Frozen in Arkansas

Sink — faucet handle is open, but no water coming from tap

First thing every morning, I head to the kitchen to get fresh water for our cat. She’ll be there waiting. This morning was no different. I grabbed her bowl and opened the faucet.

In filling her bowl with water, the stream slowed to a trickle. Something was definitely wrong.

Winter arrived yesterday with about an inch of snow. Cold weather, in the 20s (really cold for Arkansas) for a few days before that. But in the afternoon, the snow was melting, because while the air is cold, the ground isn’t frozen.

Right away, I knew: A pipe was frozen. We’ve lived in this house for almost 20 years and the pipes have never frozen before. But there’s clearly a first time for everything.

It was still dark outside. I decided to wait for daylight to survey the situation. While we have all kinds of water pipes in the unheated crawlspace, I had a good idea the ice plug wasn’t there.

The water main doesn’t enter our house under ground. You know, like a civilized plumber would put it in. No, it pokes out of the ground right next to the garage wall and 1.5’ above ground makes a 90° turn to go into the house. Sure there’s insulation on the pipe (mostly, except where it’s been worn off). But — who builds like that?!

Water main - out of the ground and into the house

I just knew that was the spot where things were frozen.

Now what to do?

I considered options:

  • Wait for nature. It was Wednesday morning. The forecast for Thursday had the high going into the mid-40s. That’s enough to thaw out a frozen pipe. But waiting is not really an option when there’s no water in the house. As in no flushing.
  • Call a plumber and hope they have a handy-dandy tool for heating frozen pipes. Hm, really cold day in Little Rock. I’m sure the plumbers are already out making calls. It will likely be tomorrow before they get here.
  • Go to a hardware store and get a pipe warmer. That wouldn’t be a bad idea, except A) no store around here stocks them and B) if one did, they’re all gone by now. It’s cold outside.
  • Grab my soldering torch and heat the pipe to melt the ice. Good thought, but that would of course first burn off the insulation on the pipe. I’d have a thawed pipe that would freeze even faster the next night. But it’s heading in the right direction.

By now it was daylight. I went under the house to check. Everything looked fine and not cold enough to freeze pipes down there. That was good.

Checked the water heater room in the garage. That’s where the water main comes into the house. The faucet there yielded a spoonful of water, same as in the kitchen. So that indicated that the ice was on the incoming side, in that exposed pipe outside the wall.

I needed to heat the pipe. Safely. People burn down their houses because they thaw frozen water pipes in stupid ways. Not going to be one of them.

I decided to try a hair dryer. Out by the pipe it generated lots of heat, carefully directed at the spot where the pipe wasn’t covered by insulation. The metal pipe actually got warm to the touch. But that’s one spot on the longer exposed pipe and it’s cold sitting out here holding the hair dryer.

Plus after about 5 minutes on high, the fuse on the power strip in the garage kicked out. Reset and wait. Try another round. 5 minutes, fuse out, reset. Repeat. This is going to take a really long time.

What’s the high going to get today? 30. Not even above freezing.

Sure, the snow and ice on my car in the driveway was happily melting in the sunshine, but there’s no sun in the spot where the water pipe is.

If only the clowns who built the house had run the pipe underground into the garage. Or had put a proper cover over the pipe. Like a little house. I should really do that. When it gets warmer — way too cold for carpentry today.

The idea is right though: I need a way to create a warm air space around the pipe to let it warm up and thaw out.

Sheeting plastic and tape to make a tent. Inside is a flood light and a hair dryer to thaw the water main
Sheeting plastic and tape to make a tent to provide an enclosure that can be heated and thaw the water main
I could tape some sheeting plastic to the wall, creating a little tent over the pipe. Wonder if tape will stick to the cold brick? I tried and it did. Soon had a cozy little tent ensconcing the pipe in its entire exposed length.

I also enlisted a floodlight (it gets hot) we use for Christmas lighting to stick inside the tent. I decided not to bringing out one of my video lights. They generate a lot of heat — probably too much for inside the tiny tent I’d just built. Reminder: No fires today.

In the end, I put the floodlight and the hair dryer inside the tent. Turned the hairdryer on low so as not to trip the fuse in the garage.

I stood back and watched. It all ran well. It was getting nice and warm inside the little tent. No sense in standing out here in the cold watching it.

Checed back every 15 minutes or so. Heat kept going out there. Still no water in the tap that I’d left partly on.

Nothing happened for an hour or more.

Then I heard a rushing noise from the kitchen. There was water coming out of the tap! Not a trickle or a few spurts, but normal flow!

The crisis was over. I put the tools away, leaving the tent in place. There was another cold night coming before a warming trend in the forecast.

Obviously I’ll improve insulation on that pipe (when it’s warmer and nicer to work outside). And the next night we left the kitchen faucet on a very slow trickle, just to keep water moving in the pipes.

When something like this, unexpected, happens, what do we do?

My wife Diane commented that she was glad I knew what to do. She’s never thawed a pipe in her life. Neither have I. I’ve been around the need to do it on farms and in houses in cold climates. We escaped well. The pipe could have burst from freezing.

When life is going along on its normal routine, we handle most things. But what about when that inevitable curveball gets thrown? Do we know what to do?

Not the whole solution, but what’s the first thing to do? What’s the next thing? Sometimes a minute of stopping and being quiet to think is more well spent than just rushing around.

Because I know my house after almost 20 years, when there was a problem, it didn’t take long to pinpoint it.

Like MacGyver (sans Swiss army knife), I surveyed what resources I had available.

I tried one approach — applying hot air from the hair dryer to the pipe. While it did warm up a section of the pipe, it wasn’t enough.

I pivoted, figured out a way to improve. What was really needed to solve the problem? What was the minimum version of that solution?

Eventually the water moved again.

What’s the first thing you do when there’s an unexpected event? What’s the next thing? How can we prepare ourselves to handle the unexpected?

Sink — faucet is open and water flowing
The way it’s supposed to work: Faucet is open and water flowing