Outdoor faucets – or taps in the UK – in winter are often overlooked when people take measures to protect their homes from the consequences of getting frozen pipes.
Sure, a frozen garden tap is annoying, especially if you were hoping to give your car a wash or your plants a watering once the frost had lifted. But in fact, a garden tap that's frozen over can be much more than just an inconvenience – it can do some serious damage to your home's plumbing.
See: Winter garden ideas – how to get your backyard winter-beautiful
So, what are the problems a frozen garden tap can pose? The most common case scenarios are a burst pipe, a broken valve, a broken joint – or all three, if there was enough water left in the tap.
As Steve Allen, technical expert at Harvey Water Softeners, explains, 'although a garden tap is outside of the property if it becomes frozen it can cause a joint inside the property to come apart and leak.'
How do I keep my outside tap or faucet from freezing?
Typically, an outside faucet will have a shut-off valve inside the property, and it's water remaining in the pipe leading up to this valve that's the problem. Water expands when frozen, and if the frozen water has nowhere to go, it will destroy whatever's constraining it.
For this reason, it's very important to shut off the valve that lets water flow into the garden tap over the cold winter months. Once you've shut off the supply, open the garden tap to let air flow in. This air supply will ensure that any water that does remain in the tap after it's been shut off has room to expand.
See: The best seasonal plants – and how to care for them
Of course, not all homes have an isolation valve for the outside tap; many older homes only have one valve that controls all water supply to the house.
In this situation, you'll want to insulate your garden tap to prevent it from freezing over – as well as the surrounding pipework. 'Purpose made tap covers are available from most DIY stores', as Steve Allen points out. They're inexpensive (we've seen one at Aldi) and will provide enough protection in most cases.
Bear in mind, however, that damage caused by frozen outside faucets may not show until the spring when the water is turned back on – so take time to look for leaks when you do this.
Disconnect the garden hose, too
If your water-filled garden hose is left to freeze it can only exacerbate the problem, so disconnect it, drain it and put it away until spring comes. This won't just stop your outside faucet from freezing – it will protect the hose too, since plastic splits when it expands.
What happens if my outside tap freezes?
And if you're a little too late, and your garden tap has already frozen over? Don't panic: this doesn't automatically mean that it's already caused a burst pipe or broken valve. Try wrapping it in a towel that's been soaked in hot water, or gently pour warm water over it to unfreeze it. If nothing is working, calling your plumber is the best course of action, before the problem gets worse.
Can I claim on insurance if an outside faucet freezes?
Many people wonder whether if the worst has happened, and a pipe has burst, they could claim insurance. There's a mixture of good and bad news here: yes, most home insurance plans will cover your home against damage caused by burst pipes. Insurance expert and director at One Broker, Shaun Lenton, explains: 'The majority of UK insurance policies provide cover for damage to a homeowner's property and contents caused by a burst pipe.'
However, he also adds that 'the damage to the pipes themselves is not necessarily covered, particularly if the failure is related to age or general wear and tear.'
In other words, if your garden tap causes a burst pipe or valve, it's most likely you'll have to pay for the repairs, so you really don't want it freezing over.
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