Harsh winter weather—including below-freezing temps, high winds, and ice and snow storms—can cause thousands of dollars in damage to both the exterior and interior of your home.
Fortunately, you’re not entirely at the mercy of Mother Nature. This article addresses common winter disasters and how you can avoid them.
Active fire hazards abound in homes throughout the winter months—from holiday decorations and meal preparation to the use of space heaters and other heat sources.
Follow these tips to prevent a winter fire in your home:
- Test your smoke detectors, and know the location of the nearest fire extinguisher.
- Keep space heaters three feet away from the wall, and turn them off before sleeping.
- Extinguish candles before you sleep, and keep them away from shelves, lampshades and curtains. If a candle needs to remain lit overnight, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommends that it’s “enclosed in a glass container and placed in a sink, on a metal tray, or in a deep basin filled with water.”
- Stay in your kitchen while you’re frying, broiling, or grilling food. Avoid baking or cooking when you’re exhausted.
- Prepare one battery-operated light for each family member to use if the power goes out. Avoid using candles for light.
- Have a professional inspect your chimney each year for blockages.
- Water live Christmas trees so that they don’t dry out.
Frozen Water Pipes
When water pipes freeze, they can burst and cause major water damage to your home’s interior. You’ll know your pipes are frozen if you turn on a tap and nothing happens or if you see spurts of muddy water and hear gurgling noises.
When temperatures drop, take the following preventive measures:
- Keep your faucets dripping.
- Open cabinet doors to expose your pipes to the warmer air circulating throughout your home. (Even if you lose power, the air in your home is warmer than the air in your cabinets.)
- Insulate pipes with pipe covers (available at most home improvement stores).
- Know the location of your home’s main water valve and how to turn it off in an emergency.
If your pipes have frozen, the following steps can help prevent them from bursting:
- Turn on the water tap. Since your pipes are frozen, there won’t be any water. However, as soon as the pipes are thawed, even a trickle of water will speed up the thawing process.
- Keep your home at a minimum of 55 degrees (as long as you have power).
- Call a plumbing professional.
- Apply a heating pad or hair dryer to frozen pipes. Caution: Do this slowly. Sudden, direct exposure to heat can shatter a frozen pipe, especially if the piping is old. Do not hold a hairdryer directly against a frozen pipe.
If a pipe in your home has burst, turn off the main water valve to prevent further water damage.
Clogged Gutters and Icicles
In winter, water can freeze in your gutters, form heavy icicles, and weigh on both your shingles and your gutters. This is commonly known as an ice dam. When snow melts and refreezes, mold can grow under the roof. Heavy icicles can warp shingles and ruin gutters.
Here’s how you to prevent this type of damage:
- Keep gutters clean all year round. Remove leaves and critters from downspouts once before each season.
- Hire a roofing or rain gutter professional to recommend winter protection that’s right for your home and budget. Products like rubber shingles and leaf guards ensure that melting snow drains properly.
Dead or Heavy Tree Branches
Ice can weigh down tree branches until they snap. If a branch breaks over your home or over an unattached structure, it can cause expensive damage.
A homeowners insurance policy usually covers tree branch damage to your home, but an unattached structure like a shed falls under a different category of property. Check your policy or contact your insurance partner to make sure you have the right coverage for your needs.
You can prevent this type of damage by maintaining your trees and removing overhanging tree limbs.
Slippery Sidewalks, Steps and Pathways
If someone falls on your property, you might be liable for injuries or medical expenses. As a property owner, you can help prevent slip-and-fall accidents in winter. Here’s how:
- Shovel snow and address iced-over sidewalks as soon as possible. (If you live in New York City and don’t remove snow and ice from your property before the specified deadlines, you could face additional fines.)
- Use sand or cat litter to add traction, and guide visitors along safe paths. Make sure the safest way to move around your property is the most obvious way.
- Add signs to mark areas that refreeze quickly. Smooth stone steps or wooden decks will likely remain slippery throughout the season. Posting signs will warn visitors to be cautious as they make their way through the area.
- Consider adding non-slip coating or textures to slippery areas in the spring. You’ll reduce the number of slick surfaces around your property through multiple seasons.
If there’s a “hail and wind exclusion” clause in your homeowners insurance policy, damages caused by winter storm winds will not be covered. Check with your insurance professional to make sure your coverage meets your needs according to common winter weather conditions in your area.
In addition, minimize winter windstorm damage by taking the following steps:
- Move outdoor furniture, umbrellas, toys and gardening tools indoors before a storm.
- Every three months, check the exterior of your home for loose gutters and shutters.
- Keep your trees well-maintained.
Check Your Homeowners Insurance Policy
Make sure you understand what coverage is included in your policy. A knowledgeable insurance partner will not only help you choose the right insurance for your situation, but he or she can also provide risk management guidance to help avoid surprises in case of a claim.