Preventing Frozen and Burst Pipes: Insights From Real Multifamily Housing Scenarios

Unbeknownst to many, frozen pipes pose a silent yet substantial threat to affordable housing properties nationwide, lurking in the concealed and hard-to-reach corners of a building.

This often-overlooked property risk has far-reaching consequences, as evidenced by the surge in water damage claims reported by HAI Group policyholders between 2020 and 2023. A staggering 197 water damage claims related to frozen pipes were reported in the timeframe, amounting to over $31 million in damages.

The impact of frozen pipes extends beyond the financial realm, triggering panicked calls from residents and disrupting the water supply to entire buildings. Contrary to popular belief, this challenge knows no geographical bounds, affecting properties in regions with both harsh and milder winter climates.

Elizabeth Owens, director of risk control and consulting at HAI Group, sheds light on the nuanced dynamics of this issue. 

"Even in warmer climates, inadequate insulation heightens the risk of pipes freezing when temperatures plummet," she said.

One poignant example that underscores the severity of the problem unfolded in February 2021, when Texas housing organizations faced monumental losses due to frozen pipes during an unprecedented arctic blast. The fallout was drastic, with at least 14 HAI Group policyholder claims surpassing $100,000, three of which exceeded the million-dollar mark.

Owens said additional challenges can arise due to factors like asbestos drywall and floor tiles in older properties. When these tiles are compromised by water, their removal mandates the expertise of an abatement company, resulting in prolonged vacancies and income loss.

As we delve deeper into frozen pipe incidents, it becomes evident that the size of claims is contingent on various factors. These include the number of units in a building, its architectural profile (whether it's a high-rise or single-story), and the specific location of the burst pipe—especially crucial when it occurs on upper floors.

In this comprehensive exploration, we unravel the multifaceted dimensions of the frozen pipe predicament, underscoring the critical need for proactive measures to safeguard affordable housing properties nationwide.

Note: HAI Group Online Training offers a 20-minute virtual training on the topic of preventing frozen and bursting pipes. Learn more about this course by following the link below. 

Take HAI Group Online Training's 'Preventing Frozen and Bursting Pipes'  Training Course

Why do frozen pipes burst?

A frozen pipe, though initially a minor inconvenience, canGettyImages-1372564824 quickly escalate into a major issue if it bursts, resulting in widespread water damage that can affect multiple units and floors.

Contrary to a common misconception, frozen pipes don't burst solely because of the expansion of ice in place; rather, the culprit is pressure. When water molecules freeze, they undergo expansion, pushing water toward the closed faucet. This sets the stage for a build-up of pressure between the ice blockage and the faucet, eventually leading to the pipe's rupture. Surprisingly, the actual burst often occurs in areas where there's little to no ice.

It's crucial to note that pipes situated outside or in unheated and lightly insulated interior spaces are particularly vulnerable to freezing.

Understanding the science behind why frozen pipes burst is the first step in addressing this issue. Now, let's delve into various preventable scenarios that we've observed, each sharing a commonality—they can be mitigated, and we'll guide you on how to do so.

Scenario: Open windows in the wake of wet paint

After painting a unit during the turnover process, workers left the unit windows open to facilitate the drying of the fresh paint. Unfortunately, a sudden drop in temperature resulted in a burst pipe.

The repercussions were particularly severe, given that the burst occurred on the seventh floor of a high-rise. The cascading water damage affected not only the floors below but also inflicted harm on the building's elevator. The total cost of the incident amounted to a staggering $700,000 in property damage.

"It's imperative to emphasize the importance of closing all windows during cold snaps," Owens said. "Leaving windows open for extended periods when temperatures dip below freezing significantly increases the risk of frozen pipes and the subsequent damage they can cause."

Frozen pipe issues from open windows are more common than you might think. HAI Group policyholders reported two such incidents in January 2024. One incident led to at least $80,000 in property damage, while the other, resulting in $55,000 in damage, was blamed on a window left open in a laundry room due to smoking. 

As a noteworthy aside, it's common practice for workers to turn on a unit's oven and keep the oven door open after painting to expedite the drying process. While this method doesn't directly contribute to frozen pipes, Owens highlights a crucial safety concern. Keeping an oven on without proper monitoring is unsafe and should never be done. It's essential to prioritize safety protocols alongside efficiency measures to ensure the well-being of both staff and residents.

Scenario: A delicate balance between heating and freezing

Residents in a high-rise building faced an unexpected challenge when it was too warm in their units and they couldn't adjust the thermostat themselves. In an attempt to regulate the warmth within their units, some residents resorted to leaving windows open. However, this well-intentioned effort resulted in a situation akin to the wet paint scenario mentioned earlier—pipes froze, leading to substantial damage.

"To avoid a repeat of such incidents, it's advisable to strike a balance between maintaining a comfortable indoor environment and preventing frozen pipes," Owens said.

While it's recommended to keep the heat on during cold snaps, it's crucial not to overheat the building. Overdoing it can inadvertently lead to residents resorting to drastic measures, such as leaving windows open, which poses a significant risk of frozen pipes.


Frozen pipes also frequently stem from residents opting to turn off or lower the heat when temporarily away from their units. Claims related to heat being left off are common. Understanding the impact is crucial for both property managers and residents. To address this issue proactively, emphasize to residents the importance of maintaining a minimal temperature of 55 degrees or higher when they are away from their units. This preventive measure helps ensure that the ambient temperature within the living space remains sufficient to stave off freezing, protecting the property from potential water damage and residents from the inconvenience of dealing with burst pipes upon their return. Clear communication about these preventive measures contributes to the overall well-being of the property and its inhabitants.

Frozen pipe claims related to broken thermostats/HVAC systems are also common during the coldest months, highlighting the need to encourage residents to promptly report any issues to the property maintenance team and diligently follow up on these reports.

Scenario: Oversights in design for cold-weather resilience

A housing organization in a cold-weather state faced an unexpected challenge when collaborating with an architect from a warmer region of the country to design a parking structure. Unfortunately, the architect didn't factor in cold weather considerations and included exposed plumbing pipes along the structure's exterior. Predictably, the freezing temperatures took their toll on these exposed pipes, resulting in significant damage.

To prevent such oversights in future construction projects or updates to existing structures, it's crucial to be vigilant about the potential vulnerability of exposed pipes, especially in colder climates. Owens emphasizes the importance of proactive measures. She suggests assessing if there are opportunities to insulate exterior piping effectively.

In areas prone to freezing temperatures, particularly in fire pump rooms, she recommends the installation of commercial-grade heating units. This additional precautionary step helps mitigate the risk of frozen pipes, safeguarding the integrity of the plumbing system and preventing potential damage. As construction and renovation projects unfold, meticulous consideration of weather-specific factors is paramount to ensure the durability and functionality of the infrastructure.

Scenario: Don't neglect vacant properties and storage space

Cold weather and vacant or underutilized properties aren't a good combination. 

A recent example involves a frozen pipe in a housing agency office being used for storage, causing at least $55,000 in damage. The pipe froze and burst because the office HVAC system was never turned to heat mode. In another incident a property manager, while passing by a vacant scattered-site property, made a distressing discovery—water was pouring out of the front door. Investigations revealed that a frozen pipe had burst, resulting in a complete loss, Owens noted. To prevent similar incidents in vacant units and scattered sites, consider implementing the following measures:

1. Daily Inspections: Conduct daily inspections of vacant units and scattered-site properties to promptly identify any signs of broken pipes, leaks, or other potential damage.

2. Temperature Control: Ensure that the heat in vacant units is set at or above 55 degrees to prevent freezing pipes. This helps maintain a suitable temperature to counteract the risk of burst pipes during colder periods.

3. Cabinet Ventilation: Open all vanity cabinets to expose pipes to warmer air. This simple measure aids in maintaining a more consistent temperature around the pipes, reducing the likelihood of freezing.

4. Airflow Optimization: Keep all interior doors open within the unit to facilitate proper airflow. This helps distribute heat evenly and prevents isolated cold spots where pipes may be more prone to freezing.

5. Window Management: Ensure that all windows and storm windows are closed to the elements. This step is crucial in maintaining the interior temperature and safeguarding against external weather conditions that could contribute to frozen pipes.

6. Mechanical Area Heating: Regularly check and maintain the heating in pump rooms and sprinkler mechanical areas. Keeping these spaces adequately heated is vital to preventing broken pipes or sprinkler malfunctions that could result in significant damage.

Owens notes that by incorporating these proactive measures into your property management routine, you can significantly reduce the risk of frozen pipes and the potential for costly water damage in vacant units and scattered-site properties.

Scenario: No door propping allowed

Leaving a door propped open extends beyond being a mere security risk, as highlighted by Owens.

"Standpipes located in stairwells and entrances are particularly susceptible to freezing when doors are propped open, especially in cold temperatures," she said. 


To mitigate this risk, consider implementing the following proactive measures:

1. Policy Implementation: Establish and enforce a clear policy that explicitly prohibits residents from propping doors open. Communicate the importance of adhering to this rule, emphasizing its role in preventing freezing and potential damage.

2. Staff Monitoring: Task staff with the responsibility of periodically walking the properties, especially during periods of anticipated freezing temperatures. This proactive approach ensures that doors are closed promptly and minimizes the chances of standpipes freezing due to prolonged exposure to the cold.

By combining a well-communicated policy with regular property monitoring, you can effectively reduce the risk of frozen standpipes caused by propped doors. This not only protects the property from potential damage but also contributes to the overall safety and security of the residents.

Bottom Line: Winter property management essentials are a must

As winter settles in, prioritizing the protection of your properties becomes paramount. Stay vigilant with frequent inspections, especially noting any changes like unit vacancies that could increase vulnerability.

Recognizing the warning signs of freezing pipes is crucial—look out for bulging or frost-covered pipes, a lack of running water, or drainage issues in sinks, tubs, or toilets. Swift action is key to preventing pipes from cracking or bursting.

The most susceptible areas for pipe freezes are unheated interior spaces like basements, crawl spaces, and exterior walls with water supply lines. Strategically place ordinary thermometers in hard-to-heat rooms for monitoring, seal unnecessary openings, and establish provisions for monitoring unattended facilities.

In case of a pipe burst, know where the water shut-off valve is located to act swiftly. Turn off electricity if the burst is near electrical switches or fuse boxes. Contact a licensed plumber and consider reaching out to a remediation vendor for assistance. Document all damage thoroughly, including photos, and notify your insurance carrier.

Key actions to take include:

1. Water Shut-Off Knowledge: Know the locations of all water shut-offs to buildings. Coordinate with local fire officials and consider posting water shut-off instructions.

2. Resident Education: Inform residents about proper winter maintenance for their units. When away, advise them to keep the heat at 55 degrees or higher. Ensure windows are shut, and air conditioner units are removed.

3. Emergency Response: If a pipe breaks, shut off the water immediately and engage a professional water mitigation company. Notify HAI Group of the damage within 24 hours for timely assistance.

4. Vacant Building Winterization: Winterize completely vacant buildings by draining all water from sprinkler supply lines, plumbing fixtures, and water heaters. If a sprinkler system is present, keep the heat at 55 degrees or above. Adhere to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards for maintaining fire protection equipment.

By adopting these comprehensive measures, you fortify your properties against winter-related risks, ensuring a resilient and well-maintained environment for residents and safeguarding against potential damages.

Additional Resources:

Contact your HAI Group risk control consultant for more resources and answers to your housing organization's risk-related questions.

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This article is for general information only. HAI Group makes no representation or warranty about the accuracy or applicability of this information for any particular use or circumstance. Your use of this information is at your own discretion and risk. HAI Group and any author or contributor identified herein assume no responsibility for your use of this information. You should consult with your attorney or subject matter advisor before adopting any risk management strategy or policy.

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