How to Prevent Frozen Pipes and Bursts
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.
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.
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
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.