Cold Weather Crisis: Dealing with Frozen Pipes and Insurance Claims

The Hidden Danger: Frozen Pipes During the Freezing Temperatures

The Midwest has been under a week-long arctic blast, with temperatures plummeting (and staying) below 0˚F. While many homeowners have stocked up on milk and bread and cozied up with their favorite Netflix shows, they may have overlooked a danger lurking within their own homes: frozen pipes.

Frozen pipes can cause damage that can wreak havoc on both homes and businesses, leading to a range of issues that can result in significant financial losses. When pipes freeze and burst, the impact can be far-reaching and significantly damage your home or business. Water from the broken pipes can saturate walls, ceilings, and floors, weakening their integrity. This may lead to the need for extensive repairs and renovations. Your house may become uninhabitable as a result of the damage.

Water Damage:

After pipes burst, water can flood your property and cause extensive water damage to the interior of the property. Floors, carpets, furniture, and personal belongings may be soaked and damaged.  Leading to the potential for mold growth and the need for thorough water extraction and restoration.

Electrical Damage:

Water and electricity are a dangerous combination. If water reaches electrical outlets, wiring, or appliances, it can lead to electrical malfunctions, short circuits, and even electrical fires. This poses a serious risk to the safety of the property and its occupants.

Mold Growth:

If not promptly, and properly, mitigated, elevated moisture can provide an ideal environment for mold growth. Mold can spread quickly in walls, ceilings, and other affected areas. Mold can pose health risks to occupants and necessitate costly remediation efforts.

What causes frozen pipes to break?

When water freezes, it expands, and this expansion can exert significant pressure on the walls of pipes. The pressure generated by the expansion of frozen water can cause pipes to crack or burst. The following factors contribute to pipes breaking when freezing:

Water Expansion:

Water expands as it freezes, increasing in volume by about 9%. This expansion creates pressure within the pipes, and if the pressure becomes too high, it can lead to pipe failure.

Metal Pipes:

Metal pipes, such as copper and iron, are more susceptible to freezing-related damage than plastic pipes. This is because metal is less flexible, making it more prone to cracking under the pressure of expanding ice.

Poor Insulation:

Pipes that are not adequately insulated or located in areas with insufficient insulation are more likely to freeze. The lack of insulation allows cold air to reach the pipes, increasing the risk of freezing.

Exterior Walls and Unheated Spaces:

Pipes located in exterior walls, crawl spaces, attics, or other unheated areas are particularly vulnerable to freezing. Insufficient or no heat in these spaces allows temperatures to drop, putting the pipes at risk.

Sudden Drops in Temperature:

Rapid and extreme drops in temperature increase the likelihood of pipes freezing. Sudden cold snaps can catch homeowners off guard, especially if they haven’t taken preventive measures.

What should you do after a pipe breaks?

First, turn off your water, and stop the spread of the water to the extent that you can do so. This is the quickest and easiest way to limit the damage to your home caused by the pipe break.

For homes with basements, the water shutoff valve is typically located where the water lines come into the house, which is likely on an inside basement wall facing the street. For homes without basements or built-on slabs, the water shutoff valve is generally located in the garage, near the water heater, or under the kitchen sink. Make sure that everyone in your house knows where the water shutoff valve is located and how to turn it off.

Second, document the damage that you see. Take photos or videos of where the pipe broke and what was damaged.

Third, call your insurance agent or insurance company to file a claim. Give just the facts about what you observed and do not speculate or opine as to the cause of the damage or the extent of the damage.  you could talk your way out of a covered loss or delay the payment of your claim by speculating as to the cause of the loss or the extent of the damage. For example, we’ve had cases where a defective plumbing component caused the flood rather than frozen pipes. In such a case, the insurer’s limitations on frozen pipe coverage were not relevant and the loss was covered. Your insurance company will send an adjuster to your home to review your damage and assess your loss.

Finally, make arrangements to repair the damage.

Will Insurance Pay For Damage Caused By Frozen Pipes? 

To give the lawyerly answer: “It depends.”

Insurance coverage for frozen pipe damage is typically included in standard homeowners and business insurance policies. Insurance claims for frozen pipe damage can include costs associated with repairing or replacing damaged structures, and contents, and addressing any additional living expenses incurred due to temporary displacement. The extent of coverage may vary, and property owners need to understand the terms and limits of their policies

There are a variety of circumstances that can cause frozen pipe claims to be declined. Insurance companies often attempt to limit the coverage for frozen pipes by imposing various additional conditions that policyholders must follow or risk losing coverage. A common limitation is a requirement for owners to maintain reasonable heat to obtain coverage. Some insurance companies, such as State Farm, will go as far as specifying that you must have reasonable care to maintain heat at least 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Thus, photographs showing that the thermostat was set at a reasonable level could help get your claim paid. You must understand the limitations of coverage so that you can ensure that you have complied with the policy conditions.

What Types of Damage Does Insurance Cover After a Pipe Break?

Your insurance policy’s coverages for a pipe break and accidental water damage will usually be found in one of three coverages: dwelling coverage, personal property coverage, and/or loss of use coverage.

Property / Dwelling Coverage

Dwelling coverage is for damage to the home and its components, such as walls, flooring, and fixtures. Dwelling coverage pays for the cost to repair or replace your home’s damaged physical structure—the house and everything attached to it.

Personal Property Coverage

Personal Property Coverage is for damage to your personal property, such as furniture, clothing, and other household items. If your policy provides this coverage, your insurance company may pay for the cost of professional cleaning of your household goods, or it may pay to replace your household goods that cannot be adequately cleaned. Documenting your damaged personal property is an important step in getting coverage—don’t throw it out until you’ve documented it and your insurance company has had an opportunity to assess your damaged personal property and decide whether it should be cleaned or replaced. Note that your insurance policy may not pay for the replacement cost of your damaged personal property. Some policies only pay the actual cash value of your personal property.

Loss of Use/ Additional Living Expenses Coverage

Loss of use or additional living coverage is for the extra living expenses you incur when your home is not habitable during repair or rebuilding. This coverage helps you pay for temporary housing at a hotel or apartment and things like food or restaurant expenses you would not otherwise incur if you were living in your home. Keep all receipts for these extra expenses, as you’ll need to provide these to your insurance company. And remember to keep it reasonable. Additional living expenses coverage is not intended to be a blank check from your insurance company.

These coverages are found in different sections of the policies and are subject to different deductibles and coverage limits.

What do I do if my Insurance Company Denies My Claim Or Won’t Pay for All of the Damage?

Sometimes insurance claims don’t go the way that the homeowners had hoped. Your insurance company may deny your claim outright, or underpay your claim, leaving you to cover the expenses of your loss out of pocket. If this happens, consider calling an insurance claim attorney who specializes in homeowner property insurance claims and specifically froze pipe claims. An insurance claim attorney can review your policy and available coverages and help you get additional money to which you may be entitled, maximizing your recovery in the event of a loss.

If you feel like you’ve been treated unfairly by your insurance company, or you’re just not sure where to start, contact the attorneys at Murdock Law. We’ll double-check your insurance policy and work with you to make sure you’re getting what you deserve on your claim. There’s no fee unless we can recover more.

Other Resources:

The Murdock Law Blog addresses many insurance topics and is a great resource for policyholders.  We also recommend that policyholders check out the  United Policyholders of America, which is another great resource for consumers and also provides topic-specific answers for many common (and many uncommon) questions.  The Wisconsin Office of the Commissioner of Insurance (“OCI”) offers practical advice for Wisconsin Insurance Claims and is available to assist you with complaints or difficulties that you have with your insurer.  You can see the information on the web at http://oci.wi.gov.

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