Frozen pipes and your home insurance

Written by the Square One team

Reviewed by Rena Novotny

Updated June 17, 2024 | Published October 20, 2015

In Canada, winter means lots of snow, ice, and freezing winds.

One of the most significant dangers to your home during periods of freezing weather is frozen water pipes. Frozen pipes can burst, and cause thousands of dollars in water damage. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to help prevent this.

Here’s our look at preventing frozen pipes, and protecting your home if you have to leave it alone during the winter:

Frozen pipe

The important points

  • Homeowners should take precautions to prevent their water pipes from freezing during cold weather.
  • Home insurance generally covers damage from sudden pipe bursts, subject to certain restrictions like having someone check on a home while its unoccupied.

How to prevent your pipes from freezing

Whether you’re at home all winter or taking a trip, you should take a few precautionary steps to protect your home’s water pipes from ice cold temperatures:

  • Install pipe insulation on any water pipes that run through uninsulated parts of your home, like attics or crawl spaces.
  • Install heat tape on at-risk pipes. Heat tape is basically an electric cable installed directly on a pipe that applies heat when the temperature drops.
  • Seal up any cracks or gaps around your home through which cold air can flow from outside.
  • If your outdoor faucets have separate shutoff valves, keep them shut off and drained throughout the winter.
  • If the weather’s cold and you’re worried about pipes freezing, start a slow drip of water from your faucets to encourage constant water flow.
  • If you’re going to be away for more than a day or two, make sure you have someone coming by to check your home and ensure the heat stays on.

That last part is particularly important; the most destructive pipe freezing events happen while homeowners are away for extended periods. Many insurance policies actually require someone to monitor your home during the winter in order to have coverage for burst pipes.

Let’s talk more about that.

Does home insurance cover damage from frozen pipes?

What would happen if the power went out while you were away, and temperatures dropped low enough to freeze your water pipes?

Left unchecked, the water flowing from a burst pipe can cause tens of thousands of dollars in damage to a home. Over the years, Square One has observed an average cost of $16,000 for each such incident. Fortunately, most home insurance policies do cover damage from burst pipes — subject to a couple of conditions. Coverage for water damage can be tricky depending on the specifics your home insurance policy.

Most home insurance policies have a restriction stipulating that if you are away from your home for more than a few consecutive days during the winter, you either need to shut off your water supply and drain the pipes, or have a competent person checking your home daily to make sure heat is being maintained.

This restriction varies from one company to the next, but you can be pretty sure there will be a strict requirement to safeguard your home while you’re away.

If you fail to meet this requirement, your home insurance company will deny any claims for water damage that result from frozen pipes. Given the high flow rate of modern water supply lines, this can potentially mean entire homes flooded with water, and thousands of dollars in repair costs — all coming out of your own pocket.

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How does it work with Square One?

At Square One, we have taken steps to prevent these kinds of disastrous surprises for our customers. Our goal is to provide the broadest form of protection possible for the homeowners, condo owners and tenants whom we insure.

If Square One customers are temporarily away from home during the usual heating season, for 7 days or less, they don’t need to take any extra steps to keep their insurance in effect.

We know that our customers like to travel during the winter, and we also trust our customers to properly prepare their homes for their time away. That’s why our policy doesn’t impose an arbitrary requirement for temporary time away, up to 7 consecutive days.

If Square One customers will be away from home for more than seven days, our policy only requires that they take one of the following options to protect the home:

  • Make arrangements to make sure that heat is being maintained at an acceptable level, stipulated by the policy wordings. What this means is that they need to make sure the furnace is in good operating condition, and should have someone checking their home periodically to make sure heat is maintained. However, we don’t impose a daily checking requirement.
  • If having someone check on the heat is impractical, our customers can shut off the water, and drain the pipes and water containers, like a hot water tank. Our customers don’t need to shut off their indoor fire-suppression sprinkler system. That would leave them susceptible to fire loss, and could quite possibly be in violation of a bylaw or building code in their area.

Going even further, we took steps to make sure that our customers are taken care of if they suffer an emergency and aren’t reasonably able to take one of the above two protective measures.

If a Square One customer is unexpectedly away from their home to receive treatment for a medical emergency, our policy will continue to cover water damage due to freezing. We know that our customers’ health and safety is of the utmost importance, so we designed this portion of our policy to support them when emergencies get in the way of ordinary winter concerns.

We know how cold Canadian winters can be. When you’re lying on the beach, or undergoing emergency medical treatment, the last thing you need to worry about is complying with restrictive conditions on your home insurance policy.

Freezing pipes: two cautionary tales

Freezing pipes aren’t theoretical; there are real-life examples happening every winter.

Take, for example, a couple in Ontario that came home from a winter vacation to discover their home in shambles. They had turned off their water before heading to Florida for the winter but did not shut off their indoor fire-suppression sprinkler system because building code requires that their sprinkler system always remain operative.

The pipe leading to the sprinkler heads froze and burst, releasing water throughout their townhouse and causing extensive, expensive damage. Their insurance company denied the claim, stating that all the water, including the fire sprinkler system, should have been shut off and drained since the homeowners were away for more than a few days.

Another example:

A woman was in hospital undergoing emergency cancer treatment. She had been away from home for three weeks when her furnace went out. The pipes froze and burst, causing significant damage to her home. While she was away, she had a neighbour keep an eye on the house and pick up the mail — but because the neighbour didn’t actually enter the house every day, insurance coverage was denied for the water damage.

Many people are unaware of this standard exclusion on home insurance policies in Canada. Even if you are aware and try to comply with the conditions, a requirement to leave sprinklers operative, or a sudden medical emergency, could put you in a very difficult position like those seen above.

Want to learn more? Visit our Home Insurance Basics resource centre for dozens of helpful articles to guide you through the ins and outs of home insurance. Or, get an online quote in under 5 minutes and find out how affordable personalized home insurance can be.

About the expert: Rena Novotny

Rena's 23-year career started as an independent adjuster where she specialized in complex property, liability and special risk loss. As a branch manager, Rena hired, trained, mentored and coached several adjusters. She continues part-time post-graduate studies in neuro-psychology and traumatization, learning how both may impact the insured's engagement on catastrophic claims. Rena has a MA (Conflict Analysis and Management), CRM, CIP, and holds a level 3 adjusting license.


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