How to Prevent Pipes from Freezing and Bursting

Topics: Loss Control

Summary: Frozen pipes can be a common occurrence in the frigid winter months, and when they burst, they can cause costly water damage to buildings. Find out how to prevent pipes from freezing and bursting during the cold season.

Preventing Frozen Pipes this Winter

Think about what happens to a can of soda left forgotten in the freezer to chill. While your intentions were simply to enjoy a frosty beverage sooner, after several hours you open your freezer only to find a huge mess. This is because the water inside the can expands as it freezes, and after it has expanded too much, the can explodes.

The pipes in your home or office building react the same way as the temperatures drop outside. If there’s any water left inside a pipe, it can freeze and expand, causing the pipe to burst and leaving behind some serious water damage in the aftermath. In fact, an estimated 250,000 homes and offices suffer damage from frozen pipes annually.

Why do Pipes Freeze and Burst in the Winter?

The ice forming in a pipe does not typically cause it to break right where the ice blockage occurred. In this case, when there’s a complete blockage of ice in a pipe, the continued freezing and expansion inside the pipe causes water pressure to increase downstream between the blockage and the closed faucet at the end. The increase in water pressure is the actual cause of a burst pipe, and the burst generally occurs where little or no ice at all has formed.

What Damage Do Frozen Pipes Cause?

Frozen pipes are one of the leading causes of property damage when the temperature outside plummets. Depending on the climate you reside in, there can be regional differences in the way pipes are installed in homes and office buildings. In the northern areas of the country, water pipes are generally located on the inside of the building insulation to help protect them from the winter’s subfreezing temperatures. In the milder southern regions, pipes are more likely to be located in unprotected areas outside of the building insulation, making them far more vulnerable during a winter cold spell.

However, buildings throughout the nation can all be at risk of pipes freezing and bursting when the temperatures outside fall to 20 degrees or below. Whenever pipes have the opportunity to come into contact with cold air, whether due to insufficient insulation in areas like the attic and crawl spaces or due to holes and cracks in the siding, it’s possible for pipes to burst.

How to Prevent Pipes from Freezing at Your Home or Business this Season

In many parts of the country, the cold air has settled in and in most places, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. For this reason, it’s important to understand how to help keep pipes from freezing so you don't face costly water damage to your property.

Water in pipes freezes when heat is transferred to subfreezing air in the winter, so the best way to keep water in pipes from freezing is to slow or stop this transfer of heat. If possible, keep water pipes from being exposed to subfreezing temperatures by installing them only in heated spaces and out of attics, crawl spaces and vulnerable outside walls. Of course, in an existing structure, it's often too late to implement these preventive measures.

However, there are some steps you can take to help prevent pipes from freezing and bursting, including:

Add more insulation

When it comes to preventing pipes from freezing, the more insulation the better. If you can access them, any vulnerable pipes can be fitted with insulation sleeves or wrapped to help slow the heat transfer. Your local hardware store should carry a variety of materials, like foam rubber, fiberglass sleeves or even pipe sleeves with extra-thick insulation to provide the added protection needed.

Seal up cracks and holes

Along with adding insulation, make sure to inspect outside walls and foundations around the location of the water pipes. If you notice any small holes, such as from cable or telephone lines, or any other cracks, seal these up with caulking to keep the cold air from reaching the pipes.

Let the water run

During extremely cold temperatures, letting an outside faucet drip can help prevent a pipe from bursting. Opening the faucet provides relief from the excessive pressure that builds between the faucet and an ice blockage, lessening the risk of bursting. However, keep in mind that leaving a faucet dripping does waste water, so only those pipes especially vulnerable to freezing should be left flowing – and the drip can be very slight.

Be mindful of the thermostat

If you’re going to be away from the building for an extended period, it might be tempting to turn off the heat altogether to save some money on your energy bills. However, if an extreme cold spell comes through while you’re gone, pipes that would otherwise be safe could freeze and burst. Experts recommend that thermostats are never set below 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

Another solution to this situation is to drain the pipes completely of water before you know you’re going to be away from the building. If there’s no water in the pipes, there’s no water than can freeze, expand and cause the pipes to burst. Shut off the main valve and allow every faucet to run until they are empty of water completely.

Implement systems to help detect broken pipes or pipe failure

Install an early detection system, such as an automatic excess flow switch, on the main incoming domestic water line. This type of system monitors and detects a burst or broken pipe or valve. You can also consider monitoring sprinkler systems via a central station, which can also help detect failing pipes whle heating unheated sprinker control rooms. Lastly, install a reliable backup power source to ensure the building remains heated even when it is unoccupied. 

If you suspect your pipes are frozen because the pressure has decreased or the water has stopped flowing altogether, turn the faucet off and apply a safe source of heat to the pipes, such as by using a hair dryer. If the pipe does burst, or has already burst, make sure the water supply is turned off immediately and contact a licensed plumber.

Loss Control from AmTrust Financial

AmTrust’s Loss Control Department offers helpful resources regarding workplace safety, commercial property protection and more. It’s our goal to help insureds identify specific hazards and offer solutions that fit each operation. We are dedicated to providing the right recommendations and resources necessary to create the most effective loss prevention program for your organization’s needs. Please contact us today to learn more.

This material is for informational purposes only and is not legal or business advice. Neither AmTrust Financial Services, Inc. nor any of its subsidiaries or affiliates represents or warrants that the information contained herein is appropriate or suitable for any specific business or legal purpose. Readers seeking resolution of specific questions should consult their business and/or legal advisors. Coverages vary by location. Contact your local RSM for more information.

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