1. Protect your pipes. Frozen pipes are among the most common causes of cold-weather damage. Start by wrapping basement and crawl-space pipes with insulation. During protracted cold snaps, open cabinets to allow warm air to flow around the pipes, and let water drip slowly from the faucets to prevent pressure from building up.
2. Reduce your polar ice cap. Roof ice dams caused by melting and refreezing can cause water damage to walls and ceilings. To minimize the danger, keep your attic no more than 5 to 10 degrees warmer than the outside temperature. Use a roof rake ($40 to $60 at Home Depot) to remove packed snow from your roof (don’t try to shovel your roof yourself). For more tips on how to protect your home, go to the Web sites of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes and the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety.
3. Prepare an emergency kit (or two). Keep one in your house and one in your car, suggests Tod Pritchard, of Wisconsin Emergency Management. Include shovels and road salt (or cat litter); first-aid items; food, water and medications; a cell-phone charger that plugs into your car; a battery-powered radio and a flashlight (with extra batteries); a sleeping bag; insurance and emergency information; and some cash. You can get pre-made kits at the Red Cross Store. Also, keep your gas tank at least half-full all winter.
4. Install a home generator. Many insurers offer discounts for automatic backup generators (usually powered by natural gas or propane). A 7-kilowatt standby generator costs about $2,000 (not including installation) and can power a sump pump, a fridge, a heating system, a few lights and some electronics. Many manufacturers have online tools to help you decide how much power you need. A portable generator costs less than $800 for 7 kilowatts, but it probably won’t qualify for an insurance discount.
5. Get your insurer to pitch in. After all, the insurer saves money when you protect your home. Adding stormproof shutters may reduce your premiums by up to 35%. Snowbirds and frequent travelers, take note: You could get a break for installing a device that automatically shuts off your home’s water supply if it detects unusually high water flow—say, from a burst pipe ($499 at Home Depot).
6. Make sure you’re really covered. Homeowners insurance doesn’t cover water that seeps into your home from melting snow. For that you’ll need flood coverage; get price quotes at www.floodsmart.gov. Snow melt can also overburden the stormwater system; it usually costs just $50 per year to add a $10,000 to $20,000 sewage-backup rider to your home policy that pays if your sump pump stops working or your sewer line backs up. A battery-powered backup sump pump can help, too ($140 to $280 at Home Depot).
7. Stay warm safely. One of the biggest dangers from furnaces and other sources of heat is carbon monoxide poisoning caused by improper ventilation. Install a carbon monoxide detector on each floor of your home. Also, buy a sturdy screen to keep sparks in the fireplace, and dispose of ashes in a metal container.
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