How to protect your home this winter


UK Hit By Heavy Snow Fall

A harsh winter can bring a multitude of woes if homes are not equipped to withstand the adverse weather.

From the drama of burst pipes to the worry of a leaky roof, there are countless problems that can be encountered. So what do you prepare for the worst?

Pipes under pressure
Burst pipes are more than an inconvenience; they can be an outright disaster. In the freezing winter of 2010, insurers paid out £1bn to customers who had suffered burst pipe damage between 24 November and 31 December, according to the Association of British Insurers.

As temperatures water within pipes is at risk of freezing and if that happens, as the frozen water expands and pressure builds, the pipes could spring a leak. And with the pressure with which water is delivered to your house, that leak could cause substantial flood damage.

So how do you prevent this from happening? Charlie Mullins, managing director of Pimlico Plumbers and himself a former plumber, says: "A lot of people turn the heating off all together when they are out of the house or go away, but that's a mistake. It's best to leave it on very low constantly. If the water in the pipes is hot, it won't freeze." Even if you are going away, he says, make sure the heating stays switched on with the thermostat low. Mullins also advises people to run their taps frequently to ensure the water is flowing. "Every hour or so, go round and turn the taps on to get the water moving," he says.

Insulating well can also prevent pipes from suffering in cold temperature. "Lag anything you can," says Mullins. Lagging pipes and the hot water cylinder and insulating the loft will not only help to protect against freezing, it almost certainly saves you money on energy costs, too. The Energy Saving Trust estimates that fitting a British Standard jacket around your cylinder will cut heat loss by more than 75%, and save you around £45 a year – more than it cost to buy the jacket.

If the pipes do freeze, the Association of British Insurers advises:
  • Turn water off at the main stopcock and thaw the pipes with a hairdryer or hot water bottle.
  • If a pipe has burst, turn off water at the stopcock. Switch off central heating and any other water heating installations. Open all taps to drain the system.
  • Contact your insurance company helpline for help and advice, including arranging for professional repairs to be carried out.

Boiler problems
British Gas recommends that boilers should be serviced annually to make sure there are not glitches when the winter hits and you need them most. If it does stop working, you may be able to solve the problem yourself. Although clearly carrying out any repairs would be dangerous, there are a few obvious things you can check for, such as whether your gas supply is working, whether the thermostat is set correctly and whether the pilot light can be reignited if it has gone out.

If it is still not working, you will need to call a plumber out to carry out an emergency repair, which can be a costly business and may involve a wait if lots of other people are suffering the same problem.

If your boiler is getting on a bit, it is time to consider replacing it before it becomes a liability, says Mullins. "Don't have a boiler that's too old. Once they start being unreliable it is a good idea to replace them. The new ones come with very good guarantees so it is worth it." Clearly, this represents a significant cost, but it may compare favourably to the price of repairing a temperamental boiler each time it lets you down, and should also bring down your fuel costs.

You can buy insurance to cover the cost of repairing a boiler in the case of an emergency, although there is some debate over whether the cost is worth it.

How to get your boiler repaired or replaced for free

Roof and masonry damage
It's not just the plumbing that can let you down when harsh weather strikes. Your buildings insurance may cover the cost of roof damage if it is affected by severe weather, but it won't cover general wear and tear, so it is up to you to make sure your roof is in good shape. "Replace any slipped or missing tiles and remove any rubbish and remember that drinks cans and plastic bags are often the cause of blockages and floods."

Have a look at any trees near your house to see what state they are in, he says: "Checking the condition of nearby trees is a good idea, as falling branches could cause considerable damage to roofs. Get gutters cleaned and check rainwater pipes - look for moss or staining, especially around joints and hopper heads."

You may be able to prevent the harsh winter weather from doing its worst by carrying out a bit of maintenance and preparation on your home. "The roof may need to stand up to torrential, rain, hail and snow and so it is essential to make sure it is fully watertight," says Mullins.

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10 simple ways to keep your house warm this winter

10 simple ways to keep your house warm this winter