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  • Writer's pictureJeremy Yorke

Preventing and Thawing Frozen Pipes

This January we experienced one of the most intense cold spells that I can remember.  There were joyful cheers when temperatures climbed back into the low 40's and lots of nervousness about the next heat bill.  Those unfavorable temperatures are not only detrimental to our mental well-being but can cause some serious property risks.  Frozen/Busted pipes are one of the top insurance claims around this time of year.  In fact, The American Insurance Association says 22 percent of all claims on homeowner's policies are for cold weather related damages and its member companies pay out around $1.4 billion per year.  According to, during a 5 day cold spell in January of 2014, StateFarm had over 28,000 frozen pipe claims.  Lets look into why this happens, how to prevent it and what you should do if you find yourself in a similar situation.  

          As winter temperatures drop below freezing, standing water in exposed water pipes are at risk of freezing.  When water freezes, it expands.   That being said, the actual formation of ice in a pipe is not what causes the pipe to burst.  Instead, the continued freezing and expansion inside the pipe causes water pressure to build downstream, between the ice blockage and the closed faucet.  It’s this increase in water pressure that leads to pipe failure.  How do you prevent this ice blockage from happening?

          Water has to freeze for the ice blockage to happen.  Pipes that are adequately protected by the building’s insulation, insulation on the pipe itself, or heating are usually safe.  How your dwelling is built and where it's located geographically can make a difference.  Generally, properties in northern climates are built with water pipes located on the inside of buildings insulation while properties in southern climates are often built in which water pipes are more vulnerable to winter temperatures.   Pipes in attics, crawl spaces, garages and along outside walls are at risk.   Pipe exposure through cracks, holes and openings in outside walls can create a wind-chill like cooling effect escalating the formation of ice.  It is wise to look around the inside and outside of your property and familiarize yourself with where water is running.  Seal off any openings in which air can flow through.  Any exposed pipes should be protected with insulation or heat.  Pipe insulation is usually fiberglass or foam, available in different sizes and can be found at home centers, hardware stores and specialty dealers.  Heating cables and tapes are available and effective however require more caution and care (follow manufacturer's instructions closely).   Closed cabinets can restrict air flow to exposed pipe.  Kitchen and bathroom cabinets should be left open during extreme cold spells to allow warm air to circulate throughout the room and around the pipes.   Moving water is less likely to freeze.  Let faucets drip slowly on pipes that might be vulnerable to freezing.  Open faucets allow water to escape before pressure can build.  You might lose a couple gallons of water over night but avoid a possible major issue.  It is generally a good idea to drain water from pipes that are not used in the winter and any hoses should be removed and properly stored away.  

          The problem with broken pipes is you don't notice the damage until temperatures rise and ice thaws.  During/after a cold spell, if you go to open a faucet and nothing happens, don't risk it.  Turn off the water at the main shut-off valve and contact a plumber.  If your pipes are just frozen and not busted, you may be able to thaw a pipe with a hand held hair dryer but do not attempt thawing with an open flame.  When thawing, open the faucet and slowly start warming at the end closest to the faucet.  Slowly work your way along the pipe towards the cold section.  You can also try soaking towels in boiled water and wrapping them around the cold sections of the pipe(remember to open faucet to allow melted water to escape the pipe).  If you suspect a pipe burst do not panic.  Shut off the main valve, contact a plumber and your insurance company.  It is your duty as the policyholder to start mitigation process.  Consider the help of an emergency restoration service.  Document as much as you can and keep any repair or clean up receipts.  When it comes to insurance coverage, most policies do not afford coverage to the damaged pipes themselves.  A policy will typically cover the cost of the damage caused by water and the damage made by a plumber to reach the broken pipes but not the actual cost of the plumbing work.  Your agent or insurance company should be able to provide you with more information on what is or isn't covered.  

          Water damage claims are common around this time of year but can be avoided.  Familiarize yourself with your property and perform seasonal maintenance when necessary.  If you have a secondary residence or you are going away for an extended period of time during the winter, be careful how much you lower the heat.  The American Insurance Association recommends keeping heat at a constant 55 degrees.  These proactive tips will help safeguard your property and better prepare you if you find yourself in a frozen pipe situation.   

***There are exclusions(What We Do NOT Cover) in most insurance policies for vacant & unoccupied properties.  See policy for more details or contact me for a no obligation insurance review

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