AAA: Winter Tips to Prevent Frozen Pipes

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AAA offers Alexandria, Virginia area homeowners winter tips on preventing and recovering from frozen pipes in your home and managing claims.

With the Arctic blast delivering the coldest temperatures of the season this past weekend, and more to come, Washington area homeowners could find themselves dealing with damage caused by frozen or burst pipes.

It is a fate that befalls a quarter of a million homeowners and property owners in the United States each winter, with an average cost of $2,586. During a polar vortex accompanied by subzero wind chills, pipes are at risk of freezing due to sudden temperature drops, poor insulation or incorrect thermostat settings. Freezing often occurs because home plumbing is above the frost line or pipes are near drafty basement windows. Set home thermostats above 55 degrees during cold weather.

The extreme cold weather is a recipe for frozen pipes. If the pipes in your home burst after freezing, find your water meter and house-side shutoff valve, and turn the water off quickly to avoid flooding.

“Freezing temperatures put your pipes at risk, and recovery can be difficult and costly,” said Kendall Bramble, an Insurance Counselor with AAA Mid-Atlantic Insurance Agency in Washington, D.C. “With periods of brutally cold weather emanating from Winter Storm Harper, or any other wintry storm tapping into cold air, both plastic and copper pipes can burst. A crack as small as 1/8-inch can spew up to 250 gallons of water per day, causing flooding, serious structural damage and the potential for mold.”

“Protecting household plumbing from clogs and other damage requires year round effort, but your wallet and the region’s water supply will benefit,” advises the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG). Cleanup costs can range from “$5,000 to $70,000 or more,” according to the property insurance industry. “Frozen pipes are one of the biggest risks of property damage when the temperature drops,” said John B. Townsend II, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s Manager of Public and Government Affairs. “Approximately 37 percent of all frozen pipe failures occur in a basement. Knowing ways to keep your pipes from freezing and how to effectively manage the aftermath, from cleanup to insurance claims, is key.”

“Throughout the winter, it’s also important to be prepared for the cold weather’s effect on your pipes,” advises MWCOG. “Water utilities are responsible for water mains and pipe lines that connect to your home, but not pipes located on your property.” AAA Insurance offers suggestions that can help homeowners and renters prevent pipes from freezing and bursting:

Preventing Frozen Pipes:

  • Make sure everyone in your family knows where the water shut-off valve is and how it works.
  • Insulate pipes in your home’s crawl spaces and attic, even if you live in an area where freezing temperatures are unlikely.
  • Seal gaps around pipes that allow cold air inside. You also should look for air leaks around electrical wiring, clothes dryer vents and pipes. Use caulk or insulation to keep the cold out.
  • Disconnect garden hoses. If possible, use an indoor valve to shut off and drain water from pipes leading to outside faucets. This reduces the chance that pipes inside the house will freeze.
  • If a freeze is expected, consider allowing warm water to drip slightly overnight, preferably from a faucet on an outside wall. Even a slight trickle may keep your pipes from freezing.
  • When there is the possibility of a freeze, don’t turn down the thermostat at bedtime. Instead, maintain the same setting day and night. Drops in temperature, which are more common overnight, could freeze your pipes.
  • Open cabinet doors. This will allow heat to reach uninsulated pipes located under sinks.
  • If you’re going on vacation or leaving your home for an extended period of time, consider maintaining minimal heat to prevent freezing.

Insurance claims from frozen pipes exceeded $4 billion over the period of a decade, according the Institute for Business and Home Safety. AAA Insurance provides these additional tips when encountering frozen/burst pipes and for managing resulting home insurance claims:

Recovering from Frozen Pipes:

  • If you turn on your faucets and nothing comes out, your pipes are likely frozen. Don’t wait for them to burst. Take measures to thaw them immediately, or call a plumber for assistance.
  • You may be able to use a hair dryer to thaw a frozen pipe. Begin by warming the section of pipe closest to the faucet, then work your way out toward the coldest part of the pipe.
  • Never use a hair dryer or any electrical appliances in areas of standing water. You could be electrocuted.
  • Never try to thaw a pipe with a torch or other open flame. It could cause a fire.
  • If your water pipes have already burst, turn off the water at the main shutoff valve in the house, leave the water faucets turned on, and call a plumber.
  • Mop up spills. You do not want the water to do more damage than it already has.
  • Call your insurance company claims department as soon as you can. An insurance adjuster does not need to see the spill before you take action. However, the adjuster will want to inspect any damaged items.
  • Make temporary repairs and take other steps to protect your property from further damage. Remove any carpet or furniture that can be further damaged from seepage.

“Throughout this period of extreme cold, area water utilities are urging homeowners to prevent frozen pipes and meters,” notes the COG. “Prevention is the key to protecting your home this winter. A few simple steps can help you avoid a frozen pipes nightmare,” said Bramble. “For added peace of mind, it’s a good idea to make sure you have adequate homeowners insurance.”

Managing Home Insurance Claims:

  • Make a list of the damaged articles and take photos.
  • Save the receipts for what you spend—including additional living expenses if you must leave your home until repairs are completed—and submit them to your insurance company for reimbursement.
  • Standard homeowner’s policies will cover most of the kinds of damage that result from a freeze. For example, if house pipes freeze and burst or if ice forms in gutters and causes water to back up under roof shingles and seep into the house. You would also be covered if the weight of snow or ice damages your house.
  • If your home sustains water damage, it is important to make sure that it is properly dried and repaired to prevent any potential problem with mold. Remember, mold cannot survive without moisture.
  • Check with your agent or insurance company to be sure of what your policy covers. 

“Frozen and burst pipes also cost businesses millions each year,” according to the insurance industry. MWCOG has launched a “Protect Your Pipes” campaign. To find out more about homeowners or renters insurance, contact your local AAA Mid-Atlantic Insurance agent, call 202-481-6822 or visit this link.

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