How to Prevent Frozen Pipes and Burst Pipes in Your Home or Business

December 27, 2019

We all know it’s important to prevent frozen pipes, but the hassle (and cost) of Massachusetts property maintenance is often overwhelming. Here’s a cheat sheet on what you need to do and why…

Facts about frozen pipes and winter weather insurance claims:

• The most common cause of burst pipes is unheated attics.
• When outside temps hit 20° F (or below), properties with un-insulated or under-insulated pipes are at risk for frozen pipes.
• A 1/8th inch crack in a pipe can leak more than 250 gallons of water per day.
• When frozen pipes burst, the average insurance claim is $27,000, according to Philadelphia Insurance Companies.
• Older buildings are more likely to experience burst pipes and suffer more expensive repair bills (because they often require building code updates during the cleanup process).

woman with frozen pipes in her home

How to prevent frozen pipes

The simplest way to prevent frozen pipes in your home or business? Keep the heat turned up to at least 55° F. But that’s not the full story, of course, because depending on where your plumbing is located and the energy efficiency of your building, your thermostat setting may not be enough to protect un-insulated pipes (which need an ambient temperature of at least 45 degrees). Use the following tips—especially if your home or business property is older or prone to drafty areas.

1. Provide a heat source to all areas with water pipes.

Your heating ducts and vents should be distributed so that all areas with water lines maintain a consistent temp of at least 45° F. Not sure what the temp under your sink is? Or along the wall of your garage? Invest in a temperature monitoring device (Tip #2).

Before you consider portable heaters to supplement an outdated heating system, be sure you are following all manufacturer’s instructions and proper fire safety measures. Even then, space heaters should only be used as a temporary solution. If you know your heating system is flawed, request an infrared survey (see Tip #7 below) to clearly identify any areas in need of additional heat.

2. Install smart temperature monitoring devices.

Temperature monitoring devices are now available as wireless, coin-sized sensors. They can send real-time alerts if ambient temperatures fall below a set limit. These devices can be relocated as needed, and can help identify problem areas so you can address cold spots before pipes freeze. Property managers can integrate these devices with building alarm systems and can monitor them via web-interface or smart phone apps. Prices range from $300 – $600 for basic installation and monitoring.

3. Insulate water lines with foam insulation.

If ambient temperatures are at risk of dropping below 45° F, incorporate foam insulation around the affected water pipes. Start with pipes along exterior walls, or in poorly heated attics, crawl spaces, and basements. Not everyone is cut out for a DIY job of this size. If you think you might be, here’s more info on pipe insulation from Bob Vila.

4. Investigate heat tracing tape or cable options.

Similar to water-line insulation, heating tapes or cables may be used to keep pipes warm. Heat tracing tape/cables are not permanent solutions. Use them only during time periods when severe cold weather puts your pipes at risk. Alternatively, you can use heat tracing that automatically turns on and off based on temperature sensors. To control the related fire risk, only use heat tracing that is UL listed.

If you’re planning to tackle this project yourself, here’s a video on how to install heat tape to your pipes.

5. Assess, seal, and repair.

Take advantage of the no-cost Mass Save assessment program that inspects homes and business facilities to uncover areas of energy improvement. Mass Save contractors will typically inspect attics, basements, crawl spaces, and exterior walls to determine if additional insulation (including pipe insulation) is needed. Contractors may also identify specific areas in need of caulking, spray foam sealant, etc.

Here’s more on Mass Save for businesses and Mass Save for residential properties.

6. Test all your building systems.

If you neglected this item in Fall 2019, mark your calendar for 2020. Boilers, furnaces, and hot water heaters should be inspected and serviced prior to winter. Also, inspect and test any other freeze control devices, such as temperature monitors, water detection devices, and water flow monitors. If your fire sprinkler system uses antifreeze for piping in cold areas, have the solution tested for proper concentration. Dry pipe fire sprinkler systems should be fully drained. Ensure all systems have properly functioning alarms.

7. Conduct a thermographic inspection.

An infrared inspection, using a thermographic camera and often a “blower door” test, can help identify drafty spaces and other areas vulnerable to freezing exterior temps. Inspectors use a heat-sensing camera to produce digital photos with thermal readings. Photos help owners weatherize their buildings accordingly, paying close attention to areas where warm air is escaping.

NOTE: Winter is the best time to conduct a thermographic inspection, so take action now. According to Energy.gov, the most accurate thermographic images usually occur when there is a large temperature difference (at least 20°F) between inside and outside air temps. In New England, thermographic scans are generally done in the winter.

8. Keep all water lines warm. Keep taps running to alleviate pressure.

If heat circulation is an issue in your property, keep all kitchen and bathroom cabinet doors open. (Note: many of us store poisonous items under our sinks. Take precautions to secure chemicals and cleaners from young children and pets).

Allow water taps to run lightly during severely cold weather events. All you need is a trickle. If the water pipes do freeze, an open water outlet will help alleviate pressure and possibly prevent a pipe fracture. Remember to run both the hot and cold-water lines.

9. Consider a water shutoff device.

Water shutoff devices measure the total volume of water flowing throughout a building at any given point. If water flow exceeds a set limit, the monitoring device assumes pipe damage and automatically shuts off the primary water main valve. Shutoff devices can employ “home” and “away” settings, which are especially useful for businesses during extended closures (e.g. the holiday break), or for homeowners with seasonal properties. Like temp monitoring systems, these devices can be tied into a building’s existing alarm system.

Bonus: water shutoff devices only cost around $200, on average, to install. Depending on your insurance carrier, a shutoff device could save you a small percentage on your MA home insurance premium.

10. Install smart, water leak sensors and shut-off devices.

These systems have sensors – either wired or wireless – that are placed near water sources or areas potentially vulnerable to pipe freeze and breakages – such as unheated crawl spaces. If water comes in contact with a sensor, an alarm is signaled and a valve automatically shuts off the primary water main. The sensors and shut-off valves can be monitored via web-interface, sending notifications to the user via email, text, or phone call.

Finally, if a water pipe is already frozen or broken…

Call a plumber immediately. If you know how, turn off your property’s main shutoff valve. Do not attempt to thaw frozen pipes on your own, unless you have proper training/tools and can easily access the frozen area. Signs you may have a frozen pipe include: little or no water flow when you turn on the faucet, visible frost on the exterior of any exposed pipes, or strange odors from the faucet.

Meanwhile, don’t hesitate to give us a call if you have any concerns about your MA property insurance, including how your coverage responds to burst pipe claims: 508.339.2951.