“Frozen pipe” – the words that no property owner wants to hear this winter

16 December 2022 | Guidance

The recent cost of living increase has meant that many families have struggled this year with rising fuel prices.  The current cold snap – which has brought blasts of Arctic air, snow and sub-zero temperatures to the UK – has created further challenges.

Research earlier this year found that many households are opting to go without or use less heating this winter because of the skyrocketing energy prices.  However, not only does this put them at risk of health problems but the dangerously cold weather could also mean costly frozen pipe damage. 

Pipes are at risk of freezing when temperatures drop below zero Celsius, but they most commonly freeze at temperatures of -6 Celsius degrees and below. Keep in mind, however, wind chill increases the risk of freezing. Pipes are most likely to burst when exposed to below-freezing conditions for six hours or more, which can happen throughout winter and early spring.

Burst pipes could lead to a disaster, bringing both severe water damage to your home and the significant cost that goes with it.  The Association of British Insurers said that last year the average cost of weather-related home insurance for burst pipes was over £9000.

What causes a burst pipe?

One of the biggest causes of burst pipes is cold weather. During periods of freezing temperatures the water in exposed pipes freezes and expands, leading to a build-up of pressure and subsequent rupture of the pipe. When the ice thaws the water floods out.

Although escape of water incidents peak in the winter months, they can occur all year round due to; corroding pipes in older properties, poor installation of pipes and fixtures, incorrectly plumbed-in appliances, radiator and boiler leaks.

How can I tell if I have a frozen pipe?

It’s important to catch frozen pipes early. Most of the time, you’ll be able to boost the temperature on your thermostat or talk to a professional plumber before any damage occurs. However, if your pipe does freeze, these are the signs to look out for:

Little / no water coming from the pipe or water pressure changes

This is one of earliest signs of a frozen pipe – if you turn on the tap and only a slight trickle or no water comes out when you wash your hands, fill your sink or take a shower, the pipe leading to the tap may be frozen. 

A strong (unpleasant) smell from your tap or drain

If the pipe is frozen, the only way odours can escape is back up towards the direction of your home.  A sewage smell emanating from your taps usually accompanies a freezing exterior sewer line.

Frost on the outside of the pipe

Another fairly common sign of a frozen pipe is the presence of frost – or a coating of condensation – on the pipes themselves. This is obviously a little harder to spot especially if you have pipes that are difficult to access.  The most vulnerable pipes are those located under flooring, in the basement, or in outside walls.  If there is visible frost on the pipe, this may mean that the pipe is on its way to being completely frozen.

Unusual sounds

Whistling and banging coming from pipes, or strange bubbling sounds when you flush a toilet can signify that there is ice travelling through a pipe.  In some cases, the home’s hot water heating system may begin to moan and groan as water slowly begins to flow again.

Small cracks or bulging in pipework

When water freezes, water molecules expand, causing tremendous pressure that can make a pipe bulge noticeably or even display hairline cracks.  Over time, frequent freezing can lead to weakened pipes which will eventually succumb to the pressure exerted by the expanding ice.   

Water damage in your home

Dampness, puddles, or rings on walls or ceilings can be signs of an urgent issue.  A frozen pipe – which can lead to a burst pipe – can allow a large amount of water to pour into your home, so any signs of flooding or structural damage can often be attributed to frozen plumbing.

How to prevent frozen pipes

Because frozen pipes can be such a hassle, prevention is important. Taking the following steps will keep the pipes in your home running as they should, even when the outdoor temperatures begin to drop below freezing:

  • Insulate pipes and water tanks
  • Turn taps on regularly
  • Set thermostat to a low temperature and keep some heating on

How Quickly Do Pipes Freeze?

Pipes can freeze in as little as six to eight hours, meaning they can freeze overnight. If the outside temperature is below 0 Celsius and your pipes are unprotected, your chances for a frozen pipe increase. Indoor pipes are more protected, typically requiring -6 Celsius or lower for freezing to occur.

What should I do if I suspect a frozen pipe?

If you suspect frozen pipes, simply shut off the water and do some investigations – ie check against our list above.  If you use Sonic, Hero Labs’ smart leak detector, turning off the water supply couldn’t be easier.  You can either do it manually, or via the app.  Pipes that are cracked can lead to serious water damage if the water supply is not shut off before the thaw occurs.

In addition, being able to pinpoint exactly which sections have frozen is useful. It can help you take steps to melt the ice in the pipes, and proactively make changes to your insulation or plumbing to prevent future freezing

I’ve got a burst pipe – what happens now?

If you discover your frozen pipe has caused a leak, find your water shut off valve and turn off the water to prevent more damage. You might also need to shut off the electricity as well, depending on where the leaks occurs and how big it is.

Then call an emergency plumbing service as soon as possible as they professionals and have lots of experience in dealing with these issues.

It can be stressful waking up to a burst pipe or finding out you do not have water because they are frozen.  Taking precautions before the extreme cold hits is much easier than dealing with frozen pipes after.  However if you find yourself in a sticky situation, follow the tips above and you should be able to get your pipes back on the mend before you know it.