Prevent Water Damage this Winter

Feb 24, 2014 3 minute read

Months of freezing temperatures, snow and ice lead many Canadians to dream about escape, whether to a sunny beach or a great ski hill. If you’re among those who deal with “winter fatigue” by taking vacations, here’s some advice to prevent the nasty surprise of coming home to an insurance claim.

Power outages can be common in the winter as seen in the recent ice storm in Ontario. If your home loses power or your furnace fails for another reason, temperatures inside can plummet quickly. Colder temperatures inside your home can cause your pipes to freeze and split. When heat and power are restored, your pipes thaw out and begin gushing water. This can cause a tremendous amount of damage to your home. A burst ½ inch pipe can fill a swimming pool every 24 hours.

The resulting damages can involve more than just your home. You may lose personal effects and irreplaceable items such as photo albums or family heirlooms. It will likely take time to sort through the damage to separate salvageable items from those that can’t be saved. You will be required to document damages and catalogue lost items in order to file an insurance claim. While your home is under repairs, you may have to stay in a hotel and eat in restaurants for several weeks. Once repairs are complete, you’ll need to find, purchase and set up replacement furniture, entertainment centres, exercise equipment and other items. It can be a stressful situation, disruptive to your daily life and can be avoided by taking a few quick precautions.

Your homeowner’s policy requires you to take preventative steps to protect your home if you’re going to be away for more than 24 hours. You can either turn off the water supply to the house and drain the system or arrange for regular inspections. If you leave without doing either, your policy’s water damage coverage will become void and you won’t receive anything if you experience water damage due to a burst pipe.

The best way to ensure your home doesn’t sustain water damage while you’re away is to shut off the main water supply to your house. Since no one will be home, you won’t need access to the supply anyway. So why not turn it off and prevent any water from entering your home? Here’s how it’s done:

  • Locate the valve on the main water supply from the municipal system and turn it off. Open a tap on the upper floor and watch the flow. If the flow decreases to a dribble in a few seconds, the valve sealed properly. If water continues to flow at a high rate, the valve has failed to seal (or you didn’t close the correct valve). Try again. If no success, you have a potentially serious problem and should consult a plumber.
  • Leave a couple of taps open, at least one on each level of the home. Any water left in the pipes will expand if it does freeze. Leaving the taps open allows that expansion, pushing the water toward the open taps so it flows harmlessly into the sinks.
  • You may also choose to flush the toilets to drain the tanks and reduce the likelihood of them splitting.
  • If you plan an extended absence, you should consider draining the water system. There should be a ‘stop and drain’ or a valve near the shut-off which allows you to do this. For lengthy absences, consider adding some non-toxic anti-freeze to the drains and toilet bowls.
  • If someone must come in to provide water for pets and plants, leave a few jugs of water in the sink for their use.
  • If you have a hot water heating system, ensure you can turn off the hot and cold water while maintaining the water supply to the heating system. You may need a plumber to install a valve or two.

While turning off the main water supply helps satisfy your home insurance requirements, it is also a good idea to arrange for someone to check on your house regularly. If you are unable to turn off the water, you must arrange for regular inspections of your home. Water isn’t the only source of damage that can wreak havoc while you’re away. Wind, hail and sewer backup are still risks facing unoccupied properties, as are vandalism or theft. Ask someone you trust to check for damage, as well as to make sure your furnace and any sewer backup prevention devices are still working.

Each home insurance policy will have a different requirement in terms of how frequently your home is inspected. Some policies state the home must be checked every 24 hours, starting on the first day you are away. Check with your BrokerLink broker to find out what your particular policy requires. Make sure your friend, family member or neighbour is willing to check as frequently as necessary and they keep a log of their inspection times and dates. It doesn’t take long for devastating damage to occur and the sooner it is discovered, the better.