What to do if you have a frozen or burst pipe

Freezing weather and home emergencies unfortunately go hand in hand. And the damage caused by a frozen pipe that’s ruptured can be catastrophic. So we’re here to walk you through what to do if your pipes freeze during winter or, worse still, you find yourself with a leak or flood on your hands.

Why do pipes freeze in winter?

First of all, the science bit. Burst pipes are a problem in the colder months because as water freezes it expands and puts pressure on the metalwork. This can then cause your pipes to buckle and split.

Insulating (lagging) your pipes ahead of the frosty weather is one of the best things you can do to protect them from freezing, and there are a number of other measures you can take too. 

What to do if pipes freeze

If you do find yourself with a frozen pipe it might not be the end of the world – though it might feel like it! By taking the following steps you can prevent it from becoming a leak or flood.

Frozen pipe warning signs

Be on the lookout for these warning signs:

  • Your central heating makes gurgling sounds when it’s in use

  • Your boiler won’t switch on

  • Your taps are producing no or little water

  • The sink clogs and the toilet is flushing slowly

Locate the frozen pipe

If you have a modern condensing boiler it’ll likely be your condensate pipe that’s frozen. (That’s because a by-product of this type of boiler is, unsurprisingly, condensation!) Take a look at the pipes coming out of your boiler. One of them is plastic and you’ll need to find where it exits the external wall close to where your boiler lives.

Any external pipe can be at risk during icy weather. Other pipes which are prone to freezing are those located in cold/unheated spots indoors, such as attics, basements, and cupboards situated on exterior walls.

Locate the frozen pipe
Thaw the frozen pipe

Thaw the pipe

You’ll need to pour hot, but never boiling, water over the affected pipe section and, if you want to be doubly effective, apply a hot water bottle as a warm compress. We have a step-by-step video if you’re unsure about how to do this.

Finding a burst pipe

A burst pipe might not always be as obvious as a kitchen full of water. You may have a slow leak which, left to its own devices, can end up causing as much damage to your structure and electrics as a major one. There are a few things you can look out for though:

  • Persistent water pressure issues or interrupted water supply to taps
  • Water marks or patches on your walls or ceilings
  • Bulging behind walls or ceilings
  • Damp patches on flooring

What to do if you have a leak or flood:


Turn off the water supply

Quickly turn off the water supply

The most important thing you’ll need to know is the location of your stopcock. The valve often lives under a kitchen sink or in a cupboard – possibly even one that’s outdoors. So check where yours is and clear away anything that might obstruct it. As soon as you discover a leak or burst pipe, turn the water off and don’t switch it back on until a plumber has fixed it. You’ll need to switch off your central heating too.

If the leak isn’t coming from your property and you don’t have the ability to stem the water supply, Water.org.uk can help you find and contact your supplier.

Open the taps to drain the system

You’ll need to get water out of the pipes quickly so that it can drain away without causing too much damage. Open all of the taps in your property, allow the water to drain through until there’s no run-off left, then close the taps again.

Open the taps to drain the system
Soak up any escaped water

Soak up any escaped water

To minimise damage, gather as many towels as you can and try to soak up any water that’s escaped the pipes. If you have standing water in your home your insurer will advise you of what to do next. We’ll come back to insurance shortly.do this.

Make your electrics safe

If you suspect that water might come into contact with anything electrical, turn the power off at the mains. Be aware of any appliances which might have been affected by water, and don’t switch them on again until they’ve dried out and been checked by a qualified electrician.

Make your electrics safe
Contact your insurance provider

Contact your insurance provider

Most insurers have a 24hr emergency helpline, so get in touch with yours as quickly as you can. Take photos to document any damage that’s occurred and gather together receipts or other proof of purchase, such as bank statements, for damaged belongings. Your insurer will advise you of the next steps.

Call a registered plumber

As with your gas and electric works, don’t risk employing a plumber who isn’t fully qualified to do the job. It could cost you more time and money in the long run. Water.org.uk has an up to date list of registered emergency plumbers in your area.

Whilst you wait for help to arrive you can make a temporary repair by binding the pipe tightly with cloth or heavy-duty tape. Don’t be tempted to use this in place of a professional repair though. It won’t last long!

Call a registered plumber
Cleaning up after a burst pipe

Cleaning up after a burst pipe

What you do now depends on the severity of the leak or flood. If you’ve standing water on the ground and your furniture and belongings are saturated, you’ll probably need to wait for your insurer to send their loss adjuster to you. They’ll then take care of drying out and repairing your home and contents. In the meantime, move furniture and belongings out of harm’s way to prevent further damage.

If the leak isn’t too bad you can try to clean up yourself. Just make sure you don’t throw away any damaged items before you’ve documented them if you intend to make a claim. Proof of purchase, pictures and any serial numbers will be helpful for insurance purposes.

Remember, home insurance policies differ so it’s best to speak to your insurance provider if you have any concerns around burst pipe claims. And if you’d like to know more about British Gas home insurance, you can pay us a visit here.

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