How to stop your water pipes freezing and what to do about a burst pipe

A burst pipe can cause immense disruption and serious damage to your home and possessions. That’s why it’s important you know how to prevent problems occurring as well as what you should do if you have a leak.

The average cost of repairing and replacing damage to a home can be thousands of pounds. But before you start worrying about costs and calling out an emergency plumber, there are some simple steps to take which will help prevent your pipes from freezing and bursting.

And even if the worst does happen and you have to deal with leaking water, there are actions you can quickly take which could reduce the extent of the damage.

Preventing frozen pipes

1. Have regular check-ups

An annual service of your heating system before winter can prevent breakdowns during cold spells and will ensure your boiler is running effectively. You can also use this time to check your thermostat is working properly and ask your service engineer about the benefits of adding antifreeze to your system.

Get any damp patches in your home checked by a surveyor as they could be a sign of a gradual leak within the wall.

Simple things you can do yourself include regularly checking radiator valves, overflows on toilets and looking for leaks on water or central heating tanks. And consider fitting a device such as Flood Check to detect leaks at an early stage.

2. Locate your stop cock

This will normally be located below your kitchen sink, or wherever the water supply enters your home. Make sure you can access it and close it easily.

3. Drain your system

If you’re planning on leaving your property unoccupied during winter, turn off the stop cock and drain the plumbing of both hot and cold water systems.

4. Get those pipes lagged

Most houses have pipes and water tanks in the loft and these are particularly susceptible to freezing. Pipe lagging (insulated foam sleeving) should be at least 5cm diameter and even thicker if your loft floor is well insulated, as this prevents heat from your home rising into the loft and warming the pipes. Remember that thinner pipes will require thicker insulation. 

It’s important you don’t insulate the underneath of your tank. Warm air from the room below helps to keep the tank heated, so insulate only the sides and the top to prevent that heat from escaping.

5. Keep the heat flowing

If you leave your home unoccupied for a short while, leave your heating on its usual setting (or just a few degrees lower) while you are away. It’s also advisable to leave your loft door open in your absence, as this allows heat to circulate around your tank and pipes.

If you are away for an extended period of time over winter, we advise leaving the heating on (unless you intend to drain your system – see point 3 above).  This prevents water from lying still and freezing in your pipes.  Ideally, you should aim to maintain a temperature of around 13°C.

6. Check your plumbing

Any damage to pipes happens if the water in them freezes but the escape of water only happens when the frozen pipes thaw out. Checking your pipes for signs of freezing or bursts such as leaking or dripping joints, will help you to react to a possible problem or nip it in the bud.

Repair any dripping taps before icy temperatures set in to prevent them freezing and becoming blocked.

7. If your pipes freeze

Turn off your water at the mains as a precaution. Also turn the stop-cock on the water tank in the loft, if you have one. You can then proceed to thaw the pipes yourself, or call on the expertise of a plumber.

To thaw the pipes yourself, use gentle heat from a hairdryer or hot-water bottle and work your way from tap to tank. Open the tap nearest the frozen section of pipe to see when the ice has melted.

You’ll need to prepare for any water that may leak from burst pipes, primarily by covering any electrics that are nearby.

Dealing with a water leak from a burst pipe

1. Turn off the water supply

Switch off your stop cock to prevent more water from feeding into the pipes and causing further damage. Once the water is off, turn on all of your cold taps to drain any excess water out of the system.

2. Consider turning off the electricity

If there is any chance that water could have leaked onto any electrics, you should turn off the electricity supply immediately at the fusebox. You may be able to just turn off the affected areas, but if in doubt just turn everything off – make sure you have a torch if it’s dark. Electrical wiring or sockets that may have got wet can be dangerous so do not touch them.

3. Turn off the heating system

Turn off any immersion heater and central heating system to prevent heating the system while it is empty, as this could cause damage. Turn on all hot water taps to drain any excess water out of the system.

4. Check for water damage

Check ceilings for bulging caused by water pooling above. Stay clear of any ceilings which are bulging significantly, in case they should collapse. For any ceilings starting to bulge, and providing it is safe to do so, you could make a small hole to allow the water to escape slowly into a container below.

5. Consult a professional

For your own safety, try to have another person with you when you move around the property. In addition, make sure you consult a plumber and electrician before the water and electricity are turned back on.