Experts say not to use an open flame on frozen pipes
December 31, 2009
Steamboat Springs — People with frozen water pipes should call a plumber and never use an open flame for thawing purposes, experts said Wednesday.
Two mobile homes have caught fire in Routt County this month after residents tried to thaw frozen pipes with portable propane torches. The first incident, Dec. 22 in Oak Creek, resulted in no injuries but severely damaged a mobile home and destroyed nearly all of a family's belongings in the 400 block of Willow Bend. The second incident, Tuesday at Meadow Village Trailer Park in Hayden, resulted in the death of 88-year-old Carmen Northrop by smoke inhalation. The propane torch ignited insulation and started a blaze that flattened the residence of Northrop and her husband, 78-year-old Billie Northrop, who was unharmed.
Ron Shively, of Ace at the Curve, said using a propane torch to thaw frozen pipes presents "a real, real safety issue."
"Basically, the only thing I know that really works is — and you have to have a plumber to do it — they come in and send an electric charge down the pipe," Shively said. "That's the only safe way I know how to do it. Everything else is a fire hazard."
Shively said Ace has "no real product" for thawing pipes that are frozen solid.
"A heat cape most of the time won't do it when they're frozen solid," he said, referring to an item that plugs into an electric socket and regulates pipe heat through a sensor. "Most things that people try are safety hazards. … Heat lights are not good, electric heater type things are not good."
Shively said he tells most customers with frozen pipes to call an expert and advises against do-it-yourself thawing.
"My personal thing is just … don't do it. It's not worth the risk," he said. "My reference would be that they need to talk to a plumber — I wouldn't send them out with a torch or a heat lamp or anything like that."
Mike Kenfield, of Kenfield Plumbing & Heating, and Rex Sulsberger, of Grand Lake Plumbing & Heating, said they use a commercial, electric pipe-thawing machine like Shively described. The machines send an electric current through the pipe and melt the ice.
Kenfield said a hair dryer could work as a home remedy in some situations.
"Some people will use a blow dryer — that's certainly a lot safer if you've identified where the freeze is in the plumbing, then a blow dryer is good," he said. "You would never use any kind of an open flame."
Sulsberger echoed Kenfield's opinion.
"First suggestion is don't use an open-flame torch of any kind," Sulsberger said. "If it's an exposed pipe, a lot of times a hair dryer will work, or heating up some hot water and pouring it on the pipe."
Kenfield warned against placing space heaters that use propane in enclosed areas, such as crawl spaces, and said a fire extinguisher should always be handy. Both plumbers said they have seen more frozen pipe calls than usual this month.
"I think it's an unusual cold spell this time of year. I think since we're not getting as much snow, we're not seeing that insulative effect that snow has," Kenfield said.
Sulsberger said he's had about four times as many frozen pipe calls this month as he had in December last year.
"This winter, we've had many more frozen pipe calls, earlier — usually we don't get the kind of calls we've had in December until January," Sulsberger said, also citing an unusually cold month. "We've probably had 10 completely froze-up houses and then maybe another 50 calls with just frozen pipes."
Ted Mackey, maintenance technician at Dream Island Mobile Home Park, said he's had three or four instances of frozen pipes this winter.
Shively, at Ace at the Curve, acknowledged that many residents could seek do-it-yourself fixes to save money. Sulsberger said the cost of frozen pipe services varies broadly according to the nature and scope of the problem.
"You could be looking anywhere from $200 on up, depending on what it is," Sulsberger said.
Shively said cost shouldn't be a reason to risk safety.
"How much is safety worth to you?" he asked.