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.
With the risk of damage to your property or personal injury, 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 or even evolve into larger problems.
Whether it’s for your primary residence or a second home you’re leaving vacant, here are tips for winterizing your house:
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. Before the first heavy snowfall, be sure to clear debris from your roof and gutters to prevent a buildup of ice and snow, also known as an ice dam, 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, director of underwriting 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 of an ice dam forming 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 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: Having your HVAC system serviced before you leave for the season is 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.
You may be tempted to turn off utilities like gas, power and water if you plan to be away for months at a time. However, a home left to the elements can sustain a lot of damage that you may not see right away. If any water is left in the plumbing, for example, it can easily freeze and cause problems when you return to the home and turn on the utilities.
Adjust Your Thermostat
The cost of your heating and cooling bills often plays a part in the temperature you stick with during summer and winter — in summer, you may be willing to keep your house at 72 degrees or higher, while in winter you may lower the target temperature to 68 degrees. However, make sure the interior of your home doesn’t get too cold as exterior temperatures drop — at the very minimum, the heat should kick on before it dips to 50 degrees Fahrenheit inside.
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.
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 during 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 out.
Keep Rodents Out
The National Pest Management Association reports that rodents get into an estimated 21 million U.S. homes each winter. Your work to seal holes and weatherstrip around doors and windows will also help eliminate points of entry for small animals or insects.
Move any upholstered furniture from your patio or garage into the house to keep them from becoming rodent nests. Firewood should be kept elevated and away from the exterior walls of your home.
If your house is vacant: Be sure you’ve removed all food from your pantry before vacating the place, so pests don’t have something to feed on if they do get inside. If you have a friend or hired help checking on the property while you’re gone, he or she should check for signs of pests inside your home during visits and contact an exterminator if any are found.
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, this person can 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, hire a local handyman to regularly check in and 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, line up someone who can come by on short notice.
Move Plants Elsewhere
If you have outdoor potted plants, fall is a good time to bring them inside if you want to keep them alive during the colder months.
If the house is vacant: Any houseplants you want to keep alive should come with you, unless you’re planning to have someone visit the house often enough to water them.
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Update 11/03/20: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.