Did you know that in 2013, winter storms were the third-largest cause of catastrophe losses, causing $1.9 billion in insured losses? According to reports from Munich Re, from 1993 to 2012, winter storms resulted in about $28 billion (in 2012 dollars) in insured catastrophe losses, or more than $1 billion a year on average, according to Property Claim Services.
Insured winter storm losses in January 2014 totaled $1.5 billion, and continued severe weather means this coming winter could be even worse.
It may be hard to think about winter-proofing when the weather is still mild in many places, but the reality is that now is the best time to winter-proof your home. The Insurance Information Institute and the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety offer these tips to prevent damage from winter storms:
Outside your home
1. Clean out gutters. Remove leaves, sticks, and other debris from gutters so melting snow and ice can flow freely. This can prevent ice damming, a condition where water is unable to drain through the gutters and can seep into the house, causing water to drip from the ceiling and walls.
2. Install gutter guards. Available in most hardware and home improvement stores, gutter guards prevent debris from entering the gutter and interfering with the flow of water away from the house and into the ground.
3. Trim trees and remove dead branches. Ice, snow, and wind could cause weak trees or branches to break and damage your home or car or injure someone walking by your property.
4. Repair steps and handrails. Broken stairs and banisters can be extremely hazardous when covered with snow and ice. Fixing them may prevent serious injury.
5. Seal cracks in holes in outside walls and foundations. Use caulking to protect water pipes, and make sure that skylights and other roof openings have proper weather stripping to prevent melting snow from seeping in.
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Inside your home
6. Keep the house warm. Set the thermostat for at least 65 degrees because the temperature inside the walls, where the pipes are located, is substantially colder than the interior of your home. Setting the thermostat to a lower temperature will not keep the pipes from freezing.
7. Add extra insulation to attics, basements, and crawl spaces. If too much heat escapes through the attic, it can cause snow or ice to melt on the roof. Water can then re-freeze, causing more snow and ice to build up, which could result in a collapsed roof and can contribute to ice damming. In addition, well-insulated basements and crawl spaces can help protect pipes from freezing.
TIP: Consider insulating unfinished rooms to keep pipes from freezing.
8. Have the heating system serviced. Furnaces, boilers, and chimneys should be serviced annually to prevent fire and smoke damage.
9. Check pipes. Inspect exposed pipes for cracks and leaks, and have the pipes repaired immediately. Consider wrapping exposed pipes with heating tape. Drain and protect outdoor hose bibs (the pipe you hook your hose to) with insulation. If you suspect a leak—your water bill is higher but you aren’t using more water, for example—but can’t see one, call a plumber.
10. Install an emergency pressure release valve in your plumbing system. This can help protect the system against increased pressure caused by freezing pipes and can help prevent your pipes from bursting.
TIP: Learn how to shut the water off and know where your pipes are located. If your pipes freeze, time is critical. The quicker you can shut off the water or direct your plumber to the problem, the better chance you have to prevent pipes from bursting.
Review your insurance coverage
An important part of planning for winter is to review your insurance coverage. Make sure that you have enough insurance to rebuild your home and replace everything in it if necessary. Standard homeowner’s insurance policies usually cover winter-related events such as burst pipes, ice dams, and wind damage caused by weight of ice or snow, as well as fire-related losses. Coverage for flooding is available from the National Flood Insurance Program and from some private insurance companies.
Protect your home while you are away
If you are going to be away for an extended period turn the water off or have the water system drained by a professional to keep pipes from freezing or bursting. Have someone check your home on a regular basis so that if there is a problem it can be fixed quickly.
Loretta Worters is vice president with the Insurance Information Institute, a non-profit organization whose mission is to improve public understanding of insurance—what it is and how it works. Follow her on Twitter: @LWorters.