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Cold snap boosts frozen pipe claims

January 25, 2024

We may not be in the deep freeze for long but we’re not out of the woods yet.

Temperatures plummeted in much of Canada recently and many insurance brokerages are already reporting an increase in the number of cold weather claims.

One insurance brokerage saw a 191% increase in claims in the early days of 2024 compared to 2023. The majority are because of frozen pipes.

Even when temperatures rise, the threat isn’t over. Pipes in many residences can freeze and burst as they thaw.

Why they freeze

Water expands as it freezes which puts tremendous pressure on metal or plastic pipes. Those that do most frequently are ones exposed to severe cold, such as outdoor hose bibs, swimming pool supply lines, pipes in unheated interior areas like basements, crawl spaces, attics, garages, kitchen cabinets, and against exterior walls with little or no insulation.

They are at risk of freezing any time temperatures drop below 0C. However, it’s more common when temperatures dip below -6.7C. The longer the weather remains sub-zero, the more likely it is your pipes can freeze if not properly protected and winterized.

The best strategy to prevent this is before the cold weather arrives. This includes measures like pipe insulation or heating tape, preventing drafts, sealing cracks and openings around windows and doors.

Preventative steps

But when the frigid temps have already arrived experts say there are still things you can do. The Windsor Utilities Commission recommends:

  • Keep garage doors closed if there are water supply lines in the garage.
  • Open kitchen and bathroom cabinet doors to allow warmer air to circulate around the plumbing.
  • Keep the thermostat set to the same temperature both during the day and at night.
  • If you will be going away during the cold weather, leave the heat on in your home, set to a temperature no lower than 12.8 C (55 F). Have someone check your home daily. Note: Most home insurance policies require this.
  • If the water meter/plumbing is located in an uninsulated room that will not allow for warm air flow, you may want to open a cold water tap in a sink and leave the water running at a 1/8-inch stream. That’s because water that is moving is not apt to freeze.

Damage typically covered

The Insurance Bureau of Canada says standard home policies will cover freezing and burst pipe damage provided the pipes are in the heated portion of the home and reasonable steps are taken to maintain heat.

However, if your furnace or heat pump breaks down and results in frozen pipes, a home policy covers resulting damage, but not the cost to repair the furnace or heat pump, said Rob de Pruis, IBC’s national director of consumer and industry relations.

“A broken furnace or heat pump is commonly a maintenance issue,” de Pruis said in a recent article. “Some commercial insurance policies do cover equipment breakdown; however this is not generally available in a home insurance policy.”

In addition, if the homeowner is away from the home for more than a certain number of days during the ‘usual heating season’ they must arrange for someone to check on the home daily to ensure heating is maintained. Alternatively, they must shut off their main water supply and drain the pipes entirely.

IBC adds most insurance policies exclude frozen pipes/water damage if your home is vacant, even if you have permission for vacancy. If your power goes out or the furnace breaks down, you must act immediately and do what you can to maintain warm temperatures in your home to prevent pipes from freezing.

How to spot a frozen pipe

The first sign is to pay attention to the rate of water flowing from the taps. Some key signs to watch for include:

  • Icy patches or frost on exposed pipes
  • Weak or no water flow when turning on a faucet
  • An unusual smell coming from a drain or faucet
  • Strange noises such as banging or whistling

More severe or obvious signs could be:

  • Puddles, damp spots, or dripping water on your wall or ceiling
  • A cracked or bulged pipe

What to do if they’re frozen

If you notice any symptoms of frozen pipes, act quickly to minimize damage. Experts suggest:

  1. Turn off the water – Shut off your water from the main supply valve.
  2. Locate the pipe– If it isn’t obvious, be sure to check under sinks and colder areas of your. Look for cracks, bulging, dripping water, or ice on the pipe.
  3. Relieve pressure – Open any faucet that is connected to the pipe. Doing so will allow pressure to escape, which can help minimize further damage.

The Canadian Home Inspection Services suggests you begin the thawing process close to the affected faucet and work your way down to the blockage. If melted water and ice get caught behind the blockage, the chance that the pipe will burst increases.

One of the easiest ways to thaw a frozen pipe is with a hair dryer. You can also use hot towels. Never use an open flame. It is a fire hazard. Depending on the outside temperature and the extent of the freezing, the thawing process could take between one and six hours. Once it is thawed, turn the water back on slowly and check for cracks and leaks.

Finally, if a pipe bursts, ensure the water is off to minimize damage and call a plumber immediately.

Most insurers have 24/7 claims reporting, so be sure to call right away to start the claims process.

-With files from Canadian Underwriter