Our View: Risky pipe-thawing methods not worth it
January 3, 2010
A tragic mobile home fire in Hayden last week and a near-tragic blaze under similar circumstances two weeks ago in Oak Creek are a testament to the need for homeowners to practice common-sense approaches to winter home maintenance.
In the heart-wrenching story from Hayden, 88-year-old resident Carmen Northrop died Tuesday when her mobile home caught fire after the flame from a propane torch ignited the home's insulation. Northrop's husband, 78-year-old Billie Northrop, had been using the torch to thaw a frozen water heater pipe.
Billie Northrop yelled at his wife to leave the trailer, but authorities think she may have gone back in to gather some items. Despite the heroic efforts of passerby Wayne Eller, Carmen Northrop never emerged from the trailer and died of smoke inhalation.
The incident occurred exactly one week after a similar mobile home fire in Oak Creek. On Dec. 22, a home owned by Lauretta Martinez was destroyed by fire after authorities said Martinez's boyfriend used a propane torch to unfreeze pipes under the home. Fortunately, no one was injured, but all of the home's contents were destroyed.
Because mobile homes are elevated off the ground, they are particularly susceptible to frozen pipes. That's especially true early in the winter, before deep snow builds up around the base of the homes to provide a layer of insulation from the frigid Northwest Colorado air.
Our unseasonably cold December hasn't helped. At least one local plumber reports that he had four times as many frozen pipe calls in December 2009 than he had the previous December. The maintenance technician at Dream Island Mobile Home Park in Steamboat Springs has dealt with several frozen pipe issues already this winter.
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But as the two recent fires indicate, under no circumstances should residents use an open flame to thaw frozen pipes. The inherent risk simply is not worth the potentially tragic results. Instead, we urge residents with frozen pipes to call their plumbers to solve the problem. Many plumbers use machines that send an electric current through frozen pipes, which thaws them without exposing the structure to open flame. Although such services could set residents back a couple of hundred dollars, that's a fraction of what's at risk if a home remedy goes wrong.
For that matter, experts also warn against makeshift attempts to prevent pipes from freezing in the first place, such as placing portable space heaters under homes — particularly space heaters that run on propane.
If you can't afford or refuse to call a plumber, at least consider three other methods that don't involve open flames: wrapping pipes with certified electric heat tape, using a hair dryer on the frozen section of pipe or pouring hot water over the pipe. Each method significantly reduces the risk of fire and, as our community experienced last month, minimizes the chance that lives and homes will be lost for something as seemingly harmless as a frozen pipe.