When water freezes in pipes, it expands – and it doesn't take long to build up enough pressure to rupture them. Not only could this leave you with no hot water, but there's also the nightmare clean-up operation and costly repairs.
Read on to find out how to prepare your pipes for plunging temperatures and what to do if you're too late.
How to prepare your pipes for winter
Before the temperature dips below zero, prepare your pipes to prevent them from freezing and bursting by doing the following:
Cover your water tank and all visible pipes with specialist insulation which you can buy from your local DIY store. Particularly focus on exposed pipes in small spaces in the attic.
For pipes, get lagging with a minimum of 50mm in diameter, but preferably 75mm. Use gaffer tape to securely fix the insulation around bends and tricky-to-reach pipes. Get a tank jacket for your water tank and attach securely to avoid it dislodging.
There should be no insulation beneath your tank (except for a header tank in the loft, which should be completely enclosed) as this will prevent warm air rising from below and increase the likelihood of it freezing.
Let the warm air flow
Keep your home warm throughout the day by setting your heating to come on for an hour or two when you're out. You should also keep cold air out by closing your windows and using door seals or draught excluders.
If your pipes and tanks are in unheated loft spaces or forgotten cupboards, open the hatch/door to allow warm air to circulate around them.
Repair dripping taps
Leaky taps can block your pipe and cause damage if they freeze. Test each of your taps by turning them fully off. If any continue dripping, get them fixed.
Turn off water when travelling
If you're heading to your relatives over the holidays or jetting off for some winter sun, you could turn your water off and drain the system to potentially prevent any damage while you're away. You can do this by using your home's stopcock.
The stopcock is usually located under the sink – however, it's important you know where yours is, as you'll need it in an emergency.
How to deal with a frozen pipe
If one or more of your taps aren't working, you may have frozen pipes. Before you start on your frozen pipe action plan, check with your neighbours that they have water. If they also don't, it's likely a problem with local supply.
If you have frozen pipes, you need to:
Turn off the water supply
Switch off the main water supply first and then your cold water tank, which is usually found in your loft. Doing this will minimise the amount of water that escapes if one of your pipes bursts.
Locate the freeze
You should attempt to locate the freeze by checking the flow of water from all appliances, like taps and toilets, throughout your home. If you're not confident, you can call a reputable plumber to help.
Once you've narrowed down the area you suspect to be frozen, look for further clues. For example, check for an unlagged section of pipework or draughts next to a pipe and feel for areas that are noticeably colder to the touch.
You should also move anything near to pipework and cover your junction box to protect your belongings in case of a burst pipe.
Let the thaw commence
Inspect the pipe and nearby fittings. If they're all intact, you can gently thaw the affected area using a hairdryer or a hot water bottle. Never use a blowtorch or heat gun, and if the pipe has split, read below.
How to deal with a burst pipe
A burst pipe can cause serious damage to the structure and wiring of your home, so act immediately:
Turn off the water supply
Drain the system
Turn on all your cold taps and flush your toilets. Leave them open to reduce flooding.
Turn off heating and electricity
Switch off the central heating, immersions and other heating installations. If your heating uses solid fuel, let it die out. Once the water heating has shut down, turn on the hot taps to further drain the system.
If water from a burst pipe is leaking near any electrics, switch off the mains if it's dry. If you suspect any have been exposed to water, call a qualified electrician to check.
Collect the water
If the leak is small you can clean it up using towels. Use buckets if it's coming through the ceiling, and if your ceiling starts to bulge, the structural integrity may be at risk and you'll need to call a professional to check the damage.
Fix the leak
You should take photos of any damage before hiring a plumber and call your insurance provider for any other advice to avoid invalidating your claim.
WaterSafe have a handy list of approved plumbers that are qualified to fix burst pipes safely and securely. If you can't get a plumber in straight away, you can bind the broken pipe with heavy-duty tape as a temporary fix.