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Preventing Frozen Pipes in Your Business

2023_eriesenseblog-frozenpipes

If you live in snow country, you’ve no doubt heard horror stories about frozen pipes. You might even have a cautionary tale of your own to tell.

Those deep-winter cold snaps can send temperatures plummeting, and homes with exposed or inadequately protected plumbing can see their pipes frozen — or worse, bursting — under the pressure of expanding ice.

But your home isn’t the only building vulnerable to a sudden freeze.

Commercial properties are susceptible to the same sorts of dramatic changes in temperature as residential properties. In fact, they can be even more vulnerable since business facilities are often unoccupied during off-hours and weekends. When it comes to burst pipes, what starts as an undetected leak on a cold Saturday night can become a facility-wide glacier by Monday morning.

No Way To Do Business

Fixing broken pipes is not cheap, but water damage to your business from burst pipes can be considerable. Affected business’s annual damage totals can run into the hundreds of millions of dollars — including replacement costs not only of wrecked plumbing, but of furniture, decor, equipment and infrastructure.

It also can be time consuming just to schedule repairs, and depending on the extent of the damage, profitable operations could be impaired until they’re completed. Remember: an arctic chill that takes out your plumbing will probably clobber other businesses too. You could get stuck waiting a while for a commercial contractor.

So, the best solution is to understand why and where pipes freeze and burst, then put a plan in place to prevent it.

Why Pipes Freeze

The pipes that bring water to your taps are pressurized, meaning that they’re usually full of water at all times. At normal temperatures — anywhere between 32 and 212 degrees Fahrenheit — the water in the pipe remains liquid, and both the water and the pipes behave as expected.

Below 32 degrees, however, the water that fills your pipes starts to freeze.

By contrast to most chemical compounds, water expands as it freezes. When that expansion occurs in a confined area such as a pipe, it eventually creates a blockage, and any water that has not yet frozen is pushed away from the expanding ice. This can ultimately produce excessive pressure that the pipe itself (or even one of the fittings along its length) is not structurally able to withstand, resulting in a crack or tear.

At that point, you’re dealing with a burst pipe.

Where Pipes Freeze

Are there trouble spots where pipes are more likely to burst? Yes: the most vulnerable pipes are those that are not contained within the heated interior of a building.

As a rule of thumb, any area that is warm enough for a person to comfortably work in without winter clothing would be relatively safe from pipe bursts — assuming a normal, uninterrupted supply of workplace heat. Conversely, any area that would be too cold for a person to sit in for an extended period would require additional measures to protect pipes from freezing.

Some obvious areas where this could be a problem include attics, basements, wall voids and crawl spaces, but in thinly insulated zones, even enclosures like cabinets or vanities can get cold enough to allow a pipe to freeze.

Preventing Frozen Pipes

By making sure that pipes are adequately heated and monitored for problems, you can greatly reduce the likelihood of catastrophic damage from a burst pipe. Government organizations like ProtectYourPipes.org have some handy prevention tips. Here are a few pointers that can help reduce your risk.

Heating

The primary precaution you can take to keep your pipes from freezing is straightforward: make sure they’re heated.

While that may sound a bit obvious, consider that much of a building’s plumbing is not directly exposed to the same comfortable atmosphere as its human inhabitants. Snoop around your facility — opening cabinets, drawers, crawl-space doors — and feel the surfaces inside those hidden spaces. If they’re cold, so are your pipes.

Consider leaving those doors and drawers open, and if necessary, apply heat tape to the pipes. While that’s a small drag on your electric bill, it’s way less expensive than repairing a busted pipe. (Pro-tip: if you use heat tape without a thermostat or timed shut-off, you can set an October calendar reminder to plug the tape in and another in April to unplug it.)

Insulation

Bare pipes are vulnerable pipes. Wherever possible, make sure there’s a layer of insulation between the pipes and outer walls, and insulate the pipes themselves with fiberglass or polyethylene pipe insulation available at most well-stocked hardware or home repair stores.

If you’re using heat tape along with pipe insulation, make sure the tape is wrapped around the pipe before fitting the insulation.

Sealing

While most of your facility’s outer shell (roof, siding, etc.) is adequate to keep the elements at bay, it may not be as good at keeping out the wind.

While you’re inspecting your facility, be on the lookout for gaps or holes that allow outside air into spaces through which your piping runs. Heat transfers (escapes) much more rapidly in moving air, so plugging those holes can make a substantial difference in how quickly your pipes freeze.

Monitoring

For fuller protection against burst pipes, consider installing a monitoring system. These devices can alert you when the temperature in sensitive areas drops into the danger zone. They can also warn you of open windows or doors that might accelerate a freeze.

Handling Frozen Pipes

Not every frozen pipe bursts, but ice in your plumbing is a sign of worse problems to come — as we’ve discussed in our article about preventing burst pipes in your home. If you detect pipe freeze (e.g., no water coming from an open tap), don’t wait around to see how it turns out.

Apply heat to the frozen line via cautious means — for example, a hair dryer or hot-water bottles, not open flames or space heaters that could ignite nearby flammable material. The idea is to get a steady supply of heat back into the pipe. Also, be sure to leave a tap or two open to give that water someplace to escape and relieve the pressure on the pipe and fittings.

Protect Your Business

Even with the best precautions in place, winter weather can throw some nasty curveballs. A risk control consultant from ERIE can help you identify and mitigate potential risks that might arise during these conditions, and year-round.

Don’t wait to find out if your business is protected in the event of a plumbing catastrophe. Commercial property policies from Erie Insurance may provide coverage that helps keep businesses safe in the event of unforeseen emergencies. Contact us today, and we’ll help you understand exactly the coverage your business needs to operate confidently in every kind of weather.

Insurance Products mentioned herein are subject to terms, conditions, limitations, exclusions and sub-limits not described in this article. Please see your policy or talk with your ERIE Agent.  

ERIE® insurance products and services are provided by one or more of the following insurers: Erie Insurance Exchange, Erie Insurance Company, Erie Insurance Property & Casualty Company, Flagship City Insurance Company and Erie Family Life Insurance Company (home offices: Erie, Pennsylvania) or Erie Insurance Company of New York (home office: Rochester, New York).  The companies within the Erie Insurance Group are not licensed to operate in all states. Refer to the company licensure and states of operation information.

The insurance products and rates, if applicable, described in this blog are in effect as of July 2022 and may be changed at any time. 

Insurance products are subject to terms, conditions and exclusions not described in this blog. The policy contains the specific details of the coverages, terms, conditions and exclusions. 

The insurance products and services described in this blog are not offered in all states.  ERIE life insurance and annuity products are not available in New York.  ERIE Medicare supplement products are not available in the District of Columbia or New York.  ERIE long term care products are not available in the District of Columbia and New York. 

Eligibility will be determined at the time of application based upon applicable underwriting guidelines and rules in effect at that time.

Your ERIE agent can offer you practical guidance and answer questions you may have before you buy.

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