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Cold snap decisions

Lessons learnt following the Beast from the East? How did you – and your landlord and tenant clients – fare during the UK’s worst weather for decades? says Frances Burkinshaw

Frances Burkinshaw

Snow on street image

Throughout my career as a letting agent I worried about extreme cold snaps of weather and burst pipes. It was of particular concern when properties were empty. Every autumn we would write what we termed the ‘Winter Letter’. This was sent out to all tenants giving information about what to do during the winter months.

If tenants were to be away for any length of time they were asked to:

  • Turn off the water main stop valve
  • Leave the heating on ‘low’ and on ‘constant’
  • Open the attic hatch

Many tenants objected to opening the attic hatch and ‘wasting’ heat. The problem here is that if the attic is well insulated the heat from the house will not reach into the attic; the pipes may not be well lagged and with an easterly wind they could freeze in a short period of time. (I speak from experience!)

Many tenants only left the heating on twice a day – pipes could freeze in extreme conditions in the period between heating slots.

The main problem was that tenants did not believe that they could leave the heating on and turn the stop valve off. How many discussions have we had on this subject – too many to count! Some central heating systems have a ‘header tank’ which is used to fill the system should there be a leak or excessive evaporation. It would take a long time for this header tank to empty other than if there were a problem with the system. Other heating systems are sealed and again would not require filling up so the stop valve can be turned off.

Even in the summer time properties can flood. If a tenant is away from the property in the summer the stop valve should still be turned off. The cold water storage tank or the hot water cylinder could have a weak spot and leak and that leak would be continuous if the mains remains on.

My brother bought a new house recently in Winchester. Everything was brand new and pristine. He went away for a few days soon after moving in and upon his return he found devastation! The hot water cylinder was faulty (apparently there was a faulty batch) and it had cracked at a seam and leaked and leaked!

Frances Burkinshaw image

Frances Burkinshaw

A friend on mine had rented a house through our agency in Kent. After several months he had bought a house and so moved out of the rented house just before Christmas. He was still responsible for the property until the New Year.

We wrote to him and attached the ‘Winter Letter’ asking him to be sure to look after the rented house even though it was to be empty. Over the Christmas period the weather turned really nasty and the temperature dropped unusually low and the wind blew. My friend had left a bit of heating on in the house but only for two short bursts.

Needless to say he hadn’t turned off the water main and the pipes burst. The clean up was horrible and costly. I used to keep the ‘offending’ piece of pipe in my desk drawer to show landlords and tenants who didn’t believe how much damage a small cracked pipe could do.

On another occasion we let a beautiful period farmhouse in Kent. This house had a gorgeous polished oak staircase and landing with wonderful balustrades and handrails. You could almost feel the number of hands that had used those handrails over hundreds of years – rich and shiny.

We discussed with the then local Branch Manager that she should ensure that all empty properties followed our guidelines for cold weather. The weather turned and was absolutely freezing – much like our recent weather in the UK. Our manager apparently discussed the situation with her husband at home; her husband told her that she must not turn off the water if she was to leave the heating on. You guessed it..! It took several days for anyone to find the flood as the property had an enormous cellar and the pouring water gushed over those wonderful handrails and down the beautiful oak stairs into the cellar.

I was devastated when I saw the state of the property. All that polished oak was now dry looking and virtually white!!

Hopefully we will have finished with bad weather for this year – but do take notice of these warnings for future years.

Frances Burkinshaw is an independent trainer available nationally for in-house or group training. 01892 783961 or 07887 714341 or [email protected]

April 19, 2018

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