For most of the nation, winter is here. Whether you love or hate the season, there’s one fact that’s certain: pipes will freeze, and some will burst when the weather becomes cold.

Every year, insurance companies receive countless claims involving frozen pipes and sprinkler systems that cause significant water damage to senior housing — independent living, assisted living, memory care and continuing care retirement communities like yours. Although your existing policy may cover an incident like this, it’s a much better situation if you take precautions to prevent the problem in the first place.

Here is a list of six important steps to lower your risk of water damage and the interruption of your operations from frozen pipes:

  1. Keep the temperature in all rooms above 50 degrees. During periods of extreme cold, discontinue the use of lower nighttime temperatures. A cold building is the single greatest risk factor for frozen pipes.
  2. Add insulation to attics and crawl spaces. Without insulation, the heat your system generates will escape through the attic and crawl space, lowering the temperature throughout your building. As weather patterns continue to change, consider insulating your pipes even if freezing temperatures have been rare in your location in the past. If you have wet pipe sprinkler systems in your attic or top floor ceiling, ensure that the insulation is adequate to prevent freezing, not just in normal winters, but also during extreme events such as polar vortices. Extreme cold weather events are nowhere near as rare as you may think.
  3. Keep your doors and windows tightly closed. Look for drafts and cold air leaks. Even a small leak could lead to frozen pipes. When you close doors, double-check to ensure that they are completely latched.
  4. Let a faucet drip to prevent pipes from freezing. During periods of extreme cold, this practice can relieve pressure and prevent pipes from bursting.
  5. Consider draining your pipes. If your building will not be in use for a period of time, then you may want to turn off the water and drain your pipes to decrease their risk of bursting. In this case, designate someone to visit the building every few days to check for signs of a drop in temperature and water damage. Talk to your agent or insurer before draining or cutting the supply of water to building sprinkler systems, as this potentially could suspend insurance coverage or make your building susceptible to a fire loss.
  6. Install a temperature alert system. During the night or when you’re away from your building for an extended period of time, a temperature alert system can notify you of conditions that could cause frozen pipes, such as a faulty heating system. Some insurers offer a temperature and water alert system at no additional charge for eligible customers.
  7. Have a plan for utility outages. Extreme winter weather can lead to utility outages that may render your building unoccupiable and susceptible to freezing temperatures. Your plan should consider how to reach your building during these outages and how to drain plumbing, including sprinkler systems, until the utilities and heat can be restored.

What to do if your pipes freeze

If your pipes do freeze, there are several immediate steps you should take to minimize further damage:

  • Open the faucets on frozen fixtures to relieve pressure and prevent pipes from bursting.
  • Soak rags in hot water and wrap them around the frozen pipes.
  • In particularly cold areas, use a space heater placed a safe distance from flammable or combustible materials and open cabinet doors to allow warm air to reach the pipes.

In the event of a burst pipe, it goes without saying that you should turn off the water supply to the affected area immediately and call a plumber for professional help. It also is essential that your operating and maintenance staff members know where the water shut-offs are located. Your second call should be to your insurer.

If the water supply to your sprinkler system is affected, then you will need to discuss the ramifications to the sprinkler system. Most carriers offer comprehensive coverage that can protect your organization and building when situations such as frozen pipes occur.

If you’re located in a cold climate — or even one that dips below freezing occasionally — then take time to review your existing policy to make sure you’re covered. Preparation and prevention are key to protecting your organization.

Guy Russ is assistant vice president – risk control, for Church Mutual Insurance Co., S.I., a stock insurer.

The opinions expressed in each McKnight’s Senior Living marketplace column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Senior Living.