If you’re in Austin or just about anywhere else in Texas right now, you may be facing an urgent problem as your frozen pipes start to thaw. If your copper water pipes have burst, then you’ll start to get a major water leak as the rest of the pipes in your home thaw and water starts flowing again. Here’s what to do if you hear water gushing.
FIRST, SHUT OFF WATER TO YOUR HOUSE
Some homes have an auxiliary shut off valve for cutting water to the whole house or duplex. Unfortunately, most apartment buildings and older condos don’t have shutoff valves for individual apartments. If you live in an apartment or condo, then hopefully your building’s management is already taking steps to avoid burst pipe flooding.
If you live in a house or duplex and don’t have an auxiliary shutoff, then you can always cut water at the meter. Your water meter will be located at or near the street usually on the left or right property line. It’s in an underground cover to protect from freezing. Look for a round metal manhole-style cover:
You should be able to lift up the metal cover with a screwdriver. If it’s filled with some dirt or leaves etc, then just dig around until you uncover the actual shutoff valve. It will look like this:
You can close the shut off valve by turning it clockwise (righty-tighty) 90degrees to the off position. You will need to use pliers or a crescent wrench to turn the valve, since they’re not designed to be easily shut off:
The water meter dial will stop spinning when the valve is completely closed. Again realize that it might take some digging around to find the valve, and that these valves can sometimes be quite hard to turn if they’ve not been touched in years. If it’s really sticky, then try getting as much leverage as possible by using the longest crescent wrench (or channel-lock pliers work well too) that you can fit in the meter box.
SECOND, LOCATE THE LEAK(s)
This should be pretty easy if the burst pipe is in a wall or attic, just go to wherever the drywall is wettest or to wherever the sound of running water was loudest.
IF the source is obvious, then try to see if the water that gushed out is warm or cold. If the leaked water is warm, then that means a hot water pipe burst at that spot. If the leaked water is quite cold, then that means a cold water pipe burst at that spot.
IF the source is not obvious, then you can try opening up the main shutoff valve just a bit to let enough additional water leak to locate the burst pipe spot.
IF THE LEAKING WATER IS WARM, then you can at least get your cold water taps working again right away by shutting off the hot water tank supply line. You will then be able to turn the main cutoff valve back on. To shut off just the hot water, look for a valve in one of the pipes at the top of your water heater tank and just turn it to the right until it’s shut tight (if there’s a valve on both lines, then just go ahead and shut ’em both off):
IF THE LEAKING WATER IS COLD and you can’t find the place where it’s coming from, then you’re unfortunately going to be without water for awhile until a pro plumber can visit. But having the water supply shut off at the main will at least prevent further damage.
THIRD, GET ACCESS TO THE BURST PIPE
If water is leaking from a burst pipe in your attic or pier-and-beam foundation crawlspace, then that’s great if you can get up into the attic or down into the crawlspace to see the spot of the burst. It will look something like this for a copper pipe:
There usually won’t be more than one rupture per pipe run. Also, it will usually be a 1/2-in diameter copper pipe.
IF water is leaking from a burst pipe in a wall, then you will need to open up the wall to expose the pipe. Don’t worry about making a neat hole in the drywall, since any drywall that got soaked will need to eventually be ripped out and replaced anyway. Also don’t worry about pulling out a vanity cabinet or cutting into the back of kitchen base cabinets. Again, this’ll have to be done anyway before the pipe can be fixed.
FOURTH, CAP THE PIPE with a simple push-on fitting
Hopefully the section of pipe that burst has at least an inch or more of space all around it for some working room. If not, then cutting and repairing the line will still require a pro plumber with specialized tools but at least the plumber will now have access to the pipe.
IF the burst section of pipe has some working room around it and it is a copper pipe, then you can cut and cap the line yourself with just some basic tools. Here’s how to do it.
STEP 1: Get Your Supplies
Go to Home Depot, Lowes, or any other hardware store with a plumbing section. Buy these three things.
1) Pipe cutter for copper pipe. Looks something like this and will cost $15 or so:
If there’s not at least 1-in of working room around the pipe then you may need to saw through it using an old-school close work hacksaw like this:
2) Sharkbite push-on end cap fitting. Looks like this:
Sharkbite fittings come in 1/2-in, 3/4-in, and 1-in diameters. Almost all residential copper piping has an outside diameter of 1/2-in, but it’s a good idea to measure first to be certain. You will need the correctly sized fitting.
3) Sandpaper. Just about any plain ‘ol sandpaper will do so long as it’s not a superfine 200+ grit. Look for any sandpaper that’s 60-180 grit:
You’ll be using this for cleaning up a rough cut in a pipe especially if you have to cut the pipe with a hacksaw. Copper is soft, so that’s why plain sandpaper will work.
STEP 2: Cut the Pipe
You’ll need to make two cuts in the pipe to make room for the push fitting. The upstream side of the pipe can be cut anyplace that’s convenient. You can also simply bend the upstream section of pipe out of the way. Remember that this is just a temporary repair. A pro plumber can clean things up afterward.
You will need to make a VERY CLEAN cut in the downstream side of the pipe that you’re going to cap. Sharkbite push-fit fittings will only work on sections of pipe that are perfectly round and clean. So, pick a spot that is not near an elbow or bend and that doesn’t have solder on it. You can clean up a pipe surface by sanding it with the plumber’s cloth or regular sandpaper ’till it’s nice and shiny and smooth like this:
Then you’ll want to remove any burrs or sharp bits that the cutting caused. Again, the cut end of the pipe needs to be ROUND AND SMOOTH for the push-fit fitting to work properly. Make sure you also roll up some sandpaper to get inside the pipe to remove any burrs like this:
Step 3: Cap the Pipe
This should actually be the easiest part. Once the pipe is cleanly cut and prepped with a bit of sanding, simply wipe it clean and push on the endcap fitting. There’s no twisting needed, simply push it straight on. You should feel it slide into place on the pipe with just a good firm straight push:
Step 4: Test the Fitting
Now you can turn the water back on to check and see if the push-on fitting is sealed and secure. It’s a good to have a helper for this, one person to slowly open the water main valve and another person to watch the endcap fitting for any leaks.
YOUR BUSTED WATER LINE IS NOW CAPPED!
If installed correctly, a sharkbite end-cap fitting is a near-permanent fix. So if you turn the water back on and the fitting doesn’t show any signs of immediately leaking, then you’re golden. You can wait for however long it takes (days, weeks, months, even a couple years) to get a pro plumber to do a permanent fix. Meantime, you’ll want to leave the wall open for access.