Frozen Pipes...Are You Prepared For Winter?

On February 5, 1996, Freddie and Erica Chalmers of South Carolina went off to work as they would any other day. However, this would be no ordinary day for the Chalmerses. When they returned home that evening, their home had suffered more than $35,000 in damage. The cause: frozen pipes.

Each winter, tens of thousands of lives are disrupted by water pipes that freeze and break. But, with just a few precautions, you can prevent this from happening in your home.

Cause and Effect

What causes pipes to burst? Last year, researchers from the University of Illinois discovered that breaks in a pipe occur where it is weakest from rising water pressure. Pressure will begin to build after an ice clog has formed. Water pressure can rise to as much as 4,000 pounds per square inch. And, a one-eighth-inch (3 millimeters) crack in a pipe can unleash more than 250 gallons (946 liters) of water a day—ruining floors, carpets, furniture, and personal belongings.

The Insurance Institute for Property Loss Reduction, says frozen pipes caused more than $4.2 billion in damage to insured homes and buildings over the past decade. In 1996, State Farm alone paid about $57 million for damages resulting from frozen pipes. Industrywide, damage estimates for 1996 were about $240 million.

Exposure

Homes in warmer climates are usually at greater risk because pipes often run through uninsulated or underinsulated attics or crawl spaces. The Chalmerses problem began on the unfinished third floor of their home. A future bathroom was insulated, plumbed, and wired, but had no drywall or finished floor. Even though the water pipe that ruptured was surrounded by insulation, other variables allowed the pipe to freeze and burst.

The break caused minimal damage to the third-floor area, but flooded the first-and-second floor areas, causing extensive damage. So, pipes can freeze anywhere due to exposure from cracks or holes in siding or because of pipes being placed in outside walls with inadequate insulation.

With the onslaught of La Nina, homeowners should not take this winter lightly. Cooler-than-normal temperatures are expected throughout the North. Homeowners in the South should take care to prevent damage to their water pipes too, because temperatures there can dip below 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 6 degrees Celsius), the point where pipes can freeze and burst.

Hints and Tips

“In most cases, the chances of damage of this type can be reduced if homeowners take simple precautions,” says State Farm Fire and Casualty Vice President Harold Gray.

Homeowners can take a big step toward preventing damage to their pipes by protecting exposed pipes with insulation. Typically, the thicker the insulation, the better it protects the pipes from freezing. The insulation, which could be insulating pipe sleeve, should be carefully wrapped, with the ends butted tightly and joints wrapped with tape.

Other tips for preventing your pipes from freezing are:

  • When it's especially cold where you live, let the hot and cold faucets drip overnight and open cabinet doors to allow heat to get to uninsulated pipes under sinks on exterior walls.
  • Insulate pipes in your home's crawl space or attic. The more insulation you use, the better protected your pipes will be. An insulating pipe sleeve, heat tape, or thermostatically controlled heat cables are probably your best bets. Be sure to use products approved by an independent testing organization, such as Underwriters Laboratories Inc., and only for the use intended (exterior or interior) by the manufacturer.
  • Seal leaks that allow cold air inside. Look for air leaks around electrical wiring, dryer vents, and pipes. Use caulk or insulation to keep the cold out and the heat in. In severe wind chill, a tiny opening can let in enough cold air to cause pipes to freeze.
  • Disconnect garden hoses and, if practical, use an indoor valve to shut off and drain water from pipes leading to outside faucets. This reduces the chances the short span of pipe just inside the house will freeze.
  • If you are going away for an extended period of time, be sure to maintain adequate heat inside your home. Set the thermostat no lower than 55 degrees (12 degrees Celsius). It also makes sense to shut off and drain the water system. You must be aware, however, that if you have a fire protection sprinkler system in your house, it will be deactivated when the water is shut off.

For a free brochure that includes additional tips for preventing frozen pipes, write to No Frozen Pipes, Public Affairs Department, State Farm Insurance, One State Farm Plaza, Bloomington, Ill. 61710, or take their frozen pipes quiz at www.statefarm.com.

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