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Beware of the big thaw

With the ‘Beast from the East’ and Storm Emma taking its toll on the UK last week, most of us are glad that the mercury has seen fit to rise. But that can be just the start of the nightmare for families and businesses across the country as frozen pipes spring leaks during the big thaw.

Paul Harmer, Lead Technical Consultant for the Chartered Institute of Plumbing & Heating Engineering (CIPHE) said, “Frozen pipes cause problems on two levels. Firstly, if your pipe is frozen you cannot access water. Secondly, frozen pipes can cause considerable damage to your plumbing systems; when the ice thaws you may find you have sprung a leak or two where the ice has expanded in the pipe.”

“If the worst should happen, the important thing is to stop water running past the point of the leak by turning off the water supply via the stop-valve; you’ll then buy yourself time to call in a professional.”

Here are Paul’s top tips:

1) Turn off the mains water supply at the stop valve (stop cock) inside your home. The stop valve is often sited under the kitchen sink. If there isn’t an internal valve, turn off the water at the external valve which may be under a cover in your garden or path. 

2) If the frozen pipe runs from a storage cistern and is not controlled by a valve, check that the cistern hasn’t split. If it has, empty the cold water storage cistern by opening the cold water taps and flushing the WC. If you know how to, you could siphon the water from the cistern with a hose pipe, then call a professional plumber.

3) If the pipe isn’t split, thaw it out by applying hot water bottles.

4) If any part of the heating and hot water system is frozen, there could be a risk of explosion if the boiler (or other heat source) is kept alight, so ensure it is turned off, or for solid fuel systems, extinguish the fire.

Note that if you have a combi boiler that stops working it may be the case that the condensate pipe is frozen. This is normally a small external white or grey pipe that is level with the bottom of the boiler. This issue can sometimes be dealt with yourself (as long as the pipe is at a low level, never put yourself at risk trying to thaw a pipe at heights) by thawing the outside exposed pipework with hot water bottles or hot (not boiling) water. 

5) Be careful as although water may be flowing from taps, other parts of the system may still be frozen. 

6) Don’t try to thaw it too quickly as there may be splits in the pipe which are not immediately noticeable.

7) Never use a naked flame to thaw a pipe.

8) Always start thawing a pipe at the end nearest the tap.

Paul also added, “Though it may be a little too late for many. In a cold snap it can be prudent to check the small print on your house insurance policy, especially if you are leaving your home unoccupied for a holiday or work trip away. Some will demand that you take precautions to reduce the risk of frozen pipes such as leaving the heating on a low level. There will be those who are now in hot water where their insurance company may not be willing to pay out.”

You can find out more about dealing with plumbing emergencies at www.ciphe.org.uk/emergencies

For a list of professional plumbing and heating engineers in your area visit www.ciphe.org.uk, phone 01708 472791 or email info@ciphe.org.uk