A smooth-running water supply need not be a pipe dream

Frozen pipes are likely in winter. Gentle warming may free them, but a small crack caused by expanding ice can leak a lot once water pressure resumes, writes Kya deLongchamps.

WE discussed insulation recently and how it keeps your water system snug and operational. However, what do you do if a tap goes dry, if the water stops running for no obvious reason (like a mains problem outside your property boundary), or you find water seepage around the house on your return? Let’s start with forward planning.

Where is your stop-cock? If you don’t know, find out. If you live in a flat or use a shared water supply, it may be in a communal area.

In a period house, it may be under flooring near the front door. For the rest of us, the area under the kitchen sink is likely. Ensure the valve is turning properly. It’s crucial to be able to isolate the supply, when and if you have a water issue, and it’s the first thing a plumber will want to find.

In a very cold-snap of weather, one of the most common problems is frozen pipes. Keep the heating between your loft spaces and living spaces separate, but a little warmth in the attic can prevent freezing in extreme conditions.

If you don’t have your pipes, outside and in the attic, wrapped up, now is the hour (look up our past features). Gaps, naked bends, valves and fitting points can leave the pipes vulnerable. A well-lagged pipe, full of unmoving water, can also freeze in cold conditions. Improperly detailed water pipes buried outside are a massive nuisance, once frozen, but, in a modern build, they should be 700-750mm under the surface and well-protected, right to the point where the pipes enter the house.

Adequate insulation of water pipes (the base of a header tank should be left bare to the ceiling below) and water moving through the system are enough to keep water from freezing, even when the weather is well below zero outdoors. There is no excuse for leaving a tap running, or even dripping, if you go away. Have a neighbour periodically run the taps, if you’re worried, and set the heating to run on low for a couple of periods per day (10-14C on the thermostat is about right). You can drain down your water system before a long absence, but take your plumber’s advice first. If the weather is insanely cold, with temperatures below freezing in the daytime, keep the house at 18-21C and consider allowing some air into the loft for an hour or two a day (crack the hatch very slightly).

Having done everything right, you fall in the door from work on a perishing day to find that the water is not running. Irish Water advise: “Check with your neighbours to see if they are also experiencing issues. If they are, then there may be an issue with the water supply. If they are not experiencing issues, you may have a frozen pipe. Check the water pressure in appliances such as taps and toilets to see if it is lower than usual.’

Now, it’s time for a little detective work. If you’re not used to going into your attic, and that’s the area of the issue or you’re simply unsure of your skill set, get nimble help to find the frozen area or wait for the plumber.

If you find a naked pipe or can winkle your hand under the insulation, put your fingertips on the rogue area, and see if there’s a stone-cold section that seems chiller from the pipe on the either side. Having turned off the stopcock and turned on hot and cold taps to relieve pressure, it’s up to you to decide if you want to chance unfreezing the pipe yourself. Be warned: things can go wrong. Don’t try to out-think a professional.

Know the location of your stopcock. It’s the first thing a plumber will ask.
Know the location of your stopcock. It’s the first thing a plumber will ask.

Most freezing pipes can be gently warmed up with a hairdryer (use a warm setting), hot tea-towel wraps, or by leaning a hot-water bottle against the pipe to free the ice. If the frozen area is near a tap, start at the tap and warm back down the length of pipe. Never, ever take a blow torch to a frozen pipe.

Water trapped between a blockage and the opening end can freeze, and then, as ice, expand. Ice is incredibly strong. If the pipe has cracked in a discreet seam, and you haven’t seen it, once the water pressure returns, there may be a dramatic, spitting leak. This is where the real trouble starts.

If there are electrical outlets near the area of a frozen or broken pipe, turn off the power at the mains. Keep some thick bath towels at the ready. Be ready to turn the water off and wrap up the pipe temporarily with cloth and tape.

If the pipe appears to be broken, or you still suspect a breach, turn off the water at the stopcock (if it’s not off already), switch off the central heating and immersion, and, if possible, drain the hot-water system into the bath to clear the system of as much water as possible, before the plumber comes.

Make a short list of emergency plumbers in your area and have this, together with your Eircode, on hand, in case of trouble. During really cold weather, you may be in for a wait, and problems inside your home are your problem, not the local authority’s. There are online portals, including findaplumber.ie, where you can set out your needs, price the job, and find someone qualified and potentially willing to come quickly.

You can also contact Irish Water 24/7, at 1850 278 278, for emergency advice. Their information page on checking for leaks is a must read for all home-owners, whether you have a meter installed or not (water.ie/for-home/first-fix/checking-for-leaks). If you have an Irish Water meter, ensure you understand the first-fix free scheme for external (outdoor) leaks.

If you do have water damage from a leaking pipe, contact your insurance firm as soon as possible. It will expect you to have taken steps to minimise damage. If you decide to make a claim, your insurer will appoint a loss adjuster to investigate further and to make plans to get the damage rectified.

- See: www.water.ie

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