Why improperly thawing frozen pipes can be dangerous

 
 
Updated 1/3/2018 5:45 PM
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  • Aurora firefighters battle a blaze Sunday morning that gutted a home on Pierce Street. The fire began when a resident attempted to use a propane heater to thaw frozen pipes.

    Aurora firefighters battle a blaze Sunday morning that gutted a home on Pierce Street. The fire began when a resident attempted to use a propane heater to thaw frozen pipes. Courtesy of Aurora Fire Department

  • Plumber Nate Petersen prepares a pump to shoot water into a pipe that has been frozen at a south Minneapolis home -- one proper alternative to thawing out pipes with any kind of fire or torch.

    Plumber Nate Petersen prepares a pump to shoot water into a pipe that has been frozen at a south Minneapolis home -- one proper alternative to thawing out pipes with any kind of fire or torch. Associated Press, 2014

Got frozen pipes due to subzero temperatures and minus-30 wind chills? Put down that blow torch and step away from the plumbing.

Suburban residents tempted to thaw out frozen pipes using gas heaters and blow torches are urged to take caution to avoid setting their houses or businesses on fire.

Recent house fires in Aurora and near Huntley, and a fire Tuesday at the Algonquin Sub Shop were ignited when the owners attempted to thaw frozen pipes using propane or kerosene heaters.

"The best thing, if your pipes are frozen, is to call a plumber," said Mike Kern, assistant fire chief with the Algonquin-Lake in the Hills Fire Protection District. "When water freezes, it expands, so it can possibly crack your pipe. So as soon as you thaw it, it can cause a leak.

"Do not try to use any type of a heating torch or anything like that. That obviously can either short out or cause a fire."

Kern said the Algonquin Sub Shop fire started when a torpedo heater was used to thaw frozen pipes in the crawl space, setting the external wood siding on fire. Firefighters had to dig out some of the siding and wall to extinguish the flames.

As a result, the restaurant will have to close for two to three weeks.

Experts say the best way to avoid a plumbing crisis is to prevent pipes from freezing in the first place.

Letting a small trickle of water run through hot and cold faucets and leaving the bathroom vanity or kitchen cabinets open so warmth from the room reaches the piping is key, said Brian Wilk, a contractor with Bishop Plumbing in Des Plaines.

Wilk also advises homeowners to take garden hoses off hose bibs.

"If they don't take it off, the pipe in the wall may freeze and break. However, they won't know that happened until spring when they go to use it again," he said.

While hair dryers are harmless enough, using any device with an open flame that can ignite must be avoided, Wilk said.

"We have thawing machines, which use electricity to thaw pipes in walls that are still closed, causing no damage," Wilk said. "It's a tool designed only for thawing frozen pipes. It's not readily available to the public. That's why you call a professional. They have the professional tools to solve problems quickly without causing damages, fires."

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