As the winter draws in and the temperature drops, it’s time to start considering if your pipes are safe from winter emergencies.

Long, cold winters can wreak havoc with your pipework; if not carefully looked after, they can freeze and ultimately, burst. Any water in the pipe (residual water or even a small drip/trickle) can freeze during cold snaps. And once there’s ice in the pipe, it will continue freezing and expanding inside the pipe. This causes the water pressure to increase downstream, between the blockage and the nearest closed tap.

If left untreated, this could lead to the pipe bulging and ultimately, bursting. Burst pipes can quickly cause costly damage that can easily run into the thousands to repair. And unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that your insurance will even cover it.

To avoid a winter disaster, be sure to look out for any of the following:

1: Dripping taps
Not only are dripping taps a waste of water, but they’re also a big risk. A dripping tap in freezing conditions can block the waste pipe with ice, causing anything connected to the same waste pipe (for example, the basin, other sinks and bath) unable to drain. If left, the water trying to drain could lead to them overflowing back into the room instead.

2: Outside taps
To avoid the pipes to outside taps bursting, they should either be turned off and fully drained or well insulated. If you turn the tap off, ensure that it is fully drained. Any residual water left in the pipe is at risk of freezing which can result in the pipe bursting or fracturing.

3: Appliances and white goods
While at lower risk of freezing than outside pipes, all internal pipework for appliances or white goods that draw water should be insulated to protect them from the risk of freezing. Even when inside, if the temperature drops enough, small amounts of water can begin to freeze and will continue to freeze. Pipes particularly vulnerable are those located along external walls or under hard flooring such as stone, which tends to hold the cold.

4: Unheated areas
Pipes in unheated areas like loft spaces, garages and outbuildings should be insulated. Cold water storage units should be lagged, and any water tank insulated using glass fibre lagging or insulating boards. But make sure to only insulate the top and sides of your water tank; insulating underneath will block the flow of warm air from the floors below and could actually increase the risk of freezing.

5: Know where the stopcock and isolation valves are
Should the worse happen and a pipe bursts, it’s vital to know how to turn the water supply off to help prevent further damage. Stopcocks are usually found under the kitchen sink and usually shut off by turning them clockwise. It’s good practice to turn off the isolation valve if you’re leaving your house for a few days to help prevent water damage from burst or fractured pipes.

6: Protect your water meter
If you have a water metre, pay special attention to the pipe that leads to it. They tend to be in areas that are particularly vulnerable to the cold and if they freeze, it will block the entire supply to your property.

7: Open loft hatches and cabinet doors
By leaving the loft hatch and cabinet doors that house pipework open, you’re allowing the warm air to circulate and reach the colder areas. If the pipework is closed off by doors or hatches, they’re far more likely to get cold and subsequently freeze.

8: Keep the heat on
Keeping a low level of consistent heat by using a thermostat will help prevent your home from reaching temperatures in which pipes can freeze. This is particularly important if you’re going to be away from home for a few days. Alternatively, set the thermostat to come on several times during the day to help keep the temperature consistent.

Ideal Response logo

Dealing with frozen pipes

If the worse does happen, and you do find yourself with frozen pipes, you need to know how to deal with them. If the freeze is too big or is taking too long to thaw, enlist the help of a professional plumber. If your pipes freeze:

  • Turn off the water supply to your property. This will help stop water from filling up the pipe near the freeze.
  • Locate the freeze. Pipes can freeze in various locations so you need to find the actual freeze before you can attempt to thaw it. Freezes usually occur on pipes near exterior walls or cold areas of the house, such as basements, loft spaces and even under the sink. Signs of frost on the pipe or bulges in the pipework are a good sign of the location of the freeze. Confirm by feeling the temperature of the pipe – it should feel colder near the frost/bulge in the pipe.
  • Thaw the area of the pipe. Once you’ve found the freeze, it’s time to start thawing it. The safest way to do this is by wrapping towels soaked in hot water around the pipe and replacing them as they begin to cool. Alternatively, you can use a hairdryer on the lowest setting and gently heat the area. However, never use a naked flame on the pipe; exposing the pipe to too much heat can cause it to rupture.

Be prepared

If you know that a cold snap is coming, take precautions to safeguard your home. Damage from burst pipes can be extensive, running into the thousands of pounds to repair. Have the number of an emergency plumber on hand, an emergency response restoration provider, and check with your insurance now if they cover emergencies such as burst pipes. Trying to deal with all these things with a leak in your house is only going to add to the stress so be prepared and minimise your risk.