Fire & Ice: or How to Unfreeze Your Water Meter (& How to Keep It From Freezing in the Future)





Introduction: Fire & Ice: or How to Unfreeze Your Water Meter (& How to Keep It From Freezing in the Future)

We are remodeling a house right now and the temperatures have been getting down to 4 degrees Fahrenheit for the last few days. Since we haven't been running water, the water meter froze. This is an effective technique for thawing out the water meter to restore water flow to the house. There are also some other interesting surprises along the way to finally restoring running water to the house.
This Instructable involves the use of FIRE, so be careful not to burn yourself. Use standard precautions. Don't try this on a gas meter or anything like that.

Items Needed:
Channel Lock Pliers/ or that 5-sided wrench thing
Vice Grips
Crescent Wrench
A Helper

Step 1: Find Out Where the Water Is Frozen.

When the water stops in the house, you first need to check the main shutoff valve in the house to make sure that it has not frozen there. (If there were Ice here, you would go out to the meter and shut off the valve and proceed to thaw out your pipe inside and prepare for a minor flood. Since it was ok, we went out to the meter to see what was going on. )

If the main Valve is ok, then go out to the meter and pull the lid off and inspect the meter

Step 2: Verify the Meter Is Frozen & That the Water Company Didn't Shut Off Your Water for Some Reason

Looking at the meter, we don't see a lock and the valve is in the open position. There are Ice crystals everywhere. The meter is probably frozen. Just to be safe, Call the emergency number for your water company and tell them you think your meter froze. Verify they haven't just turned off the water or that something is wrong with the main. If everything checks out, tell them what you plan to do to solve the problem. Or, if you want to be lazy, find out if they have a technician in the area that can solve the problem for you so you can go inside and get warm.

Otherwise proceed to next step.

Step 3: The Fire Part

Now we are going to thaw out the meter and lines in the meter box. You only need to use 2 or three sheets of newspaper or an equivalent amount of toilet paper. If you use too much, you will melt or damage the water meter and then you will have a huge flood. This also may result in having to buy a new water meter. (this is less fun than spending your money on a micro controller kit)

Put the sheets in one at a time

***Note: Get permission from your water company before doing this as some water meters are digital and may be irreparably damaged by this. You might even be charged big money to replace the meter. This particular water meter is totally mechanical and the water company gave me permission to do this.

Step 4: Cooking the Meter

Have someone in the house turn on a tap so the water can start flowing. When the first newspaper burns almost out, drop a second one in the box. Try to drop them near the pipe and under the meter. Within about 2 or three minutes the water will start to flow. If you have a marshmallow and stick, this would be the time to make a smore.

If the water meter has not frozen solid and cracked, then congratulations, you are done.

Otherwise proceed to next step.

Step 5: Stop the Deluge

If the meter has cracked, then as the ice thaws the meter will start spraying a ton of water out at high pressure, which will extinguish the fire, ruin your smore and make a bunch of smoke and steam. It will also cause your adrenaline levels to rise in a pleasing manner.

Do not panic! Take the crescent wrench and turn the ball valve somewhere in the neighborhood of 120 degrees and shut off the water.

Step 6: Call Water Company

If the meter is cracked, you will need to call the water company to come out and replace/repair your meter. They will not be excited, as it is 4 degrees outside. They probably won't get to it until the next day.

So, make a fire and melt some snow so you can take a bath.

In the future, during a hard freeze you need to leave a little bit of water running during the night (or all the time if the house is unoccupied) to keep the lines from freezing.



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    13 Discussions

    You sell the water meters u don't work with I'm licensed to test fron 5/8 to 8 inch and this is how my company thaws out the water meters and chances are the meter is already busted from the ice. Last time i check heat tape is electric and if the meter bust i wouldn't change it. Electricity and water don't mix

    As a 25 year seller of water meters, let me advise of better ways. Almost all meters have internal parts made of various plastics. US meters are designed to withstand only temperatures of 105-140 degrees depending on manufacturer. heat from a flame will be very inconsistent in temperature. There were some meterboxes made in the 50s to 70s that were cardboard coated with creososte. They could catch fire and destroy the whole meter pit. There are several ways that are better. Damaging a standard meter could cost you up to $120, damaging an electronic meter could cost you $300+ in replacements.

    1. Heat Tape - This is a permanent fix to keep from happening in the first place, but would require electric.

    2. insulation jacket - there are insulation jackets made to protect meters from freezing.

    3. Insulation disk - These disks go at ground level to hold in the pit ground heat and better insulate.

    4. If prevention isn't available and already frozen, use air (blown into the pit), or fill the pit with warm water (not hot, anything above 50 F or tapwater, but less than 110 F) If frozen, you may need to fill a trash can at a neighbors home.


    This gives me an idea as to how to thaw out the pressure switch on my well. The switch freezes up in the off position, then I have no water until it thaws on its own. The rocket scientist that put in the well didn't see the need to run a neutral wire in addition to the +/- 110VAC for the 220VAC pump, so I can't put in heat trace tape. Hot water would be a bad idea over the electrical terminals on the switch. Perhaps I can rig up a newspaper-and-twig-fueled hot air heater out of some tin cans...

    Yeah, but without fire, who would look at this instructable?

    Well yes. Sometimes I lose the perspective... This should be added to boy-scout handbooks eh?

    Being a plumber, there are a couple things to note: 1. sometimes when a meter freezes, it only cracks the bottom and does no internal damage. If this is the case, some suppliers, that carry parts for water mains, hydrants, etc. may have a replacement meter bottom. Not all homeowners know about this though. Keep in mind though that your local water dept. may not like you messing with the meter. 2. some new meters have plastic isolators to prevent potential electricity from passing from the house through the meter and charging the main. These isolators can melt as we've discovered. If possible, using hot air to thaw is better. Meter's usually don't freeze if (1) they are at least 15 inches below the lid and (2) the lid is on at all times and (3) the ground is filled up around the meter to the lid. I've seen several frozen meters that the top 12 inches of the meter pit were exposed above the ground. In the pictures above, it looks like the meter was too high in relation to the lid. Once it's thawed, try putting insulation around the meter.

    2 replies

    Interesting... You are right the meter is only appox. 6 inches under the meter cap. So, when you say insulate, do you mean pack the entire meterbox with some pink attic batting? Or do you think that gluing a 3" thick piece of styro-foam to the lid would work?

    Fill the pit from the meter to the lid with the pink batting. Unfortunately, the meter shown is read visually by the local water authority/meter-reader. They may put the insulation back after reading the meter, and they may not. I've seen meters within three inches of the lid that were insulated with bat type insulation that did not freeze in sub-zero temperature for several days, sometimes weeks. The insulation helps to keep natural ground heat in the meter pit and around the meter. The correct fix would be a big job (breaking out the concrete surrounding the meter pit, digging up the entire meter pit, digging below the water line so it could be lowered another 12 inches or so and then putting everything back). In some cases, this is the only way to prevent frozen meters. Hope the info helps.


    11 years ago

    in the future for anyone doing this and you know the house is going to be the same temp as outside think before this happens and drain your lines first , get a plug that has a GFI attached to it and just use an ordinary light bulb near the meter it won't get boiling hot but it will be hot enough to keep it from freezing

    1 reply

    that wouldwork, but what would be more expensive, the small trickle of water or the power bill for the light bulb?


    I have a good friend who does meter and hydrant work for my local government. THEY favor using road flares.