Busted Pipes, Busted Budgets: Fighting Back Against Winter’s Hidden Risks

Eye-popping property damage insurance claims show why churches even in warmer states need to prepare and respond when winter weather looms large.

The nation’s three largest church insurers say massive winter storms hitting warm-weather states have created spikes in property damage claims—many of them triggered by busted frozen pipes that not only cause thousands of dollars in damages but disrupt worship services and other events.

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Greater awareness and responsiveness, particularly in regions unaccustomed to severe winter weather, can potentially thwart problems.

“As you get down into the warmer Southern states, the nature of the freeze and the damage that can be done can be pretty eye-opening,” warns Eric Spacek, assistant vice president of risk control for Church Mutual Insurance Company, which covers about 90,000 congregations. “This is a matter of stewardship. We’re always talking about how much better it is to prevent things from happening than to deal with it on the back-end.”

But pastors and leaders, particularly in the lower Midwestern, Southern, and Southeastern portions of the United States, often get caught off-guard by extreme winter weather. Frustrating and costly problems often ensue.

Historic storms, high claims

Two specific storms in recent memory—Winter Storm Uri (about $200 billion in damages) in February of 2021 and Winter Storm Elliott (about $5 billion in damages) during Christmas of 2022—underscore the size and scope of the emerging problem.

Claims poured in from churches immediately after both storms.

The average number of claims typically filed in December with Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company, an insurer of more than 65,000 houses of worship in 47 states, hovers between 460 and 560, says Thomas Lichtenberger, the company’s assistant vice president of property claims.

Lichtenberger adds that, within a week of Elliott’s conclusion, 1,300 claims came in — 963 related to frozen pipes.

“Water damage from broken pipes—that’s not new,” says Tom Strong, director of risk control for GuideOne Insurance, which covers about 40,000 houses of worship in 48 states and received 257 claims tied to frozen pipes in the days following Elliott. “Where they occur—that’s the big change.”

Georgia, Texas, Missouri, and Alabama ranked among the top five for pipe-related claims for GuideOne, Strong says, with New York the lone cold-weather state to join them.

Meanwhile, the average size of GuideOne’s claims after Uri was about $30,000, a tally Elliott is expected to match based on early indicators, says James Balzarine, property claims director for the company.

Awareness and anticipation

Pastors and church leaders in traditionally warm weather states rarely encounter temperatures brought on by storms like Uri and Elliott, meaning their first-time experiences likely are unpleasant ones.

During Elliott, Charleston, South Carolina, broke a 33-year record low—20 degrees Fahrenheit—on Christmas Eve of 2022, while Athens, Georgia, did the same one day earlier, dropping to 11 degrees.

“Their history has not given them the idea that they should be prepared for this,” Strong says.

Even places better conditioned for wintry cold got socked by Elliott, leaving leaders scrambling.

Brotherhood Mutual still received 24 pipe-freeze claims from churches in Michigan after Elliott. Another 36 came from Indiana-based churches.

Denver plummeted to -20 degrees on December 22, 2022. One Colorado church insured by Church Mutual was alerted to a temperature drop in its building thanks to a sensor purchased through a company-sponsored program. A church leader discovered a propane outage upon arriving. A refill restored heat before pipes could freeze, Spacek says.

“You want to make sure to have the mindset that this could happen,” Lichtenberger says, adding many churches use their buildings a few hours on Sundays and maybe only one or two other days of the week.

Regardless of geography, when the forecast calls for storms bearing frigid cold, leaders should plan to visit their buildings multiple times each day throughout the storm.

“Be your own sensor,” Lichtenberger says.

Take Action: Fight back against freezes

Awareness and anticipation are valuable. Advanced preparation is, too. Note these tips from the American Red Cross and church insurers.

When cold is on its way or already arrived

  • Identify all the ways to shut off water in the building.
  • Know the location of the building’s main valve and how to turn it off.
  • Also know how to turn off water to the fire sprinkler system. One church hit by Elliott spent an hour searching for its system’s key and “just had to sit there and watch the water run” from a broken line, Spacek says.
  • Keep building thermostats above 55 degrees around the clock, despite the added expense.
  • Remember that buildings with one thermostat naturally hold that temperature in the surrounding area, but colder air will build outside its immediate radius, Spacek adds. Setting the temperature higher may be necessary to help rooms further away from the thermostat.
  • Also recognize situations when a higher thermostat setting may be needed because pipes exist in basements, crawl spaces, and attics or run along exterior walls.
  • Open cabinet doors below sinks so that warmer room air contacts pipes.
  • When applicable, temporarily remove ceiling tiles located below plumbing, including fire sprinkler lines, so that warmer air circulates around it. Leaders often forget about fire sprinkler lines, and those often freeze and break. The resulting damage can be worse since water cascades down and spreads.
  • Allow sink faucets to continuously trickle with hot and cold water—the movement makes it harder for water in the pipes to freeze.
  • Visit the building multiple times each day during the storm.

When a frozen pipe is suspected or discovered

  • Turn on faucets throughout the building to try and relieve pressure, especially as efforts to thaw a pipe begin, and to prevent other freezes from developing.
  • A plumber may be needed to find the location of a frozen pipe and resolve it. Remember that pipes can also freeze in multiple spots.
  • If you know the location (or locations) of a freeze:
    • Wrap an electric heating pad around the frozen section, advises the Red Cross.
    • An electric hair dryer or portable space heater also can be used, the Red Cross notes, but keep them away from flammable materials. Avoid using extension cords with devices, adds Spacek.
    • Towels soaked in hot water (if another water source is available) and wrapped around a pipe also can help.
    • Never use an open-flame device, such as a blow torch or propane heater, to thaw pipes.
    • If thawing occurs, but water pressure isn’t fully restored, call a plumber.
    • If a break occurs, immediately shut off the water source.

When weather is warmer

  • Consult with professionals about the type of insulation to use in walls and attics. When work gets done in walls or attic spaces, make sure insulation gets put back into place, Lichtenberger says.
  • Consider using pipe insulation, especially in basements, crawl spaces, and attics, notes Brotherhood Mutual.
  • Re-caulk around doors, windows, and recessed lighting fixtures.
  • Research costs for wireless monitors or sensors that detect water leaks as well as air temperature changes. During Elliott, Church Mutual estimates $2.36 million in property damage was avoided because of alerts triggered by sensors installed by its insured churches, Spacek says.
  • A portable generator may be worth an investment, although these should only be run outdoors and away from doors and windows, Spacek notes. Permanent generators are ideal, but expensive, and should be considered only when the return on investment is apparent. After all, power outages are a common culprit behind frozen pipes.
Matthew Branaugh is an attorney, and the business owner for Church Law & Tax.

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