Extreme winter weather can leave neighborhoods and communities without power or other public services for long periods of time, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security warns.
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It’s a smart idea to prepare your home for such winter weather emergencies as well as cold weather throughout the season that can cause minor issues to evolve into larger problems – with potential damage to your property or risk of personal injury.
Whether it’s for your primary residence or a second home you plan to leave vacant until spring, here are tips for winterizing your house:
- Clean out gutters and clear the roof.
- Insulate the attic.
- Have your heating system serviced.
- Prepare your plumbing.
- Call a chimney sweep.
- Check for drafts.
- Have a friend on call.
Clean Out Gutters and Clear the Roof
Leaves, sticks and other bits of nature make their way onto your roof and into your gutters during the fall. But before the first heavy snowfall, be sure to clear debris from your roof and gutters to prevent a buildup of ice and snow that can get under shingles and cause leaks and water damage inside your house. “If they don’t have their roof cleared off, that’s typically where stoppage and backup issues happen,” says Mike Gulla, senior director of underwriting and customer support for Hippo Insurance, based in Palo Alto, California.
If the house is vacant: Clear as much debris as you can before you close up the house for the winter, but you may need to have a local friend or contractor finish the job when you’re away.
Insulate the Attic
Another way to reduce the chances that an ice dam will form is to insulate your attic floor. This helps keep the living areas of your house warmer, explains Anne Cope, chief engineer at the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety in Richburg, South Carolina.
Cope recommends going up to your attic before the winter weather sets in to examine attic vents, check for leaks and get a look at the insulation. “If your insulation looks terrible, now is a great time of year to get that taken care of,” she says.
If the house is vacant: Insulation will help you avoid hefty heating bills during the months that you’re not staying in the house. Good insulation that leads to lower heating and cooling bills can also be a plus when you sell the house.
Have Your Heating System Serviced
Have your heating and ventilation system checked for problems and cleaned before the weather gets too cold. If you wait until the first cold snap or snowstorm of the season, many service professionals will be overbooked.
Beyond keeping you warm, a functioning HVAC during the coldest days of the year is key to avoiding frozen pipes, which can burst inside your walls and cause significant damage.
If the house is vacant: It’s important to keep a vacant house at a temperature well above freezing; the standard is between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Having your HVAC system serviced before you leave for the season is also important so cold temperatures don’t cause a bigger issue like a burst pipe. “That’s typically the reason that someone has a frozen pipe – it’s not usually a faulty pipe but because the HVAC stops working. … If it’s 20 degrees outside and you have no heat in the house for a few days, you can expect the pipes to freeze,” Gulla says.
Prepare Your Plumbing
Ensure your plumbing is set up to withstand the cold, and consider utilizing sensors to let you know when there’s a problem.
In Northern states where freezing temperatures are expected for a portion of the year, housing codes require insulation and for pipes to be properly protected from the cold. Places that don’t see regular frost, however, won’t always have a basement for plumbing to stay warmer or effective insulation to keep heat from escaping. As a result, a day or week of freezing temperatures in parts of North Carolina, Georgia and even Texas can cause a lot of damage, Cope says.
If your plumbing runs through a crawl space, consider insulating the pipes or the crawl space itself. “It can be a do-it-yourself project, or it can be a hire-a-handyman project,” Cope says.
Gulla recommends getting both water-leak and pipe-temperature sensors. The former will let you know if pressure inside the pipe suddenly decreases, indicating a burst pipe, while the latter will notify you of dangerously cold pipes so you can prevent a burst pipe.
Additionally, automatic water shutoff valves are becoming more popular in homes. They stop the flow of water should a pipe freeze and burst to reduce the amount of damage to the home.
If the house is vacant: Gulla stresses the importance of having sensors and a remote water shutoff valve option to prevent damage in the house before you can get there.
Call a Chimney Sweep
Whether you have a wood-burning or gas fireplace, make an appointment for your chimney to be inspected annually to see if cleaning or repairs are necessary, according to the Chimney Safety Institute of America. In wood-burning fireplaces, a professional will clean out creosote buildup, which comes from burning wood and can cause a fire hazard inside the chimney if it’s not cleaned. In any fireplace, it’s important to clear animal nests that might be blocking the chimney and to check for issues in the masonry.
Gulla warns that a blocked chimney “can also cause carbon monoxide to back up into the house, which can obviously be life-threatening to anyone in the house.”
If the house is vacant: Be sure to close the chimney flue as well as any hearth doors. That way you’ll keep cold drafts from making your furnace work harder and prevent animals from entering through the chimney and getting into other parts of the house.
Check for Drafts
As the weather cools, walk around the house and check for drafts or air leakage, particularly around windows and doors. Use caulk to seal cracks and weatherstripping to help insulate around door and window frames.
If the house is vacant: Checking for drafts and leakage will help cut down on the work your furnace has to do by keeping cold air from coming in.
Have a Friend on Call
If you go away for vacation or on a business trip, it’s good to have a friend, relative or neighbor on call for your temporarily vacant house. Especially if a winter storm occurs while you’re gone, you want someone to make sure your power stays on and even shovel the sidewalk to prevent slipping hazards.
If the house is vacant: Your HVAC may be in perfect condition with everything insulated, but you still shouldn’t leave the house unchecked for the entire winter.
“I wouldn’t want someone to think that a property can sit vacant for months at a time without someone coming to check on it. You wouldn’t do that with your car,” Cope says.
If you have friends or relatives nearby who can check on the house every few weeks, ask them to do so. Otherwise, hiring a local handyman to regularly check-in can help ensure the heat continues to work, the power stays on and no critters manage to break their way into the living space. Even if you have security cameras and sensors, you need someone who can come by on short notice if an issue occurs.