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Why Do Frozen Pipes Burst?

In our post last week, we went over a few of the important steps for winterizing your home. The major concern with residential plumbing during a cold Ohio winter is frozen pipes. This is most likely to occur in exposed pipes around the water heater, but it can happen almost anywhere in the home where pipes encounter too much cold without sufficient insulation.

A frozen pipe is a significant problem. Not only does it mean that water won’t flow, it also puts the pipe at risk of bursting, leading to flooding and an expensive repair. But why does pipe bursting happen? The answers might surprise you.

How Pipes Burst

When water freezes, it expands in volume. The reason for this is that the molecular structure of ice is different (hexagonal) than that of liquid water, and it takes up more space. If you’ve ever put a glass container of water in the freezer and later found the glass was cracked, it’s because of the expansion of ice.

But… this isn’t why pipes burst when they freeze! This often comes as a surprise to people, since it seems like the most obvious answer. The actual cause of burst pipes from freezing is the increase of pressure within the piping. As the water freezes and expands, it pushes the remaining water toward closed faucets. This creates a large pressure build-up, and it can be enough to cause lateral bursting along the pipes. The “upstream” part of the pipe is in more danger, since the water on the other side still has plenty of space to absorb the pressure rise.

If you attempt to thaw out a frozen pipe on your own, you only increase the pressure inside it. In fact, a frozen pipe is more likely to burst during thawing.

When you encounter a frozen pipe in your home, please don’t try to thaw it out with a hairdryer or space heater or other method. Call professional plumbers to manage the problem without creating bursts in the piping.

Ken Neyer Plumbing, Inc. serves Cincinnati, OH and the surrounding areas with quality residential and commercial plumbing.

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