Burst pipes: How to keep Niagara Falls out of your walls

A plumber from Ontario shares some tips on how to prevent frozen pipes from flooding your home and an insurance expert weighs in on what homeowners should do before and if the worst happens.

When it gets to -15 C or colder, plumbers' phones start to ring

Bill Salmon of Salmon Plumbing and Heating says he expects calls for burst pipes to flood in any time the weather gets to -15 C or colder. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

A 35-year run in the plumbing business has taught Bill Salmon some simple truths. Water runs downhill, when it freezes it expands and when the outside temperature hits –15 C or colder, he starts getting phone calls about frozen pipes.

"We're beginning to get them now," he told CBC News on Wednesday. "But everybody went back to work today, sometimes they won't notice the problem until they get home."

Salmon and his two brothers run Salmon Plumbing and Heating, a London, Ont., business started by their father in 1955. 

Over those years, he has seen it all. At one call, a plumber arrived to see a house's entire exterior wall coated in ice. A plumber had run a pipe along an exterior wall (that's a no-no). Of course it froze, burst and filled the space between the floor and ceiling with water. It seeped through the exterior walls and turned the house into an ice sculpture. 

"It looked like frozen Niagara Falls and that's not fun if it's the front of your house," said Salmon. 

He's seen basements turned into swimming pools and one basement flooded out because a next-door neighbour's improperly drained lawn sprinkler system froze in the cold. 

With Ontario and much of the rest of the country in a wicked deep freeze this week, Salmon offers these tips to avoid this kind of horror story in their home. 

Don't turn the heat down: We're all trying to save energy, but that might be a mistake when the temperature dips to double digits below zero. Resist the urge to crank down the thermostat.

The combination of cold weather and winter vacations can often end this way: A burst pipe, and a flooded basement. (Jason Viau/CBC)

Expose pipes to air: Pipes that run through crawl spaces or inside basement bathroom vanities are often shielded from the heated air in the rest of the house. Salmon recommends opening up those spaces, so warm air can reach the pipes and keep the water inside them in liquid form. And while we always think of the cold as the culprit, wind is another factor. "I've seen lines frozen 10 feet [just over three metres] inside of the house because of a little hole in the basement wall," he said.

Don't know how to shut off your water? Learn: Nothing sets off panic like water suddenly pouring across a floor or cascading through a wall cavity. Getting the water shut off quickly can limit the damage but many homeowners don't know where their home's water shutoff is located, or how it works. "You've got to know how to get the water shut off," said Salmon. "Sometimes when we're busy, it can take a while to get there."

Water not running properly? Don't ignore it: If it's the dead of winter and you open a tap that was working yesterday but no water comes out, don't walk away and forget about it. It likely means the water is frozen somewhere in the line. Acting fast now might save the pipe from bursting. Get warm air on the pipes and call a plumber. Or .... get set to get wet. 

Pipes along an exterior wall? Uh, no: Good plumbing practice means running the plumbing as close to the centre of the house as possible. Often, remodelled homes run supply lines up exterior wall — something that is asking for trouble. 

Don't forget outside taps: A common source of plumber calls are supply lines that feed exterior garden spigots. Home owners need to remember to shut off and drain those lines in the fall, before the cold weather arrives. 

Consider plastic plumbing: In many newer and remodelled homes, copper supply lines have given way to plastic piping. Salmon says when plastic freezes, it tends not to burst. "It's a little more forgiving than copper," he said. One problem though? On a copper pipe he can use a "hot shot" — a machine that uses electric current to thaw a frozen line. This fix can avoid the need to pry panelling off walls and ceilings but it doesn't work on non-conducting plastic lines. 

It looks like a jumper cable, but this is called a 'hot-shot' a tool plumbers can use to thaw frozen pipes. The only problem? It doesn't work on plastic plumbing. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

Insurance tips

Steve Kee of the Insurance Bureau of Canada said burst pipes are a big source of insurance claims. He has these tips for homeowners:

Going away? Get a house sitter: Check the fine print, but some home policies require that a responsible person (not your neighbour's eight-year-old) check on the house at least once every few days. "This is something you should check with your insurer if you're going away during the winter," said Kee. 

Valuables in the basement? Protect them: Consider not putting important documents, expensive electronics and other valuables in the basement. If they must go down there, consider storing important stuff in water-proof plastic containers. 

Document the flood: If the worst happens and you end up filing a claim for water damage, make sure you document everything with photos. 


Andrew Lupton is a B.C.-born journalist, father of two and a north London resident with a passion for politics, photography and baseball.