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Coping With Winter Plumbing Emergencies at Work and Home

Tip No. 1 from the Dallas Builders Association: If experiencing or fearing frozen or broken pipes, turn off the water, stat.

When I turned on my taps this morning and water did not come gushing out, I immediately began to panic. I knew what preventative steps to take—keep faucets dripping and open cabinets to allow air from inside the home to warm visible pipes—but I had no idea what to do once pipes were already frozen.

As record low temperatures continue and skyrocketing demand and road conditions make it largely impossible for plumbers to reach business owners and residents, many of us are forced to take matters into our own hands. To help, the Dallas Builders Association has offered advice for preventing damage due to frozen pipes in homes and businesses. Here are some tips:

Turn Your Water Off

If you have access to the main water line in your home and/or business, turn it off. Water lingering in pipes can freeze, expand, and damage plumbing, causing flooding once pipes thaw. Modern PEX plumbing, which is common in newer homes and buildings, will better weather (too soon?) expansion than traditional copper plumbing, but these pipes can freeze, too.

Most homes have a shut off valve at the city meter—those circular holes in sidewalks covered by metal lids—and another one closer to the house. The city meter may require a special meter key to unlock. You can buy these keys at a hardware store. Newer homes usually house the shutoff valve inside, often in the utility room.

The box closer to or inside the building can be switched off by turning the lever a quarter turn to the right. The shutoff valve inside the city meter must be turned off with a wrench. If you open the city meter box and find water inside, you can either remove the water with a pail, siphon, or pump or brave the freezing cold liquid and reach through. Turn the valve a quarter turn to the right with your wrench.

Leave Faucets Open

If your pipes are not yet completely frozen, a slightly open faucet will reassure you the water is off and that some of any future damage to your plumbing has been mitigated. If pipes are frozen, an open faucet gives water inside the pipes a place to escape once it thaws. This can help reduce flooding.

Hire a Licensed Professional

If you do reach out to a plumber, make sure they are licensed and trained. Avoid contracting work from anyone who cannot or will not show you proof of training. A list of licensed plumbers in the area can be found here.

Then, be prepared to wait. The existing shortage of plumbers in the area is putting wait times for repairs weeks out.

Place a Space Heater Near Outside Water Tanks

If you find that you do have a steady stream of running water, but it only runs cold, or you have running water, but just a slight trickle, you may have a frozen exterior tankless water heater. This is a less serious issue than frozen pipes, but if a cold shower and/or icy hand-washing has no appeal, place a space heater next to the unit. Usually, in a few minutes, the metal manifold will conduct heat and thaw.

Contact a Sprinkler Specialist

When I thought the pipes in my apartment were frozen, I flagged down a passing maintenance worker for an update and advice. It turned out one of our building’s sprinkler lines had ruptured and flooded, forcing the complex to kill the water and bring out the wet vacs.

Fire system sprinklers pose a unique challenge to home and business owners during this kind of storm. For apartment dwellers, this is largely outside our control, but if you happen to have the contact information for the company that installed sprinklers in your business or your home, reach out and see what they can do.

For more, see this video from the DBA.

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