ahead of the freeze. At this stage, you're probably a little late to get that taken care of so let's talk about preventative measures.

When your home has power, the heat will help keep the pipes from freezing. But this storm could knock out the power to your home.

That's when you'll really want to make sure your pipes, especially the ones that face an exterior wall, have water moving through them.

If you lose power, turn your faucet on just enough to drip. Because the water will be moving, it will be less likely to freeze during the brutal cold snap.

You can also insulate your pipes in a variety of ways.

MORE: Winter weather in Michigan: How to drive in a snow storm

How do you know if your pipes are frozen?

If you turn on your faucet and expect a blast of water to come out, but you only get a trick - you should suspect a frozen pipe, the American Red Cross says. It is possible only a portion of your pipe could be frozen, though, which is why less water is getting through.

Another telltale sign is any frost that has accumulated on your pipes. Pipes that are likely to freeze are ones against exterior walls or in the attic or basement, or in other unheated parts of the property.

MORE: How to prepare your home and car for arctic conditions

Any unshapely-looking pipes could also mean the water has frozen inside and could be near bursting.

If pipes are frozen, should I leave the faucet on?

Experts say leaving the faucet to drip or trickle during cold weather can prevent freezing. Moving water cannot freeze as easily.

If the pipe has already frozen, turning on the cold water faucet can also help relieve pressure.

The downside is, leaving the faucet on a trickle could raise your water bill. But that will certainly be cheaper than the cleanup and repair of a frozen pipe.

How to unfreeze pipes

To thaw a frozen pipe, you’ll want to apply some heat to the section of the pipe you know is frozen. The American Red Cross recommends the following methods: 

  • Wrap an electric heating pad around the pipe
  • Use a hairdryer
  • Set up a portable space heater (taking precautions to avoid fire or carbon monoxide poisoning)
  • Wrap the pipe in towels soaked with hot water

Experts advise to never use an open flame as it can cause damage to the pipe. It can also pose a fire hazard.

Can you flush a toilet when pipes are frozen?

Answering this question is trickier because it depends.

You can flush a toilet when the pipes are frozen, but then you might be out of luck. It depends on which pipes in your house are frozen.

If your toilet pipe is frozen, your tank won’t refill and you’ll only get that one flush. You would be able to continue flushing your toilet, though, if you were able to somehow refill the tank’s water.

If it’s not your toilet pipe that’s frozen, your tank should continue filling up as normal and you can flush as normal. 

Toilet pipes are more likely to freeze if they’re on exterior walls.

Does home insurance cover frozen pipes?

The answer to this question is tricky, too. Maybe. 

Each homeowner’s insurance is different, though insurance is more likely to cover water damage than the plumbing work it takes to fix a burst pipe. If your pipes do burst and you get significant water damage, you may be more likely to file a claim.