Across much of the nation it's the time of year when temperatures plunge, water freezes, and pipes are at risk.

Water, as high school science teachers taught us, expands when frozen. That's a problem inside pipes because there is no room to expand, and the result is great pressure on pipe walls, fittings, and seals. If anything bursts, the result can be a flood throughout the home which results in damages costing thousands of dollars.

Building codes require that homes are designed so that pipes enter beneath the frost line. That means water lines into a home are unlikely to freeze and that further steps are usually not required. But problems can arise when pipes are inside walls which are not insulated, or when pipe fittings extend outside walls.

The good news is that the problem of frozen pipes can be often avoided with a few basic steps.

In terms of insurance, homeowner and renters insurance policies often pay for repairs, debris removal, and even temporary living expenses. To find out what your policy does or does not cover, review your terms with your insurance agent and add coverage as required.

Be aware that insurance coverage may not apply if the property is vacant for a certain time period. For details, speak with your insurance agent.

The Texas Department of Insurance offers a variety of suggestions to prevent bursting pipes, including those below. Such ideas apply in other states, however if the possibility of frozen pipes is a concern it's best to consult with a licensed plumber in your community to determine the preventive measures which work best locally.

Before The Freeze

  • Use faucet covers, or wrap rags, paper, trash bags, or plastic foam around faucets and outdoor pipes.
  • Cover any vents around your home's foundation.
  • Bring water hoses indoors.
  • Open the cabinets under the sinks in your kitchen and bathrooms to allow heated indoor air to circulate around water pipes.
  • Insulate your outdoor water meter box, and be sure its lid is on tight.
  • Protect outdoor electrical pumps.
  • If you have a swimming pool, either drain the circulation system or keep the pump motor running. (Run the pump motor only in a short freeze. Running the motor for long periods could damage it.)
  • Let faucets drip, but don't run a big stream of water.
  • If you leave town, consider turning off your water at the shut-off valve while faucets are running to drain your pipes. (Make sure the faucets are turned off before you turn the shut-off valve back on.)
  • If you drain your pipes, contact your electric or gas utility for instructions on protecting your water heater.
If Your Pipes Freeze
  • Turn off your water at the shut-off valve.
  • Call a plumber for help.
  • Don't use lamps or electrical appliances to thaw frozen pipes. Leaking water from thawing pipes could cause a short and you could be electrocuted.
  • If you try to thaw your own pipes, apply heat slowly, and move it toward the coldest spot on the pipe. Never concentrate heat in one spot -- cracking ice can shatter a pipe.

If you have a loss, contact your insurance agent promptly and file a your claim. In some jurisdictions, a written claim may be required. It's a good idea to make a photographic record of the damage to support claims.

If you must make temporary repairs, keep the receipts. Your insurance policy may reimburse you for temporary costs designed to prevent further damage. However, your insurance policy may not cover costs for permanent repairs unless authorized by the insurance company.

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