From sub-freezing temperatures to coatings of ice and layers of snow, winter weather poses a serious challenge to homeowners. For example, some estimates put the potential cost of a burst frozen pipe at as much as $18,000, and clearing away the debris from a collapsed tree can set a homeowner back as much as $10,000 in some areas of the United States.

Winter weather poses a risk to more than just property. According to the Centers for Disease Control, cold weather events made up nearly two-thirds of weather-related fatalities from 2006-2010, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) adds that fully 20% of exposure-related injuries occur in the home.

What should you do if you are facing a rough winter season?  The best way to cope is to take a proactive approach to winter preparation.

Winter Weather: Proactive Home Preparation Tips

Long before the winter weather hits, you should evaluate your home and weather preparedness.

Home Heating Systems

While most winter home fires occur as the result of cooking, heating systems play a significant role in fire safety. If you rely on a wood stove or fireplace for home heat, it is critically important to have your chimney inspected yearly. Between 2011 and 2013, an average of 44,100 residential fires occurred due to the failure of home heating systems. with home fires due to fireplaces, chimneys, and chimney connectors responsible for more than half of the total. A yearly inspection can uncover problems with the flue, structural issues, or soot buildup.

In addition, whether you use your fireplace as the main source of heat or only use it occasionally to warm a chilly night, keep these safety procedures in mind:

  • Check to ensure the damper or flue is open prior to lighting a fire.
  • Never use an accelerant (gasoline or lighter fluid, for example) to start a fire.
  • Use properly aged wood, as green wood causes more smoke and contributes to soot in the chimney.
  • Clean out ash from previous fires prior to lighting a new fire.
  • Use a metal bucket to carry ashes.  Never clean hot ash from the fireplace.
  • Make sure that your mantle and hearth are free of flammable materials.
  • Use safety screens to keep children and pets away from the fire and to prevent sparks and cinders from reaching flammable materials in the room.
  • Keep a fire extinguisher on hand and ensure that your household smoke and CO detectors are in working order.

If you use a gas or electric furnace or heat pump, a yearly inspection is still necessary to provide peace of mind. In addition to keeping your system running at top efficiency, a yearly inspection can uncover problems with the equipment that could leave you out in the cold during the winter or cause a buildup of carbon monoxide in your home.

Portable heaters are another popular way to ward off winter’s chill, but unfortunately these devices are also responsible for an average 1,300 home fires each year. If you choose to use a portable heater, always choose an electric device with an automatic shut off. Never use a portable kerosene or fuel burning heater indoors: they emit high levels of carbon monoxide and can quickly cause death in closed spaces. And never use a heater to heat a space that will be unattended for a long period of time.

Winterizing Your Home

To prevent damage to your home and keep you and your loved ones safe from injury, take time every year to make sure your home is ready for winter temperatures. Before cold weather comes, complete these home maintenance tasks:

  • Trim trees and remove dead branches which could fall and cause injury or property damage during an ice storm.
  • Remove leaves and debris from your gutters so that melting snow can flow freely.
  • Check your attic insulation, and, if necessary, add additional insulation. Inadequate insulation allows the home’s heat to warm the attic, and this effect can create dangerous ice dams on the roof as melting snow freezes in your gutters.
  • Remove screens and install storm windows to provide an additional layer of insulation and prevent heat loss.
  • Ensure that your home’s outdoor handrails are in proper working order to provide stability when stairs are slick.
  • Turn off outside water at the source to prevent frozen and broken pipes.

Make sure you have the proper equipment to handle any winter weather. Snow shovels, ice scrapers, and ice melt can be in short supply once a winter storm is imminent. Stock up in the fall to ensure you have supplies on hand when the time comes, and make sure that these necessary items are easily accessible from your house.

Winter Weather Emergencies: Enact a Safety Plan

When winter weather is at its worst, Ready.gov suggests that you enact a safety plan—ideally one drafted before any weather emergency actually strikes. In case of a winter storm, you should

  • Communicate with family members about your emergency and travel plans.
  • Have at least three days of food and water on hand.
  • Bring pets inside and have a plan to care for outdoor animals and livestock.
  • Prepare for a possible power outage by having fresh water on hand, placing a gallon of water in the freezer to keep frozen food cold, and knowing how to manually open your garage door.
  • Stay indoors during the storm and only drive if absolutely necessary.
  • If you have to shovel snow, avoid overexertion, as this can lead to sudden cardiac events and/or overexposure from the cold. Hire a snow removal service if necessary.
  • Avoid frostbite and hypothermia by wearing several layers of warm, dry clothing and covering extremities with hats, scarves, and mittens.

Lastly, know when you need help. In the event of power loss, you may need to stay with a family member or friend until your home’s power is restored. Public shelters are also available in many communities – simply text SHELTER and your ZIP CODE to 43362 (4FEMA). FEMA will direct you to a shelter where you and your family can seek safe accommodations.

Preparing in advance for winter weather can make your home a cozy refuge; failing to prepare can make it a disaster area. Follow these steps, and you’ll sleep more soundly, secure in the knowledge that you’re ready for anything Mother Nature throws at you.