Abundance of Freeze Related Claims After the Polar Vortex

The sub-arctic temperatures generally produce an abundance of work for adjusters from freeze related claims including both pipe break claims and ice dam claims. When assessing any pipe break related loss, adjusters need to be sure to take clear photographs of the breaks in the pipe and determine the exact cause of the pipe break.

The record low temperatures weren’t the only thing the polar vortex brought to the Midwest a couple of weeks ago. After two days of subzero temperatures and wind chills as low as -50°, the extreme cold produced more than just freezing air as many homeowners and property owners are now dealing with the aftermath of pipe breaks and ice dams from the bitter cold.

The 3 main causes of pipe breaks are:

Lack of heat: Quite often water pipes freeze merely because the structure was not kept at an adequate temperature. Cost-conscious owners are known to turn down the heat during the winter to save money. Vacation homes and other non-occupied buildings are particularly susceptible to lack-of-heat freeze damage as owners of those structures often turn the heat down as a means to save money. Similarly, when cold temperatures hit, owners of primary residences often close off rooms that are not in use to save on heating those areas. When the temperature drops low enough, pipes in and around those areas can freeze.

Heating system failures are also to blame for many freeze related claims. Furnaces can fail, and automatic thermostats also suffer from malfunctions that prevent the proper operation of a heating system.

Construction Defects: Poor construction can also be to blame for freeze related claims. Not surprisingly, code regulations require buildings to be designed and built so that water and sewer lines do not freeze when the cold weather hits. These codes do this by specifying the placement of pipes, and for pipes that cannot be placed properly, there are alternative requirements to keep the pipes warm.

For example, pipes located too close to exterior walls or near roof vents have a much higher chance of freezing. Likewise, improperly sealed openings in attics or air gaps in an otherwise safe location can eventually lead to a frozen pipe. Pipes that are not able to be located away from cold areas should be fitted with insulation sleeves or wrapping which slows the heat transfer.

Other construction defects that can lead to freezing related claims are sprinkler systems. Sprinkler systems have their own sets of codes that address the issues of freeze damage, and they need to be designed and installed to account for how the structure will be used. When designing sprinkler systems, it is important to include proper drain points. Residual water from confidence testing or even condensation can accumulate at low points in the piping thus creating the possibility for freeze damage to occur. Likewise, proper drain points that are not being used defeat the purpose of the drain points entirely.

Improper Insulation: When considering whether insulation played a role in a freeze loss, one must first have a basic understanding of how insulation works. Insulation is designed to combat heat transfer or the movement of heat from one place to another. As explained in the second law of thermodynamics, absent an external factor, heat transfer always occurs from a higher temperature region to a cooler temperature one. Simply put, this means that heat will always move from a warmer area to a colder one.

On a summer day, heat from outside your building is constantly trying to transfer inside your home until the two temperatures level out. On a cold winter day, heat from inside your structure is constantly trying to transfer outside your property until the two temperatures level out. Similarly, when water inside plumbing is warmer than the air surrounding the pipe, heat transfer begins to occur in an attempt to level out the temperature differential. This is the inherent problem that leads to pipe freezes and pipe breaks.

Insulation works by slowing the process of heat transfer. Insulation does not act to produce either heat or cold. For instance, an insulated cooler can act to keep food either cold or hot for a longer period of time than food that is not kept in the cooler. So, while insulation will not actually heat water pipes, when used properly, it will keep them warm longer. That said, no matter how much insulation is around the pipes, a constant supply of heat is needed to maintain a steady temperature.

If water pipes are installed in such a way that heat cannot reach them, the insulation will have no effect. Many well-insulated sprinkler systems suffer freeze-related damage for this very reason. To properly insulate sprinkler pipes, provisions must be made to allow heat to reach the pipes. Too often builders attempt to prevent freeze damage by installing insulation between the pipes and the heat source. In such instances, the insulation can act to prevent heat from ever reaching the pipes, thus laying the groundwork for a freeze related claim. Tenting the insulation over the top of sprinkler pipes allows heat from below to reach the pipes while slowing heat transfer to the cold air above the pipes. In order to realize its benefits, however, it must be properly installed.

The second most common type of claims adjusters will experience during a polar vortex come from ice dams. An ice dam is the result of snow collecting on a roof creating a literal “dam” of ice with water that backs up behind it. Ice dams can lead to water leaking into attics and nearby ceilings causing water damage, mold, and in the worst case, structural damage.

Damage from ice dams generally occurs from improper roofing material or improper installation of asphalt shingles, improper ice protection, or improper ventilation and insulation that results in a lack of air flow. This can be caused by a variety of construction causes such as blocked soffit vents or no soffit vents, bathroom or kitchen exhaust fans venting into the attic, or no fresh air coming in resulting in vents that cannot function properly.

Subfreezing temperatures produced by polar vortexes are a recipe for disaster, and freeze-related claims are making up the majority of winter property claims over the past week. When assessing freeze related claims due to pipe breaks or ice dam water damage, we all know that time is of the essence and a quick response can prevent the loss scope from expanding. A pipe break is not a cause of loss, but identifying the real cause of the pipe failure has many coverage and subrogation implications.

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