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Last-Minute Moves to Protect Your Home from Winter Storms

Here’s how to prevent damage to your roof and pipes, and keep you and your family safe, too.

It looks like a big storm is headed my way this weekend. Is there anything I can still do now to protect my home?

It’s not too late to take some precautions that can help protect your home and avoid potentially expensive damage. Taking the following steps even a day or two before a winter storm hits can make a big difference.

Keep your pipes warm. Some of the most expensive winter damage comes from burst pipes. Even if the rest of your house is warm, the water in the pipes in your attic, basement, crawl space and in the back of cabinets can freeze. Wrap the pipes in the cold parts of your house in insulation, and open kitchen and bathroom cabinets to allow warm air to circulate around the pipes. Also, let water drip slowly from the faucets to help keep the water flowing.

Avoid ice-dam damage. Another cause of winter damage is from ice dams. This happens when the heat inside your house causes water to melt in the middle of your roof and it then refreezes near the edges, creating a dam that can lead to leaks in your roof and damage to your ceilings and walls. If you have icicles hanging from your roof, that may be a sign that ice dams are forming. To help protect against this problem, keep your attic cold -- no more than 5 to 10 degrees warmer than the outside temperature -- by sealing holes from light fixtures and ceiling fans to prevent warm air from escaping into your attic, says Remington Brown, senior engineering manager for the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety. See Preventing Ice Dams on Homes for more information.

Protect the outside of your house. If you have time, clean your gutters so water doesn’t back up and freeze. Check downspouts and make sure water will be diverted away from your house. Trim any low-hanging tree branches that can freeze, become brittle, snap and damage your house or power lines. Use weatherstripping or caulk to seal drafty windows and doors. Disconnect garden hoses. See 15 Ways to Prepare Your Home for Winter for more ideas.

Check your roof. If a lot of snow accumulates, your roof could collapse -- especially flat roofs or the roof over porches and additions. You shouldn’t have a problem with average accumulations or very dry snow. But if heavy snow starts to build up, consider getting a roof rake with a long handle so you can remove packed snow while you are on the ground. Going on the roof to shovel it yourself could damage the roof (and possibly you, too).

Don’t hire strangers going door-to-door offering to shovel roofs. Consider lining up a contractor before a big snowstorm. (Your neighbors may have recommendations.) For more information, see DisasterSafety.org’s Prevent Roof Collapse on Homes fact sheet.

Keep two emergency kits. Keep one kit in your home and one in your car. In case the power goes out, stock flashlights, extra batteries, a battery-powered radio and, if you still have a landline, a phone that plugs into your wall and doesn’t need electricity to run. (If you don’t have a landline, a car charger in your vehicle can power your cell phone and other electronics.) Keep some extra cash on hand, too, in case you have trouble getting to an ATM. The Red Cross also recommends stocking a three-day supply of food and water for everyone in your house, a first-aid kit and a seven-day supply of medications. And don’t forget to have extra food for your pets, too.

In case you get stuck or stalled in the cold for a long time in your car, keep a shovel, windshield scraper and small broom, some energy bars and water, extra hats, socks and mittens, booster cables, and emergency flares and reflectors, recommends Tod Pritchard, emergency preparedness coordinator for Wisconsin Emergency Management. Also keep some road salt (or cat litter), a first-aid kit, a car charger for your phone and electronics, a battery-powered radio and flashlight (with extra batteries), and a sleeping bag or blanket. Also keep your gas tank at least half full during the winter. See the Red Cross Store for pre-made emergency kits, and 7 Must-Haves for your Emergency Kit.

Buy a carbon-monoxide detector. One of the biggest winter dangers is carbon-monoxide poisoning, caused by improper ventilation of furnaces, generators, charcoal-burning or propane-burning devices, or wood-burning stoves. Pritchard recommends keeping a carbon-monoxide detector on all floors of your home.

Consider a generator. You may not have time to buy a generator before this weekend’s storm, but it’s something to keep in mind as you make longer-term preparations for the rest of the winter. A generator can help keep your heat and power -- as well as your sump pump, and your fire and burglar alarms -- running. It can help prevent frozen pipes and keep you a lot more comfortable, too. An automatic standby generator, which immediately turns on after a power outage, may qualify you for a discount on your homeowners insurance, too. See Costs, Benefits of a Generator for more information.

For more advice about protecting your home from storms, see DisasterSafety.org, especially the map where you can see the main disaster risks you face by zip code. Also see the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes site and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s winter storms page.

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