Page last updated at 10:48 GMT, Monday, 18 January 2010

Q&A: Coping with frozen pipes

The cold spell raises the risk of frozen or burst pipes.

Plumber at work
The cold has made plumbers busy after a period with little work

Clive Dickin, chief executive of the Association of Plumbing & Heating Contractors, outlines what impact the cold is having on plumbers and consumers and what should be done to prevent or deal with problems.

What can I do to prevent my pipes from freezing?

The best thing to do is avoid freezing pipes by keeping your heating on, running cold taps regularly and draining your outside tap where possible.

You do this by switching the inside tap off and running the outside tap until drained, though remember that this is on new builds only and where the tap has been put in properly by a skilled plumber.

This is particularly important for anyone involved in vacant properties, whether second homes, sales or lettings. Keep the heating on or make sure the system and all of its components have been fully drained by a plumbing professional - or it will freeze.

Can well-lagged pipes or plastic ones be affected, too?

Even well-lagged pipes can freeze where there are components that are unheated or benefit from no ambient heating. Insulation or lagging is only a barrier, so if there is no heat going in it will not prevent freezing.

Burst water pipe
Frozen pipes can burst or develop leaks

My pipes are frozen solid, what should I do?

The most important messages is to switch the stop-cock off straight away.

Then, if at all possible, just let nature take its course - wait for things to warm up: switch off and wait.

If your pipes freeze, get an expert in to trace all the pipework for splits. Otherwise, when the weather warms and pipes thaw, you might get a leak.

Are there any dangers in trying to thaw them?

There are dangers with DIY thawing and we would advise against it.

I have seen examples of people setting fire to materials with blow torches when they have been trying to thaw pipes.

Also, bear this mind: when you thaw the pipe, you unblock what pressure is in the pipe.

Be particularly careful with copper pipes, which could easily burst.

If gas is involved you must use someone on the Gas Safe Register.

How is the cold weather affecting plumbers?

Our members are certainly reporting that they are busy.

We acknowledge that getting a plumber out at the moment is a distress purchase and we sympathise with anyone having problems, but after a period of deep recession and little work either in construction or domestic renovations this is a welcome and possibly business-saving busy period for many plumbers.

Is it possible to estimate how much this current cold snap has cost UK homes and businesses so far?

December 1938: A plumber advertising his services as he walks a snowy street.
Plumbing problems during cold spells are not new

No, it is too early to get statistical information. It will have been a costly time for homes and businesses though with unexpected costs, often at emergency call-out rates. Most of the work, however, should be covered by insurance.

Homeowners should make sure they are covered on their home insurance for flooding damage from plumbing failure rather than rivers flooding.

What can people do to minimise their plumbing bills?

Consider whether you are really facing an emergency - you will pay over the odds out of hours.

If you take your time and get three quotes for the job you want done you will probably save money.

Try to use a plumber recommended by someone you trust. Ideally, you should use a member of a trade association such as APHC and, even better, one who is a member of a Competent Persons Scheme.

Is this the worst winter for the sort of plumbing-related scenarios that we are seeing now?

The winter of 1963 was far worse, then 1981 - but who knows, we have not finished with this one yet.

Fortunately, it is less likely that pipes will burst these days than in 1963 because of central heating.

Are there any other pitfalls to consider?

Distraction burglars are taking opportunities brought by the weather to steal people's valuables, according to the Trading Standards Institute (TSI).

Criminals are gaining access to people's homes claiming to be from a water company and looking at frozen pipes.

Once they have gained access to the home, they distract the householder and make off with their belongings.

People who need work done need should use recommended traders, get at least three quotes, use a trader signed up to a reputable trader scheme - such as Buy With Confidence - and check the credentials of anyone coming to the door.

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