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How to Prevent Frozen Pipes and Bursts

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Each year, extreme winter weather and blasts of Arctic air sends temperatures plunging for prolonged periods in the UK. Subsequently, thousands of holiday homes are exposed to the risk of burst pipes and major water damage which can be horrendous.

The cost of burst pipes

Water leaks are one of the most common types of home insurance claims in the UK, accounting for one in five claims. The average escape of water insurance claim is an estimated £2,638, however, £100,000+ repair bills for water damage to the building, contents and drying out is not uncommon.

Claims are also on the increase. Data from the ABI (The Association of British Insurers) found that in the first nine months of 2017, domestic escape of water claims cost £483m, up 24% compared to the same period in 2014.

What causes burst pipes?

During periods of cold weather and freezing temperatures the water in pipes freezes and expands, leading to a build-up of pressure and subsequent rupture of the pipe.

How to avoid frozen pipes whilst your holiday home is empty

If you’ve never suffered a burst pipe, then trust us, it’s not an experience that you’ll want to go through. It’s important to remember that the policyholder is responsible for taking due care and reasonable measures to prevent incidents from occurring. Failure to demonstrate this was the case could result in an insurer refusing to meet an escape of water claim.

“Prevention is definitely better than cure when it comes to burst pipes”!

The following guide covers:

  • How to prevent pipes from freezing
  • Should you leave the heating on or turn the water off?
  • What temperature to leave an empty house in the winter to avoid pipes freezing
  • How to keep your boiler in check
  • Other winter precautions to protect your holiday home

Burst pipe claims can be mitigated or prevented by following these simple tips…

Turn your water off

If you are leaving your home 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. Limiting the amount of water that can escape can mean the difference between water flowing through your home a dry one.

Do you know where your stopcock is located? Everyone should know where their stopcock is located as you don’t want to be trying to locate it while water is gushing through the ceiling and you have no idea how to stop it! It’s usually located somewhere on the ground floor, typically underneath the kitchen sink.

Test you can turn the water off/on a couple of times a year to minimise ‘seizing’. It’s essential that your property manager, cleaner and guests also have clear instructions on the location of your stopcock in the event of an emergency.

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 to 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

One of the main causes of frozen pipes is inadequate heating or switching the heating off completely when your holiday home is empty during cold snaps. While this 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 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 (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, for example, one hour in the morning and evening, means pipes can still freeze as the property is not heated through.

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 (minimum temperature 13 degrees C).

Oil and LPG gas fuelled heating systems

If your boiler runs on oil or LPG gas, ensure that you have enough fuel to heat your property over winter. You don’t want to run out and find your supplier is unable to deliver due to severe winter weather. If you run out of oil, ensure that the water is turned off at the mains stopcock and the water system is drained down. This should help prevent pipes freezing.

Your heating oil supplier should also be able to tell you what additional precautions you should take during very cold weather to prevent oil gelling/freezing and blockages.

Ideally, you should have an alternative heating source as a backup should your primary heating fail.

Drain down

If you are leaving your holiday home unoccupied during the 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.

Get advice from a qualified plumber or heating engineer on how to drain down the water and central heating system to remove the threat of water damage entirely.

Also, flush toilets and put a healthy serving of salt down the toilet/sink to prevent water freezing

Lag pipes and insulate

Pipes in unheated areas, especially lofts, attics, crawl spaces, basements or those fixed to the inside of external walls are most at risk from freezing and need to be properly lagged. Pipes are often situated above insulation, leaving them exposed to freezing temperatures. Pipes should be lagged using insulating foam sleeving – 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 below to warm the tank.

Trace heating

Lagging outside water pipes on its own is not always enough to prevent frozen pipes. 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 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.

During freezing temperatures leave your loft hatch door open to allow the warmer air from your holiday home 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, for example around vents and pipes, should also be sealed.

Service your boiler

Service your heating system/boiler annually (before winter) to help prevent boiler breakdowns during cold spells and to ensure it’s running efficiently. Check that the thermostat is working correctly and consult with your heating engineer about any benefits of adding antifreeze to your heating system.

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 them most. In cold weather the external condensate pipe that takes waste water from the back of the condensing boiler can freeze solid, causing the boiler to shut down.

Lagging this pipe with water-proof and weather-proof insulation can prevent freezing. Other tips include:
-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

Get smart

There are a number of ‘smart leak detection devices’ available that turn off the water supply if it suspects a leak or use sensors to send you a leak alert. These can be extremely useful in detecting leaks before they develop into a serious issue.

You can also use a smart thermostat to remotely manage your heating during cold snaps and internal cameras to look for damage.

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.

Ask someone to check on your holiday home

The risk (and cost) of a claim multiplies greatly once a property becomes unoccupied as damage can go undiscovered for days, even weeks. Ask a neighbour or your property manager to inspect your empty holiday home regularly during severe freezing temperatures. Early detection will help to minimise damage should your pipes freeze and burst as they begin to thaw. Also, any boiler or heating failures due to the power tripping can be identified, allowing you to take action.

Have an action plan

Be prepared. If you let out your holiday home, make sure you provide guests with information on how to turn off the water and who to contact if a leak is discovered (name and number of 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.

Is escape water damage covered by insurance?

Although these precautions can help prevent burst pipes, there is still a risk that the unforeseen could happen and you could experience water damage. When bad weather strikes there is no substitute for insurance. Check your holiday home insurance covers escape of water damage for peace of mind.

It is a condition on most policies that during the winter you must maintain a minimum temperature or turn off the water supply when your holiday home is left unoccupied. You may also have to drain down and inspect regularly.

It’s essential that you ensure you comply with any winter heating warranties and unoccupancy terms outlined in your insurance policy wording, as failure to fulfil your insurance obligations could leave your holiday home uninsured for escape of water.

If you need advice on what cover you need, and the small print to look out for, contact one of our insurance experts. The flexibility of our unoccupancy cover takes the stress out of owning a holiday home. As standard, there isn’t a requirement to drain down, leave the heating on or turn off the water.

To summarise: How to prevent frozen pipes

The cost and stress caused by the escape of water can be horrific. A pipe bursting in your holiday cottage can lead to your whole house being flooded, leaving it unhabitable for months while it dries out. You’ll also have to cancel any holiday bookings and deal with your possessions being ruined.

So when the mercury drops, it’s essential that you take steps to avoid burst pipes.

  • If your property is going to be left empty, turn off the water supply and drain the system. Tip: Not just in winter. Water leaks from faulty household appliances, poor workmanship and pipework failure can happen all year round!
  • In sub-zero temperatures leave your heating on (at least 13 degrees C or as specified by your insurer) and have an alternative heating source available in case your heating fails.
  • Make sure your property is regularly inspected for damage or evidence of frozen pipes.
  • Make sure everyone who has access to your property can locate your stopcock so they can quickly turn off the water supply in an emergency.
  • Consider fitting a smart leak detector and an automatic stop valve.
  • Ensure pipes are lagged, insulation is adequate and warm air is allowed to circulate unheated areas – especially the loft
  • Comply with your holiday home insurance policy unoccupancy and winter warranty conditions to ensure you are covered.
  • This advice doesn’t just apply to properties in the UK. Temperatures in parts of France can plunge to -17C in winter.
  • As a policyholder, you have a responsibility to take due care and reasonable steps to prevent loss or damage. It’s never too early to start preparing for the impact of sub-zero temperatures, frozen pipes and bursts.
  • Finally, file your insurance documents in a safe place so you can quickly locate them following a burst.

“Prevention is definitely better than cure when it comes to burst pipes”!

Are your pipes frozen?

Here are some tips on what to do if your pipes are frozen.


  • Jim |

    Some good tips here. We have a holiday home in France were it’s not unusual for temperatures to drop below freezing. When we leave we turn off the mains water and have antifreeze in our heating.

    • Philip |

      A good tip Jim. Some Northern parts of France are as cold as the UK in winter, which many absent owners don’t experience. Although we do have frozen/burst pipe claims in France, they are few compared to the UK. French owners seem to take more precautions to prevent burst pipes and drain down when leaving their properties unoccupied. Another tip I have read from one owner on a forum is putting salt in toilets to prevent freezing.

  • Dillon |

    I learn’t the hard way last winter when (name removed by admin) didn’t pay my burst pipe claim because we left our home empty whilst we were in Spain for 3 months and didn’t tell them. Had I taken the time to turn the stopcock off I expect the damage would have been a lot less and not the disaster zone we walked into.

    • Philip |

      Sorry to hear about the claim. Most main residence insurers will extend cover if you leave your home unoccupied for over 30 days whilst travelling for example, but you must inform them first. There are also specialist insurers who give 60-90 days unoccupancy cover. Whether insured or not, turning the stop cock off can reduce the claim from tens of thousands of pounds to a couple of thousand.

  • mytrustedplumber |

    An excellent compilation of tips here!
    I would probably also opt to completely drain the water/heating system just to make sure if I was to leave a property unoccupied for long periods of time (when the temperatures can drop below zero). And if in a rush shutting off the supplies via the stopcock is must really.
    Thanks for sharing these tips!

  • Adrian Fox |

    Draining your system is sometimes not enough, as water can remain in sections of pipe which do not drain and in the recesses of taps and valves. We have had frost damage to taps and valves making them useless and unusable the next year. You may need to use a high pressure air blower to ensure your system is truly empty. Many places in France can drop to minus 20C or more in an extreme winter. This has happened to us several times in the Pays de La Loire over the past ten years.

    • Philip |

      Thanks for your comment Adrian. Indeed many places in France drop to minus 20C or more in an extreme winter. Those who lock up and leave their properties over winter and don’t visit are usually unaware of this and return to substantial damage by burst pipes. Thanks for your tips on emptying a water system.

  • Paul troalic |

    Thanks for the tips above. We have lived in France for 14 years and on 2 occasions have been flooded due to burst pipes. Once was as a result of a burst in a pipe running through the loft space to outside (major damage as mains was left on); the second was a central heating pipe. The insurers were great. We now leave our heating on at 8 degrees (mains water off) but the oil tank runs out. We are considering draining everything as we are away for nearly 6 months in the winter. I think we may drain everything in the future.

    • Philip |

      Hi Paul, in our experience over the years it’s unprotected pipes in the loft space that freeze, burst and cause the most damage. Draining is a sensible precaution if your property will be empty for a long period, but simply turning the mains off can reduce the extent of water damage significantly. There are some ‘smart home’ devices available that detect water leaks, have you also considered these?

  • phil |

    We had a house in Northern France for many years. I learn’t a lot about freeze ups. When the house was renovated a plumber friend suggested using plastic plumbing not copper. This was very good advice I found. Yes drain down but beware not all systems drain completely especially in the horizontal bits etc and definately turn the water off. One year about 15 years ago there was an exceptional frost going down to minus fifteen! My neighbour in France, a Uk builder, was far away . He had copper, drained down, water off, all properly lagged etc.. Many pipes split even though there was little water in them. He believed this was because modern copper pipe is very thin which is what my plumber said. My plastic was NOT drained ( I’d forgotten) but water off. The only damage was a split emersion tank and the tap connectors were pushed off the bath taps!
    Just food for thought and my experience.

    • Philip |

      Hi Phil, thanks for sharing your experience – very useful . Anti-freeze can also help as there is likely to still be some water in the system when drained. Turning the water off is essential as up to 48 bathtubs of water a day (9600 litres) can escape from a burst pipe with the water on, compared to a few hundred with the water off. Simply turning the water off can make a huge difference in reducing the amount of damage and stress caused by bursts.

  • Pete |

    In the section headed “Allow warm air to circulate unheated areas”, you mention allowing warm air to circulate in the loft. Sometimes this is a bad idea as it can cause a condensation damp problem when it condenses out on cool surfaces. Maybe a better idea to build a thermal tent over pipes and the tank/s to help keep them warm.

    • Philip |

      Thanks for your advice. Our claims experience is that during cold snaps, leaks from unheated pipes in the loft where responsible for damage in nearly every instance. Insulation, lagging and allowing warm air to circulate in the loft during prolonged sub-zero temperatures can mean the difference between water cascading through the house and a dry one.

  • Jan Rochefort |

    It was 31 December 1995, at 6pm and I answered the phone. It was our rental agent phoning to say that our neighbour had seen water gushing out of the front door that afternoon. He’d turned off the water mains in the street then called the agent. When she arrived at our property she discovered (by torch light as she feared turning on the lights) 2 ceilings were down and every room had been affected by the flood. The reason (NB we had let our property out on 6 month let over winter) our tenants had gone away over Christmas & New Year, turning off the heating but not draining the water and there had been a very cold snap that week. Our plumber said this was not an unusual case and happened when a property was allowed to get cold to the core. The tenant who was an engineer said he didn’t know where the stopcock was. This despite me leaving a file of useful information including where to find the stopcock! Our rental agent said that in future she would include a requirement that minimum heating was to be maintained from October to April. The property had to be completely redecorated, ceilings repaired and carpets dried out. Welcome 1996!

    • Philip |

      Unfortunately we have dealt with many claims like this so know what you went through, it’s devastating. Although leaving the heating on can help prevent pipes freezing, those in unheated areas (e.g. the loft) can still freeze and burst. Turning off the water is the best way to minimise damage when properties are left unoccupied. It’s also essential that everyone who has access to the property knows where to turn the water off internally and externally.

  • Mark Belcher |

    Daft question?

    Can you turn off the water and keep your heating on ?

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