Each year, extreme winter weather and blasts of Arctic air send temperatures plunging for prolonged periods in the UK. Subsequently, thousands of unoccupied properties are exposed to the risk of burst pipes and major water damage which can be catastrophic and a major inconvenience for you and your guests. Here, we provide our top tips to avoid frozen pipes, offer advice if the pipes in your property freeze and how to minimise the damage in the unfortunate event of a burst pipe.
The cost of burst pipes
Escape of water damage is one of the most common types of home insurance claims in the UK. Even a small leak can cause a significant amount of damage to your property and its contents. According to the Association of British Insurers (ABI), escape of water accounts for one in four domestic property claims, with insurers paying out £1.8 million for it every day. The cost of an escape of water insurance claim averaged over £3,000, however, £100,000+ repair bills for water damage to the building, contents and drying out is not uncommon.
What causes frozen pipes and bursts
One of the biggest causes of burst pipes is cold weather. During periods of freezing temperatures the water in exposed pipes freezes and expands, leading to a build-up of pressure and subsequent rupture of the pipe. When the ice thaws the water floods out. Although escape of water incidents peak in the winter months, they can occur all year round due to; corroding pipes in older properties, poor installation of pipes and fixtures, incorrectly plumbed-in appliances, radiator and boiler leaks.
Turn your water off
If you are leaving your property unoccupied then turn off the water supply at the main stopcock. In one day, the equivalent of 48 bathtubs full of water (9600 litres) can escape from a burst pipe. This can be reduced significantly by simply turning the water off when you leave. If you can’t turn off your water supply in an emergency using the internal stopcock, you may need to use the outside mains water stop tap. It is usually located near the boundary of your home/near your driveway. Most modern heating systems can still operate with the mains water turned off, so you can still heat your home. A qualified plumber should be able to give you advice about this.
Leave the heating on to keep pipes from freezing
One of the main causes of frozen pipes is inadequate heating or switching the heating off completely when your property is empty during cold snaps. While turning the heating off will save money in terms of fuel bills, it’s a false economy. Your home will be exposed to sub-zero temperatures and the devastating consequences of repairing significant damage should pipes burst. Keeping the heating on means that water in pipes will remain at a constant temperature and should not get cold enough to freeze. When your house is empty during winter it is recommended to leave the heating permanently on (to maintain a minimum temperature of at least 13 degrees C), especially during sub-zero temperatures.
Heating tips during sub-zero temperatures:
Electric storage heaters
During sub-zero temperatures, some types of heating systems, such as storage heaters, do not provide a continuous level of heat that is adequate to prevent pipes from freezing. By only having the heating on a timer, e.g. one hour in the morning and evening, can cause pipes to freeze as the property is not suitably heated. If this is the case, then turning off the main stopcock and draining down the water tank and pipes is essential during freezing temperatures. This limits the amount of water that can escape should a pipe burst.
Using the “frost” setting (usually marked with a snowflake symbol) on your room thermostats may not keep pipes from freezing. If the frost-stat or room/radiator thermostats are set too low, then there is a risk that water pipes may already be frozen by the time the heating is triggered to come on. It is recommended to leave the heating permanently on to maintain a minimum temperature of 13 degrees C.
If you are leaving your property unoccupied for a long period over winter or if your heating isn’t capable of preventing frozen pipes, then drain down the heating system and shut off the water supply so that there isn’t water in the pipes to freeze. Simply turning off the water is inadequate as there is still a lot of water in the pipes and tanks which can freeze and cause substantial damage if a burst occurred.
Lag pipes and insulate
Pipes in unheated areas, especially the loft, garage, cellar or those fixed to the inside of external walls are the primary cause of escape of water claims. Pipes are often situated above insulation, leaving them exposed to freezing temperatures. Pipes should be appropriately lagged using insulating foam sleeving and insulation – the thinner the pipe the thicker the insulation should be.
Protect water tanks and cylinders
Although all new water storage tanks should be insulated, older ones will benefit from a hot water jacket. Don’t place loft insulation directly under header tanks though, as this stops heat rising from the house below which warms the tank.
If you live in an area where your pipes freeze regularly, a trace could be the solution. Fitting additional trace heating (where a low voltage electrical cable with frost thermostat is wrapped around a lagged pipe to warm it during cold weather) is one of the best ways to prevent exposed water pipes freezing.
Allow warm air to circulate unheated areas
Our claims data found that water leaking from exposed pipes in the loft was the cause of the majority of burst pipe claims. Primarily caused by insufficient warm air circulating into the loft because the insulation below the pipes was so effective. In addition to lagging and insulating pipes, during freezing temperatures leave your loft hatch door open to allow the warmer air from your property to circulate up and around the water tank and pipes. This may appear environmentally unfriendly and costly, but it might mean the difference between water cascading through the house a dry one.
It is also a good idea to leave cupboard doors under the kitchen sink and bathroom cabinets open so that warm air can circulate around pipes that are exposed to the cold or fixed to outside walls. Any areas that allow cold air into your property (especially in unheated parts of the property), for example around vents and pipes, should also be sealed.
Prevent condensing boilers freezing and breaking down
If you have a condensing type central heating boiler take steps to prevent it breaking down in freezing weather – just when you need heating the most. During very cold weather, the condensate pipe which removes steam and condensation from the boiler can freeze solid, causing the boiler to shut down.
To stop your condensing pipe freezing:
- insulate the pipe to protect it
- the shorter the amount of pipe outside, the better
- make the condensate waste pipe as large as possible with a vertical fall
- try to get a boiler with a syphon trap type of water release rather than a continual drip
Don’t forget outside taps
Outside taps and associated pipework are always a problem in freezing weather. Ideally, if they are unused during winter then isolate the water supply to the outside tap with an internal shut-off valve. Also, protect outside taps and exposed pipes with insulation.
Allow taps to drip
Keep one or two taps dripping in freezing temperatures. This keeps water flowing through the system and should prevent water freezing and pipes splitting due to the build-up of pressure.
Ensure regular inspections are carried out on taps, cold water tanks, pipework and appliances. Do not ignore signs of water leaks as they can cause major damage to a property if left untreated – carry out repairs immediately.
Have an action plan
Be prepared. If you let out your property, make sure you provide guests with information on how to turn off the water and who to contact if a leak is discovered (your plumber, housekeeper, agent, you etc.). Display this in your guest information folder and in a prominent position so it’s easy to locate in the event of water gushing everywhere. Also, have a prominent notice displayed alongside your heating controls, instructing guests not to turn off the heating or turn thermostats below 12°c in winter as this could invalidate your insurance.
What to do if you have a frozen pipe
If despite taking precautions to minimise risk, the pipes in your property do freeze, here’s what you should do to try and prevent a burst. If in doubt, always consult a registered plumbing and heating engineer for assistance.
How to thaw frozen pipes:
- Don’t panic – frozen pipes will not always burst.
- Turn off the water supply at the internal stop tap to limit the amount of water that could escape in the event of a burst.
- If you have a stopcock on your cold-water tank (usually found in the loft), turn this off.
- Turn off the central heating system or immersion heater.
- Check pipes for damage, look for evidence of freezing and bulges. Cracks in pipes and plumbing joints may not be noticeable because frozen water is keeping them sealed. If pipes are split, call a plumber to repair the damage.
- Open the taps nearest to the frozen pipe, so that when the frozen water thaws the water flow will release pressure.
- Have some buckets and towels on hand as there is a significant danger that as water thaws and expands, pipes could burst.
- If possible, protect or move items near where the frozen pipe is located to avoid damage if it bursts.
- Try to thaw the frozen pipe slowly and cautiously with a hot water bottle, hairdryer or a towel soaked in hot water. Start from the tap end and work back. Never use a naked flame such as a blowtorch or heat gun.
- Frozen pipes that are enclosed within a wall or floor space are harder to deal with, but turn the heating up and wait for the blockage to melt.
- If your condensate boiler stops working in freezing weather, check your condensate waste pipe. It’s usually the pipe running from your boiler outside. To thaw a condensate pipe pour warm (not boiling) water over the pipe. Hopefully, this will get your boiler up and running again.
- Once you have thawed your pipes and are satisfied that there are no leaks, turn on the water supply.
- Check and double-check for signs of leaks and turn on the central heating system.
- Now take the steps listed above to prevent frozen pipes in the future.
If you fail to un-thaw the frozen pipes, if you can’t get to them, or notice signs of splitting or cracks – call a plumber! And for more property related advice speak to our experienced Property Management Department on 020 8883 2621.