During a bitterly cold spell last winter, I was especially grateful for the comforting heat of my wood stove. I loaded it up one night and shut the door to the unused guest bedroom, figuring I would keep the heat in the living room and bedrooms. But when I woke up the next morning to a 50-degree house, I realized that I had made a mistake. The heat from the wood stove had caused the thermostat (located in the hall) to turn off the baseboard heat and because the guest room wasn’t getting any heat, a pipe froze and the heat stopped working on the main floor. 

I called five plumbers but given the cold temperatures, many people in the area were having the same problem and they were all booked solid. Thankfully, The Fuel Company in East Falmouth was able to send someone out, however, because the frozen pipe was inside a wall, there was no way of knowing whether it had cracked. All I could do was crank up the heat in the functioning zones, keep a space heater running near the suspected area and hope that when it finally thawed that it didn’t burst. Three long days later, the heat finally kicked back on and I was thrilled not to find any damage. 

“The tricky part is the temperature in the center of the home where the thermostat is may be different than the corners of the house,” said MaryEllen Donald of The Fuel Company. She recommends raising the setting on the thermostat when the outside temperature drops to an extreme low level to keep all sections of the house warm.

Nicole Norcoss was not so fortunate when a pipe froze in her condominium in Bourne while she was on a winter trip to Texas a few years ago. She had left the main heat on but had turned it off in the bathroom, although the door was open. A few days into her trip, she got a call from a neighbor who noticed water running down their shared wall. “There was about two inches of water when we went to get our stuff,” Ms. Norcross said. “The walls were crumbling and the ceiling caved in. The entire place had to be gutted.” They had to move out for three months while the condo was torn down to the studs, aired out, and rebuilt. “All our furniture was either ruined or had bad mold/mildew problems down the road. The condo was never the same.”   

“I also had a frozen zone on New’s Year Eve after the ball dropped.” Ms. Donald said. “Luckily, we were home and we were able to use a hair dryer and a heat gun to release the small section. I was able to feel the pipe and determine where the heated pipe ended and where the cold started on an exposed section of baseboard.”

If you suspect you have a frozen pipe, the first step is to try to locate the precise area by turning on faucets to see which ones are working, according to an article on the website WikiHow that Ms. Donald recommended. If you find that water is not flowing in one faucet but it still works in another, you can determine that the frozen pipe is located somewhere in between. 

If you cannot tell from faucets, begin checking pipes near areas without insulation, such as crawlspaces, attics or basements, as well as outdoor valves and spigots, and feel the pipes with your hand to determine if it’s colder than other pipes. 

Once you locate the area, examine visible pipes for cracks and look at the backs of pipes near walls and other areas. If you find a leak, close the main shut-off valve immediately and call a plumber to replace the pipe. Leave all functioning faucets slightly running to prevent further freezing but also leave blocked faucets open to reduce pressure on pipes. If the pipe is only partially frozen, the running water may even help thaw the frozen area. 

You can use a hair dryer or heat gun on the frozen pipe to slowly thaw the frozen section. (Use caution, as extreme temperature changes can rupture the pipe or cause damage to some pipes.) Space heaters and heat lamps work to gently heat the surrounding area and electrical heat tape is available from hardware stores and can be wrapped around pipes to warm them up. 

You can also add salt to frozen drains to melt the ice. WikiHow says to pour one tablespoon of salt down the drain or dissolve it in boiling water then pour that down the drain, although this increases the risk of bursting a pipe due to sudden temperature change. 

If the heat is still working in all or some areas of your home, turn it up for several hours and open all doors (including closets and cabinets) to help it circulate throughout the house and along outer walls. A last resort is cutting a hole in the wall to help access the frozen pipe and using the thawing methods. 

To prevent frozen pipes in the future, ensure they are properly insulated and protected from wind and cold air. An energy audit can help expose areas that are at risk. If you are going to be away or if it is particularly cold, leave a trickle of water running in each faucet. Ms. Donald said that prevention is especially important during very cold periods or when you are going to be away from your home. She recommends low temperature devices. “Some don’t require electricity but do need a connection to a traditional phone line. There are a number of apps that work with thermostats to determine the temperature of the house. We have preferred Honeywell as a standard.”

And as Ms. Norcoss learned the hard way, “never completely turn the thermostat off when you aren’t going to be home.”