Practical Advice for Homeowners to Prepare for Winter Weather
Opinions about winter weather are almost as varied as the weather itself. While some welcome the arrival of sparkling white snow drifts and chilly temperatures, others dread the earlier sunsets and icy roads. But it’s not just snowfalls and freezing rain that winter can bring, as shown by the “Quad-State Tornado” experienced by the residents of western Kentucky in early December of 2021. Footage of the storm’s aftermath shows a starkly different picture from the snowy, icy scene that one might expect from severe weather in December.
So how can homeowners in different regions prepare their homes to ensure their families and their properties are protected?
What to Expect from Winter Weather
Winter Weather and The Residential Property
The most common winter weather concerns are the impacts of cold, snow, ice, and water. These elements can cause long-term damage in an unprepared home. All homes will have different risks depending on their region, age, and level of maintenance. Because of the sometimes unpredictable nature of winter storms, it is important to proactively address these common issues, and also be prepared to respond when things go wrong.
Frozen and Burst Pipes
Very cold temperatures can cause water to freeze in a home’s pipes. This freezing and expansion can damage the plumbing joints or the pipes themselves, causing water to leak and flood into interior spaces once water begins to flow again. These leaks can lead to water damage and mold risk if not quickly and properly addressed.
In areas prone to freeze-thaw cycles – that is, weather that fluctuates between cold and warm weather – drain backups cause a significant amount of damage for homeowners. As a large volume of water from melting snow and ice enters drainage systems, it causes backups through floor and toilet drains and into homes and buildings. This creates an unsafe and unsanitary situation within the home.
Accumulation of snow and ice on the roof and in the gutters of a home can cause what is known as an “ice dam.” Warmer areas of a home’s roof can melt snow and ice that have built up, causing water to run down to the edge of the roof and the gutters. As this water re-freezes, it can infiltrate under the shingles and into the structure of the roof and expand, causing the roof structure to separate. This can lead to more roof and home damage due to future water leaks. A tell-tale sign of ice dams is large icicles hanging from the roof and the gutters.
Freezing rain can damage electrical lines, leading to a loss of power and heat. In this situation, desperate homeowners sometimes turn to alternate methods to heat their homes, such as electric heaters or propane grills. Electric heaters increase the demand on the home’s electrical system and can lead to electrical fires. Items like propane grills are designed for outdoor use only, and can lead to fires and carbon monoxide poisoning because of improper indoor use.
Stay Vigilant on Weather Trends
In warmer areas, even less-severe winter storms can cause chaos, due to fewer preventative measures, different building codes, and a lack of experience with cold weather. In these areas, it is still important to be prepared to respond. In addition to ice and snow, winter can bring other severe and damaging weather issues, as we know from examples like December 2021’s “Quad-State Tornado.” These can include high winds and tornadoes, damaging hail, flooding rains, and more. This weather can lead to the destruction of property, injuries, and even fatalities.
Having a solid understanding of an area’s winter weather risks is important to be prepared for whatever may come. Staying up-to-date on weather trends and severe weather advisories will help homeowners understand what risks they face and how to prepare their homes.
Home Preparedness Walkthrough
As the saying goes, “The best defense is a good offense.” Rather than waiting for winter storm damage to occur, a homeowner’s best bet is to be proactive and ensure their home is prepared. Conducting an inspection of the home at the beginning of the season can identify problem areas to address. Here are some key steps to include:
Identifying pipes that may be at risk of freezing.
First, identify high-risk locations where pipes run through uninsulated space or along exterior walls. These can include faucets located outside the home or in garages, as well as basement bathrooms and utility sinks. Help protect these pipes from the winter freeze by applying insulation, which can come in the form of adhesive “pipe tape” or as foam sleeves that fit around vulnerable pipes to keep heat in and keep cold out. Be sure to also locate any water shut-off valves for these areas to cut off the supply of water in case of a burst pipe.
Clearing blockages from gutters and drains.
Fall leaves that have collected in roof gutters can restrict the flow of water to downspouts and contribute to the formation of ice dams. Clearing leaves from gutters and drains in advance of cold weather and properly insulating the home’s attic can also help reduce this risk. Catch basins and other drains should also be checked and cleared. A buildup of leaves in a catch basin drain can cause a drain backup and additional water damage.
Inspection of heating systems and fireplaces.
In cold weather, homeowners turn to their furnaces and fireplaces to warm their houses. However, it is important to regularly check the function of these items to ensure safe operation. Furnaces should be inspected, cleaned, and maintained by a professional at the beginning of the cold weather season. The same goes for fireplaces, chimneys, and flues. The flue is the mechanism that allows dangerous gasses and smoke to exit to the exterior. An improperly functioning flue or a blockage in the chimney can lead to the buildup of gasses like carbon monoxide in the home, or could even result in a house fire.
Testing smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.
The increased use of home heating systems during winter months can result in increased risk of fire and carbon monoxide poisoning. Malfunctions of heating systems, blocked exhaust pipes, and improper use of heaters can all lead to danger. Having functioning, regularly-tested smoke and carbon monoxide detectors can alert homeowners and their families of problems before disaster strikes. Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors should be placed on every floor, tested at least once per month, and have batteries replaced at least every six months.
Identifying and remedying deferred maintenance items.
One of the biggest contributors to home storm damage is deferred maintenance – problems that have arisen in and around the home that have not been properly repaired. For instance, if your home has a broken storm window that has not yet been repaired, or if window or door caulking is missing, these seemingly small issues can allow water to infiltrate your house and cause more expensive issues like water damage and mold.
Assembling and testing an emergency kit.
A strong winter storm can cause a loss of power – meaning a dark home and lack of access to timely updates about the weather situation. An emergency kit can help keep a family safe in severe weather. Among other things, Ready.gov suggests the following items be included in a home emergency kit – water, food, a battery-operated radio, flashlights, extra batteries, and a first aid kit.
Investing in preventative systems and technology.
An investment in preventative systems before damage occurs can help head off more costly damage down the road. As technology advances, there are more solutions than ever to help protect homes from damage. Emergency power backups and generators can provide power to critical systems like sump pumps, electric heating systems, and freezers in case of a prolonged power outage. Flow sensors in plumbing systems can detect the presence of water leaks. Electronic heating controls and cloud-linked thermostats can allow the adjustment and monitoring of home temperature even from afar. Backflow prevention systems can keep drain backups from flooding basements and bathrooms. While these systems may require an up-front investment, they may save a significant amount of money in the long run by preventing costly damage.
Knowing who to call if an emergency or damage occurs.
Keep a list of phone numbers and resources handy in case of severe weather. This should include emergency services, local contractors (plumbing, electric, arborists, security companies, glass repair), and a restoration company to assist in case of damage.
I’m Prepared – Now What?
Even the most prepared homeowners can find themselves in unexpected situations or facing damage from winter storms. This could be the result of an unusually severe weather event, or because of families being away from home for the holidays and unable to respond. In these cases, knowing how to respond quickly and effectively is key. Included below are some tips to address common issues that arise, in order to minimize the potential damage and ensure a satisfactory recovery.
Despite a homeowner’s best efforts, temperatures may drop to the point of potentially freezing pipes. In this case, leaving cabinet doors open below the sink can help keep pipes warm. Increasing the temperature of the home by a couple of degrees ahead of cold weather can help keep pipes from freezing. Shutting off the water to vulnerable pipes can also prevent issues.
A buildup of snow and ice can occur on a home’s roof or in its gutters, even if debris has been cleared. If these buildups or large icicles are present, a visual inspection of the attic may be necessary to determine whether any water damage has occurred. This involves accessing the attic and looking around with a flashlight to see if any water is present on the underside of the roof. If there is visible moisture on the underside of the roof or on the attic insulation, it is best to contact a professional to address the issue.
For situations where homeowners are traveling, there are several ways to help keep your home safe from weather impacts and damage. High-tech solutions such as remotely accessible thermostats and cameras can allow homeowners to monitor their property for potential issues. Low-tech solutions can include asking a trusted neighbor or friend to check in on your home periodically for any issues that may arise.
When all else fails and damage occurs, the most important thing a homeowner can do to help mitigate issues and recover their property to pre-storm condition is to find a trusted disaster recovery partner like First Onsite to guide them through the recovery process. These companies have a wealth of experience in responding to winter weather damage, can identify potential risk areas before a problem occurs, and can help make things right if disaster strikes.
The Changing Weather Landscape
Recent years have seen a rise in both the number of severe weather events and the level of damage caused. Changing weather patterns mean that all regions are at risk for a variety of severe weather scenarios. In these situations, there is no substitute for proper preparation. Following the advice provided in this article can help any homeowner reduce their risk of catastrophic winter storm damage, and recover quickly in case damage occurs.
First Onsite is The Complete Solution to Overcome Property Damage
First Onsite is your trusted, full-service disaster restoration and reconstruction company, serving the United States, Canada, and beyond. We partner with you to prepare for the threat of catastrophe and to be the first team on-site immediately after disaster strikes.
Our team in your area is backed by national resources, and we scale to meet the needs of your property regardless of size. We have the experience to respond to your property needs while keeping a close eye on environmental changes that could affect you in the future. We stay a step ahead of disaster so you can too.
We are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and you can request our services at any time.
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