Explainer: How to prevent pipes from freezing and bursting in cold weather

The repair costs for burst pipes are between 500 and 2,000 euros, but insulation can be carried out at significantly cheaper prices

Low temperatures can cause parts of your home’s plumbing to burst, leaving you without running water and potentially having to pay high repair costs.

With Met Éireann under a winter weather warning across the country, here are some top tips on how to prevent your pipes from freezing this winter and how to thaw them if they are already frozen.

Plumbing expert Sean Richardson, of Sean Richardson Services in Cork, said repairing burst pipes anywhere in the region could cost between €500 and €2,000 depending on the damage.

“We all know that water expands significantly when it freezes. This pressure can then cause your pipe to burst, so it is advisable to take every precaution possible,” he said.

Let the water run

Mr Richardson said the tiniest trickle could sometimes be enough to stop a “devastating” frost.

“If you expect a frost, turn on the taps and let only a trickle flow through the pipes. “We’re not saying you should do this to all faucets in the house, just those served by exposed pipes,” he said.

“The constant movement of water through the pipes helps prevent freezing and also reduces the potential for pressure buildup that could cause a pipe to burst.”

Insulate your pipes

Mr Richardson advised people to focus on the most vulnerable areas of their plumbing – the external pipes and the pipes in the unheated areas of your home such as the attic.

“A meter of pipe insulation can cost up to €2, so it really goes without saying that you could have all your pipes insulated for less than €100,” he said.

“If there is cold weather along the way and you haven’t had time to properly insulate your pipes, you can do it yourself. About 50 to 60 years ago, pipes were wrapped in old, crumpled newspapers and simply secured with adhesive tape. It may sound funny, but it definitely serves its purpose in an emergency.”

Keep the heat on

Mr Richardson acknowledged that this may not appear to be the most attractive option given rising energy prices.

“However, a small increase in your heating bills will still cost far less than repairing a burst pipe,” he said.

“When temperatures drop we tend to turn the heat up during the day and turn the heat down at night – which isn’t great for internal plumbing.

“Try to keep your heating at a more consistent temperature over a 24-hour period as this will prevent the pipes from freezing. Ideally, the temperature should always be at least around 12 degrees Celsius.”

Keep your cupboards and doors open

“In most households, the plumbing in the kitchen or bathroom is hidden behind a cupboard door. During a cold snap, you should open these doors to allow the warm air from inside the house to flow around the pipes and keep them free of blockages,” he said.

Close the gaps

“Especially this time of year, you should check your doors and windows for holes and large gaps that allow all the warm air to escape into your home and allow cold air to enter,” Richardson said.

“Window sills are a common leak point. If you have cables running from outside to inside, check where they enter the house and see if there are any gaps. By closing these gaps, you contribute to the overall insulation of your home, which in turn benefits the plumbing.”

Mr Richardson said if the pipes were already frozen but not burst, you should turn off the water supply.

“This is usually either under the sink or somewhere near your water meter. If you allow the water to continue flowing, you could make the situation worse and allow the pressure to build, leading to a disruption,” he said.

“If the water comes out of the tap very slowly or comes to a complete standstill, there is frost. If the issue only occurs with one tap, it is more of a local issue than a system-wide issue.”

“You can slowly thaw the pipe with a hairdryer by heating the affected length of pipe up and down.

“Wrap a warm towel around the frozen pipe. This should loosen the clog and not shock the pipe too much. Place a bucket or other towels on the floor to catch the excess liquids. A hot water bottle would also help in this situation.”

This article was originally published in December 2022

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