Frozen Pipes

Toledo Blade Pipe Doctor Frozen Line Repair Special


Craig Wagner leaned up against a cold-to-the-touch bathroom wall and gazed down at a small piece of exposed pipe from a line that had frozen solid overnight.

“A lot of times it’s just a waiting game,” he said as a machine quietly whirred nearby, warming the line.

Mr. Wagner, a master plumber, has been awful busy of late. With temperatures dipping below zero in six of the last eight days — including a -19 degree morning on Friday — there has been a lot to do.

He alone has done a couple dozen jobs in the last two weeks. His company, Pipe Doctor, has done even more.

Plumbers say that when the air temperature gets down to 5 degrees or less, the chances of waterlines freezing really starts to rise. Wind gusts tend to make things even worse.

Fred Brushaber, owner of Able Master Sewer Co. in Toledo, said what often happens on windy days is that the frigid air is pushed into foundation vents, cracks, and other poorly sealed areas.

“If the cold wind is coming in, it’s like a deep freezer,” he said.

Because of that, Mr. Brushaber said he was actually busier on Thursday, when the previous night’s low temperature was actually warmer. But the wind, he said, was worse.

If victims of frozen pipes are lucky, the pipes can be thawed without any real damage done. If they’re not lucky and pipes break open, repairs can be extensive and costly.

Mr. Wagner wasn’t quite sure what he was going to find Friday at Sidelines II, the West Toledo sports bar where he was working.

“I’m hoping,” he said, rapping his knuckles on the door, “once this thaws I’m not seeing or hearing any water. That’s when it starts getting expensive when you have to start cutting into tile walls and stuff.”

Mr. Wagner was using a pipe thawer made by Ridgid Tools. The device looks a lot like a charger used to boost an automotive battery, and works in a similar way. The box is plugged into a standard wall outlet and leads are then clamped onto both ends of a frozen pipe. A low-voltage, high-current charge flows through the pipe, thawing the ice.

A variety of other tools, including heat guns, are also used to warm up frozen pipes.

Plumbers say homeowners can prevent frozen pipes by leaving a trickle of water running and by keeping cabinet doors open to allow heat to flow into the area around the pipes. They also suggest making sure insulation is adequate, and any cracks or gaps are sealed.

About half of the time pipes freeze, they crack open, they said. Sometimes fixing broken pipes is as simple as installing a small new section of pipe. Sometimes it involves tearing into walls. The worst-case scenario are frozen pipes that go unnoticed and cause significant water damage once they thaw.

“We’ve had houses that looked like they had waterfalls in the basement coming from the shower or the tub,” said Eric Wagner, director of service operations at Pipe Doctor and a fourth-generation plumber. Craig Wagner is his father.

Eric Wagner said whether homeowners fix frozen pipes themselves or call a plumber, it’s important that the work is done right away.

Waiting it out rarely goes well.

“They might think they're out of the woods if they just wait it out. Unfortunately that’s not the case,” he said.

Burst pipes with water damage can make a repair call go from a couple hundred dollars to potentially several thousand.

Eric Wagner said this year and last year have been exceptionally bad for frozen lines, and even supply lines buried outside.

Ohio’s plumbing code stipulates that exterior water supply system piping must be installed no less than 6 inches below the frost line. In Toledo, the frost line is established at 36 inches.

“It’s kind of hitting places that it’s never hit before,” Eric Wagner said. “It’s definitely the time of the year where [plumbers] don’t get too much sleep.”

And while that keeps plumbers working, all the emergency calls also keep them from scheduling regular work.

Jim Gray, owner of Gray Plumbing LLC, said he too has been working long hours trying to keep up with all the frozen pipes. He said he tries to prioritize calls, taking care of the worst situations the quickest, especially with frozen or burst pipes.

“You need to get it addressed right away,” he said. “If you’re not there and your pipes freeze more than a day, you’re definitely going to have a lot of broken pipes.”

Mr. Gray said last year may have been worse, but this year is catching up.

“It came on fast and it seems like it’s staying around awhile,” he said.