Water, water everywhere

The memories of the winter freeze may have faded, but for those who had a serious burst pipe incident at home, you may only just be finding things returning to normal as the damage may have taken months to put right.

The problem occurs when water in pipes freezes and expands - potentially cracking them. At this stage, you may not even be aware that anything has happened. However, when it becomes a little warmer, and the temperature in lofts and attics rises above freezing, this ice then melts and seeps out of any cracks it may have caused.

Wet walls, sodden carpets and damaged furniture and possessions take time to fix and may require professional drying out. Insurers paid out millions to deal with these claims, many of which happened at the end of last year and early in 2011. The Association of British Insurers estimated that during the winter freeze crisis, the industry would have paid out around £7 million a day due to the damage caused by burst pipes.

To guard against this, the right level of buildings and contents insurance is important. Those without home insurance may struggle to cope - you may need to pay for builders, plumbers, and electricians, as well as replacing damaged goods.

Most insurance providers will cover for escape of water claims, but it is often best to check that you have protection in this area. Escape of water claims can be covered both on your buildings insurance - since areas like plastering or floorboards may need repairing - and your contents insurance, as items like your TV could be impacted.

Bursting to take control?

Meanwhile, if you do have a burst pipe, what should you do? Firstly, turn off the water supply. This means you should know where the main stop tap is - often it is under the kitchen sink. Then, drain the cold water system by turning on all the taps, followed by turning off the water heating system. It is also important to turn off the electricity supply and avoid touching any light sockets or appliances.

Don't try and fix anything yourself - contact your insurance company as soon as you are aware of the problem to report what has happened and they may supply details of local approved plumbers. If you spot a pipe is merely frozen, you may be able to thaw it out before it bursts, using hot towels or a hairdryer - taking care to keep the dryer well away from any water - and opening the tap nearest to the suspected problem, to allow water to drain away. If the leak is small, it could also be a good idea to mop up any excess water as soon as possible. This can help minimise damage to your flooring.

Burst pipes can cause a lot of disruption and mess, so preventing them is the best strategy. This can be done by insulating pipes, the loft and water tanks. If you have existing insulation, check out that this is still fit for purpose, rather than just having a cursory glance through the loft hatch.

And, if you are going away during cold weather, you should try and leave heating on low if possible and ask someone to call in and check all is well. Leaving your home cold and empty for an extended time increases the likelihood of a problem and more damage. Turning off your water supply before you leave could also be a good idea, helping prevent a potential flood if a pipe were to break whilst you're away.

The past few winters have been exceptionally cold and while it's not pleasant to think about, getting ready for winter now means you are less likely to face problems when the temperatures start to fall.