Frost and water damage in buildings

Water is essential for various purposes, such as drinking and various manufacturing processes. There is a risk involved with utilising water, as it can cause significant issues when it freezes. When water freezes it expands, potentially leading to the rupture of waterpipes and couplings.

The cold weather can also make leaking water turn into ice inside the building. Damage often appears only when there is a thaw, and water leaks out. Cleaning up water damage can take time, and in severe cases it can result in the development of mould, fungi, decay, as well as pests in structures.

Surprise, surprise: it is cold up north

Anders Rørvik Ellingbø image.
Anders Rørvik Ellingbø

In very cold places like the northern regions, cold winters can cause a lot of damage. In 2010, there was a significant increase of water damage and frost related damage payments because of the extremely cold weather. Over the course of 2010, preliminary statistics from Finansnæringens Fellesorganisation (Finance Norway, FNO) showed that there was at least five times more frost damage than in the previous year in the commercial and industrial market alone.

Cold winters generate higher losses and increased costs. In 2021 a similar increase in Frost related incidents occurred due to cold winter conditions. Energy prices have also had an impact during the cold, as people try to save money.

Naturally, one might question whether frost-related water damage in the Nordic regions should come as a surprise. It should not. While there have been milder winters in recent years, over time it is reasonable to expect that piping systems would be constructed to handle the coldest winter conditions.

A lot of people still assume that the installations inside and outside their buildings are in good shape, because they have not experienced water damage yet. But when there is an extended period of severely cold weather, especially when combined with black frost (hard frost without much snow cover), even piping that has previously been in good condition can fail.

Building owners need to be vigilant in keeping indoor temperatures high enough to avoid fittings from freezing.

Anders Rørvik Ellingbø

The causes of frost damage

What is the fundamental cause of frost damage? For commercial and industrial buildings, it is common to lower the indoor temperatures to save on electricity costs and adapt to increasingly high fuel prices. In the Nordics for example, the cost of energy has risen as a result of the Russian attack on Ukraine. Russia's actions have severe and concrete impacts in Finland and throughout Europe. The reduced energy supply has led fossil fuel prices to rise dramatically.

Cold temperatures cause severe stress on the building’s structure and systems. When the outdoor temperature drops significantly, there is a risk that the indoor temperature could fall below zero leading to frozen water pipes. Water pipes built into exterior walls that normally remain frost free, are then in danger of freezing when outdoor temperatures drop to 20-30 degrees below zero for extended periods of time.

As an example, summer cottages and holiday homes, that are not used in the winter often have these types of damage. Often, as the water supply has been turned off, but the pipes still contain water, or the shut-off valves are not completely closed, the water will freeze, and the pipe will burst. Leaky pipes located near windows and other cold spots in the building are also exposed to frost in such cold periods.

During a year with very cold temperatures in early winter, usually before the snow forms an insulating layer, frost can penetrate deeper into the ground compared to a standard year. In these cases, typically such water pipes that are buried underground can burst in the winter. This is due to insufficient insulation against ground frost.

frozen pipe

How to prevent frost damage?

Thoroughly inspect the plumbing both inside and outside the building. Cold spots can exist where pipes and fixtures are installed, which may expose them to lower temperatures, even if the exterior piping is well-protected against ground frost.

Addressing frozen water pipes due to inadequate indoor temperatures is the most straightforward issue to tackle. Building owners need to be vigilant in keeping indoor temperatures high enough to avoid fittings from freezing.

In addition, doors leading to areas with water systems should remain open to allow for proper air circulation. This applies equally to both shorter and longer periods of inactivity in the building. For example, it is essential especially during the Christmas holiday season, when outdoor temperatures are very low, that businesses keep the doors open to prevent any issues.

Electric heat tracing, also known as heat tape or surface heating, is also an effective system for maintaining or raising the temperature of pipes and vessels using heat tracing cables. This involves running an electrical heating element in direct contact along the length of a pipe, typically covered with thermal insulation to minimize heat loss. The generated heat ensures the pipe remains at a desired temperature.

Monitor your temperatures

Modern sensors and equipment can monitor temperature, as well as control and issue an alarm if low temperatures are detected. Similarly, sprinkler installations should be connected to the alarm control centre so that burst pipe warnings are immediately activated. In older wooden buildings, there may be instances where pipes are concealed within exterior walls, potentially leading to cracks, leaks, and structures that create cold bridges, putting water pipes at risk of freezing.

We should not presume that frost damage is prevented during installation of pipes in piping systems. However, the correct installation method, is to include draining, so if any water is released from the pipes, it is directed towards a drain, preventing damage to the building.

In case of a pipe rupture with water pouring out, an alarm or leakage warning should be triggered, detecting water flow or dampness in an environment can be an alternative to minimise water damage. Pipes and fittings exposed to frost can be protected with trace heating, for example. When the ground is frozen, the risk of buried pipe breaks exists, but this can be prevented by covering them with insulating matting.

This article has been revised and updated from If News, Lesson from Losses 1/2012

Written by

Anders Rørvik Ellingbø, Vilma Torkko