What to Do When Your Pipes Burst

A frozen copper pipe with water bursting from a leak

Every homeowner who lives in a cold climate knows the dread of a burst pipe. The damage, the expense of fixing it and the hassle of dealing with insurance claims are enough to give anyone nightmares. Knowing what to do if your pipes burst can help — but taking proactive steps to prevent it from happening in the first place is what will really put your mind at ease.

Why Do Pipes Burst?

Freezing is the most common cause for burst pipes, but it’s not the only cause. The following issues can all result in burst pipes if ignored too long.

Corrosion and pH imbalance 

If your water’s pH level isn’t balanced, it can make the pipes rust or corrode, which can eventually lead to leaks or bursts. This issue is more likely in homes with well water, which often has a higher concentration of iron.

Clogs and pressure

Clogged pipes are at a higher risk of bursting. Clogs near the drain aren’t usually a major issue, but if they form deeper in the pipes, the pressure can build up around them. Eventually, if there’s nowhere else for the water to go, the pipe will leak or burst.

Freezing temperatures

When water freezes, it expands. Sometimes, the force of this expansion is enough to rupture the pipes. Sudden temperature increases — like turning on the hot water — can make the problem worse, causing the ice and the surrounding pipe to shatter. 

How to Tell if Your Pipes Have Burst

A leaking sink faucet

Because water pipes are mostly hidden inside walls and ceilings, it’s not always obvious when they’re damaged. But the telltale signs usually make themselves known pretty quickly.

Random puddles

 Pools of water anywhere they shouldn’t be are clear signs of leakage. If a puddle grows significantly when you turn on the water, it could be a burst.

Fluctuating water pressure

If a pipe has a leak or a burst, you’ll lose water pressure because the water will flow through the hole instead of coming directly to your faucets.

Stains on walls

Large water stains on your walls or ceilings are the most obvious signs of a burst. They’re also the most useful: because stains are almost always found near the burst, they can help you pinpoint the exact location of the problem.

Discoloured or smelly water

Unusual colours or smells in your water can be the result of any number of issues. However, a reddish colour and metallic smell are worth keeping an eye on as they suggest rust, which can eventually lead to a leak or burst.

Unusually high water bills

If you notice a sudden spike in your water bills, that could mean you have a leaking or burst pipe.

Sounds behind walls and pipes

Pipes often make noises as they expand and contract. But a lot of banging and clanking means the pipes are moving around, which can eventually lead to breaks. Broken pipes may also move more than usual, as the water flow has shifted. Dripping sounds that you can’t trace to a faucet or other fixture may indicate a hidden leak.

If you notice any of these signs, it’s wise to check them out immediately, as it’s much easier to deal with a small leak before it becomes a full-blown burst.

What to Do if a Pipe Bursts

Wrapped pipes in a basement. Photo from Unsplash

If you discover a burst, take the following actions as quickly as possible.

Step 1: Turn Off Main Water and Heat

Start by turning off your main water supply so you’re not adding any new water to the situation. Turn off your water heater, boiler or any other water-based heating system you have in your home as well. If you think the water may have reached any electrical outlets or your fuse or circuit breaker box, turn off the main power.

Step 2: Drain Your Pipes

Once the water is off, drain the remaining water from the pipes by turning on your cold taps and flushing your toilets until they’re empty. Then do the same with your hot taps. This will relieve some of the pressure in your pipes and will prevent any more water from freezing in the pipes if that’s the problem.

Step 3: Locate Burst Pipe

Figure out where the break is. If it’s a fairly small leak, you might be able to find it by listening for it or by obvious water dripping. If it’s been leaking or broken for a while, there’s probably already been some damage. Bulging ceilings or large water stains will often lead you right to the source. 

Step 4: Call a Plumber

Unless you are a plumber, you shouldn’t try to tackle this problem yourself. Inadequate repairs might fail again, and any work done by you or an unlicensed handyperson may not be covered by liability insurance in case of further damage. Instead, call a licensed plumber right away to ensure everything is taken care of properly.

If there’s been any damage to your electrical system, be sure to call a licensed electrician as well.

Step 5: Make Emergency Repairs

If the break isn’t too severe and you need to turn your water back on before a plumber can make it to your home, you can use a repair sleeve to temporarily reinforce the pipe so you can run water through it. You can also make a short-term patch by covering the hole with a piece of rubber, placing a wood block over it, and clamping it all together.

However, these are not long-term solutions and should be used only in emergencies. Both types of patches will need to be replaced with proper repairs by a licensed plumber as soon as possible.

Step 6: Let in Warm Air

If your burst was caused by freezing pipes, you need to start warming up the space. Turn your heat back on and crank up your thermostat, and bring in space heaters if needed. If the pipe is still frozen, training a hairdryer on it can help warm it up. Leave doors — including cabinet doors, for under-sink pipes — open to help the warm air circulate.

Step 7: Document the Damage

Start taking pictures and video as soon as you spot the problem so you can provide your insurance company with the fullest portfolio of evidence you can. If possible, shoot some video of the leak itself. Take photos of water lines with measuring tapes to show the depth, close-ups of everything damaged, and wide shots to show all areas where damage has occurred. 

Be thorough — and don’t worry about overwhelming your insurance provider with too many photos. Water damage claims often include at least 1,000 photos.

Step 8: Clean and Disinfect

Next, start the drying and cleaning process. The longer things stay wet, the more likely they are to start growing mould and bacteria, so start as soon as possible. Recover what you can from the water-damaged area, prioritizing items that will be difficult or expensive to replace, including important documents, family photos and keepsakes, and computers. 

Be sure to thoroughly disinfect anything that was in contact with water. Don’t throw anything away, even if it can’t be salvaged, until after your insurance claim is complete.

Soak up the water with mops and old towels if it’s not too deep. If it’s more than a few inches deep, you may need to rent a submersible pump or wet/dry vacuum. Use fans and space heaters to speed up the drying, and open windows if the weather is warm and dry enough. If the water has been in place more than a day or so, avoid using central air systems that recirculate air, as this could introduce bacteria into your ducts.

How to Keep Pipes from Bursting

A person installing insulation in their attic

Taking care of your pipes and dealing with minor issues as soon as they come up will help you avoid some bursts, but freezing temperatures can damage even well-maintained pipes. Follow these tips to reduce the chances of damage to your home from frozen pipes.

  1. Know where your main shut-off valve is. This won’t prevent a burst, but it will enable you to act fast if one does happen. Every person who lives in your home should know where the shut-off is and how to use it in an emergency.
  2. Keep your home warm. If your home is warm enough to live in, it should be warm enough to keep the pipes from freezing. But even if your home has areas you don’t use as often, make sure to keep those areas above freezing. And never go on vacation in the winter without leaving the heat on.
  3. Seal leaks around your home. Small air leaks in your home can let in cold air that can noticeably lower the temperature, especially if you’re away. Unheated spaces like garages, attics and basements are often the biggest culprits, so be sure to check them carefully.
  4. Leave cabinet doors around sinks open. When it’s very cold out, or if you’re going away, it can help to leave under-sink cabinet doors open to ensure the warm room air gets into those spaces. Likewise, leave doors to spaces that aren’t well heated or insulated open as well.
  5. Keep water faucets running. It’s harder for water to freeze when it’s moving, so leaving your water running at a trickle when you’re away in the winter can help keep pipes from freezing. 
  6. Disconnect outside hose. As part of preparing your outside areas for winter, drain and disconnect your garden hose, and make sure you’ve turned the valve all the way closed. If you have a separate shut-off valve for your outdoor water, turn it off for the winter as well.
  7. Insulate your pipes. Make sure pipes running along exterior walls — or any others that are prone to freezing — are properly insulated. You can keep them warm with heat tape and foam tubing, or even by wrapping them with newspaper.

Stay Proactive with a Plumbing Protection Plan

Repair and cleanup from a burst pipe can cost thousands of dollars, but regular preventative maintenance can help solve many of the issues that can cause your pipes to break. For added peace of mind, sign up for an Enercare Plumbing Protection Plan or Total Home Protection Plan to make sure your repair costs are covered if anything goes wrong (besides frozen pipes).