May 24, 2019

Safety issues crucial when thawing pipes Electric hair dryers recommended

February is one of our coldest months, so we probably can expect more subzero days before winter releases its grip. Area residents may have to contend with frozen water pipes and gelled heating oil in their tanks. Unfortunately, many people use propane torches or improperly use electric heat tapes to thaw out frozen pipes. Both can cause a fire.

If you are faced with a frozen pipe or gelled oil in the line to the furnace (a common problem when a tank is outside or in an unheated area during subzero weather), the Bangor Fire Department recommends you use an electric hair dryer instead of a propane torch to thaw the frozen area. Countless homes are destroyed when a hand-held propane torch being used to thaw out frozen piping accidentally ignites combustibles, such as paper-backed insulation or wallboard.

Using an electric hair dryer may take longer, but it’s a lot safer in the long run. You may also decide to use a heat tape during extended periods of cold weather, but take precautions. While heat tapes wrapped around pipes can prevent freezing, many people use them incorrectly. Each year heat tapes account for 3,300 fires, 20 deaths and approximately 160 injuries.

Most newer heat tapes are safer than older versions. The Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends replacing heat tapes more than 3 years old and using only heat tapes approved by an independent testing agency. CPSC also recommends using heat tapes with three-prong plugs and-or plugged into a ground fault circuit interrupter. Heat tape should be wound around the pipe, but not wound over itself.

In addition, the tape should be placed directly on the piping and not on top of insulation. Many heat tapes allow the use of insulation, but experts recommend using a fiberglass batting (without a paper back) to wrap the pipe, rather than a foam-type insulation.

Make sure your heat tape is designed for its intended use. Some tapes can be used only on waterlines, while others can be used for gutters, fuel lines or a combination of uses. Some heat tapes are made specifically for use on metal pipes, while others also can be used on PVC pipes.

If the heat tape has a thermostat, which is recommended, check if the thermostat should be placed against the pipe and covered with insulation or left uncovered. Finally, before using the heat tape, inspect it for charring, cuts or breaks in the insulation or bare wires. If the tape shows any sign of damage, discard it. Reading and heeding directions and warnings accompanying heat tape is important.

Opening a faucet to a steady drip often will keep waterlines from freezing. Areas that may be prone to freezing, such as a waterline running on an outside wall underneath a cabinet, may be helped by keeping cabinet doors open to expose the area to room temperature. Foam insulation or fiberglass batting placed between the wall and pipes also can help prevent freezing.

If you are having problems with an oil line gelling from the cold, you may ask your oil company to put kerosene in your tank instead of No. 2 heating oil. If your oil furnace fails to work because of a freeze-up, and warming the piping does not alleviate the problem, call a qualified oil burner technician. Do not attempt to repair a furnace by yourself and do not hit the reset button more than once in an attempt to restart the burner.

For more information on safely thawing out frozen pipes, call your fire department.

Many thanks to Jason Johnson and Shellie Tourtillotte of the Bangor Fire Department for providing this information.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast COMBAT/The Maine Center for the Public Interest, Maine’s membership-funded nonprofit consumer organization. For help or to request individual or business membership information write: Consumer Forum, Bangor Daily News, PO Box 1329, Bangor 04402-1329.

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