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Burst pipes can cause big problems- do you now how to turn the water off?

Colin Stainer, WaterSafe Plumbing & Heating Engineer, has seen it all- freezing houses, burst pipes and extensive water damage. Read on for his top tips.

I remember being woken up in the early hours of one morning, about 3am, by my phone repeatedly ringing. I answered it to hear a lady in a frantic state - she was talking so fast that I couldn't understand her. Still half asleep I told her to stop, take a few deep breaths and not to panic. She told me she lived on her own and had been in her bathroom washing her hands when the tap broke and she couldn't stop the water running. She had tried to ring all the 24-hour emergency plumbers, but no-one was answering.

I told her to fill a kettle and a large pan with water, then to have a look under the kitchen sink to see if there was a valve. Hey presto, there was. I instructed her to turn it clockwise and, guess what, the water stopped! Her voice changed and I could hear the relief. At a slightly more reasonable hour I went to her house and she made me a cup of tea while I repaired her tap.

Anyway, the moral of the story - make sure you know where to turn off your water, and most importantly, keep calm and do not panic!

Knowing where to turn your water off can be vital in winter. Water pipes can freeze and burst and waste pipes can freeze and cause basins to overflow if taps are dripping or running - all leading to floods and winter blues if you don't know how to turn your water off quickly.

The last couple of winters have been quite mild, but if we do get a cold winter with temperatures dropping to minus 10C it pays to be prepared.

My top tips are

  1. Make sure you know where your stop tap is and check it is working
  2. If you are going away, leave your central heating on as normal and put the room thermostat at 14C
  3. Make sure all roof and vulnerable pipes are insulated and your boiler is serviced
  4. Make sure you have the name and telephone number of your (WaterSafe) qualified plumber to hand. Keep it by the boiler or stop tap!
  5. Get a neighbour to look in occasionally if you go away.

One of the most common problems these days is outside garden hose taps freezing. In the winter, turn off the inside tap that controls the garden tap, open the outside tap and leave it open until Spring is with us. Repairing these is now one of our most common winter call-outs.

In the past I have seen houses freeze and pipes burst, especially in roof spaces and garages, causing extreme damage, especially when it is very windy. The wind can blow into roofs and drop the temperature very rapidly. So make sure you are ready!

The good thing now is that we have better insulated houses with double glazing and most modern boilers have frost protection built in, so if the temperature drops to 5C the boiler will turn itself on for a few minutes to stop it freezing. Ask your heating engineer if your boiler has built-in frost protection when you have your next service.

But if the worst happens and you do get a burst pipe or leak, then remember my 3am lady - and DO NOT PANIC. Fill the kettle and a pan or bucket with water before turning off the stop tap and also remember to turn off your boiler and immersion heater if the central heating pipes have frozen. Then open all your taps, hot and cold to take off the pressure. Most importantly, KEEP CALM and call your plumber.

Colin, WaterSafe Engineer Colin, WaterSafe Engineer

Colin Stainer, WaterSafe Plumbing & Heating Engineer, Salisbury, Wiltshire

*WaterSafe is a free, online directory which promotes plumbing businesses whose plumbers have been trained to meet the strict regulations for working with drinking water pipes and fittings.

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