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Cold Man Winter strikes water pipes; insurers deluged

Mike Kemp | Getty Images

A home in Brooklyn, N.Y., got colder and colder even as the owners turned up the heat, while a house in Paducah, Ky., had an inch of water in four rooms. They were both victims of water pipes that cracked in the deep freeze that has much of the nation in its icy grip.

America's largest insurance company, State Farm, says it has had so many claims for frozen pipes—28,000 in the Jan. 4-9 period of extreme cold—that it declared the situation a "catastrophe," allowing it to bring in more adjusters to handle the overload. It said the payout for such claims can be as high as $15,000.

The American Insurance Association says 22 percent of all claims on home owner's policies—1 in 5—are for cold weather damage, and its member companies pay out around $1.4 billion per year.

"We anticipate a large spike in frozen pipe claims," said Peter Foley, the AIA's vice president for claims. "In Washington, D.C., some of my colleagues have already had them in their own homes."

Foley told NBC News that the problem with broken pipes is that very often you don't notice them until the weather warms up and the ice thaws.

"The thing is, we are getting extreme cold temperatures in parts of the country where houses are not built to withstand it," said Foley, whose own house in New Hampshire has water pipes under the floorboards, rather than running along exposed exterior walls.

Ilene Sacco, a homeowner in Brooklyn, can count herself lucky, even though she had to call out the plumber after she and her husband noticed is was getting a little bit cold, even when they turned up the radiators.

"Two pipes froze in the garage and one in the baseboard down the wall," she said. "The one in the garage actually cracked ... they had to cut out a piece and replace it."

What saved her from more expensive damage was the fact that it stayed so cold outside. "There had been a chunk of ice in there. If it had melted, the water would have been all over the place."

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As it was, Sacco had to pay $2,500, and said she intends to make a claim on her home owner's insurance.

Tim Kopischke has already turned in a claim this week after a water pipe froze and then burst while he was away from his home in Paducah, Ky.

"Four rooms filled with about an inch of water all the way through," he told WPSD in Paducah.

(Read more: Propane shortageadds to winter woes)

"It took a 14-gallon shop vac, dozens of towels, and several hours to get the standing water out," said Kopischke. "Never had frozen pipe problems or any type of problem before, so it's a first for me in this house for sure."

Plumbers have been having a field day. Peter Padmore of PP Cousin Plumber Mechanical Service, in Brooklyn, said he has been busy ever since the snow and frigid weather struck after Christmas.

"The most recent home that we've serviced due to the cold weather had broken pipes everywhere. We had to break the wall open, break down the bathroom wall; basically the whole house was frozen with no water," he said.

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Paul Belli, of Franco Belli Plumbing & Heating & Sons, also in Brooklyn, said he is handling pipe freezes constantly. "Even hot water heating systems have been freezing up and homes that haven't had a freeze up in over 10 years!"

Two-family homes with a garage are most likely to freeze, he said, because garages are often without heat and that's where a majority of the pipes are.

"I've had a few service calls from NYC public schools in the Bronx and in Brooklyn. I had to replace sprinkler heads that were literally frozen solid," said Belli, who charges $175 an hour. "It's my prediction that at the end of this current freeze spell there's going to be a lot of leaks in NYC. "

He said there wouldn't be so many frozen pipes if people took precautions like lagging exposed pipes with insulation, turning off water in pipes that are not used in winter, or keeping the heat going in garages, especially if they are away. The AIA recommends keeping heat at a constant 55 degrees in the house.

But the AIA's Foley says frozen pipes can happen anywhere — it's winter, after all. However, should it happen, residents are probably covered by their home owner's insurance. Foley said a policy typically covers the cost of the damage caused by the leaking water and also the damage made by a plumber to reach the broken pipes. It also includes labor costs, but not the actual cost of the plumbing work.

—Kelly Harry and Steve James NBC News Contributors

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