Texas recently suffered a devastating weather event caused by single-digit temperatures. The state’s electrical supply was insufficient to meet the demand, and as a result homes were without power for an extended period. This power loss also led to widespread breakdowns in distribution of potable water.
You remember this. You remember when the temperature inside your home stayed below freezing for days. You remember how you were without electricity for heat or cooking, and without water for drinking, bathing or flushing toilets. Or, maybe your home stayed warm and functional throughout the experience, but your friends and relatives weren’t quite so lucky. You remember. It was dangerous, scary, and it felt endless.
Devastating weather events can happen almost anywhere at any time, but with preparation, you can dramatically improve your chances of staying safe—if not comfortable—in cold temperatures or otherwise. By making smart home improvements and stocking up on supplies, you can ride out the next winter storm more comfortably. See below.
Access to Water
Maintaining access to water for drinking, cooking and flushing the toilet is critical. There are many things you can do to ensure access to water when the time comes.
Insulate Your Pipes
Insulate your pipes to prevent them from freezing when the temperature drops. Pipe insulation is an easy home improvement project that any homeowner can take on themselves, although to fully insulate your pipes you may need help from a pro. Not all pipes are easy to access – many are hidden behind walls. Use pipe insulation to make the job easy: simply cut it down to the right size, remove the adhesive strip inside the pipe, and then attach it to the pipe.
As you’re doing this, keep in mind: the most important pipes to insulate in your home are the ones located on the outer walls, as they are more likely to freeze than pipes deep within the home.
Keep bottled water in your house, at least one gallon of water per person per day. Stock up on at least three days worth of water. In the event that a winter storm is approaching, fill your bathtub with water. You can use this water to flush your toilet in the event that your pipes freeze.
Keep Your Pump House Warm
If you’re a homeowner with your own water well, keep your pump house warm enough to prevent the pipes from freezing. Insulate the pipes and use heat tape, a heater or even a 100 watt incandescent bulb placed strategically in the pump house. If the power goes out, you may need to have your pump house attached to a generator, which we’ll discuss below.
Electricity for Critical Appliances
Electricity is critical for ensuring that your refrigerator, freezer, water well pressure pump and electronic devices stay powered and functional. You may prevent a power outage by keeping trees near your home trimmed away from the power lines. This will keep them from falling on your power lines in the event of a storm. However, there’s only so much you can do personally to prevent power outages. The next one that happens at your house will likely be out of your control.
Get a Generator
A functional generator is more than a friend if the power goes out. In some cases having generator power available can not only help keep you safe and save a lot of money (think of what it would cost to replace all the items in your freezer), it can in some circumstances save lives. There are a couple different routes you can go when deciding which type of generator to purchase:
Portable gasoline, propane, or so-called “dual-fuel” generators can supply enough electricity for critical needs, but generally not enough to keep the entire house running.
Whole-house generators are a relatively expensive solution, but feasible for some. These generators keep more than just the most essential services functioning: they keep your house functional overall.
Not all portable generators are the same, and you’ll want to be aware of an important distinction when making a purchase. Some electronics require a “clean” source of electricity, which refers to—without trying to get too technical—the amount of harmonic distortion in the current. Most portables, and particularly the more powerful ones, will produce too much distortion, and you’ll likely be unsuccessful in powering the electronics in, for example, a modern gas furnace. Many homeowners have also found that their microwave oven won’t function on a generator of this sort. In some cases, “dirty power” will even cause damage to an appliance and result in an expensive repair or replacement. This is where inverter generators come in, and there are more options for homeowners on the market now than ever. Inverter generators produce extremely low levels of harmonic distortion and are effective for use with sensitive electronics. The downside is that they are generally more expensive, and most options provide less power than their traditional counterparts.
Installation of a whole-house backup generator may require a permit, believe it or not, as might even a portable generator if it runs off of a fuel source that requires plumbing—i.e., natural gas or propane. In either case work with a contractor to install a generator well before the next storm or winter season. It will likely be too late to acquire a generator once the power is out.
A Means for Cooking
More homeowners than ever have electric ranges that do not function when the power goes out. A natural gas or propane range may continue to function without power, although modern propane or gas ranges have electric ignition for the stove burners as well as an electric thermostat control for the oven. Without power you’ll likely need matches to use the stove, and the oven will be useless.
Take these tips into consideration regardless or what type of range you have. In times of crisis, redundancy is almost always a good thing.
- Keep plenty of charcoal on hand for the grill. Only use the grill outdoors, do not use your grill inside.
- Consider installing a gas-burning stove the next time you remodel your kitchen, if you currently have an electric stove.
- Keep a propane-powered camping stove on hand for use outdoors only.
- Store firewood outside for campfire-style cooking in a fire pit outdoors. Do not use chemical logs for cooking food.
Maintaining climate control in your house is one way that you can avoid some of the worst effects of power outages. Climate control is important under all conditions, although it’s absolutely critical in the winter when dangerously low temperatures can lead to conditions like hypothermia and frozen, bursting pipes.
If you’re going to be remodeling your home (or building a new construction home) any time in the near future, consider adding natural gas-burning heat to your house or new addition. Natural gas-burning furnaces do require electricity to run, but far less than electric furnaces. This means your furnace will be easier to run off a generator, and will leave more electricity for other appliances.
If you’re not in a position to remodel your home any time in the near future, the following home maintenance tasks can help you avoid a bad situation at the coldest times of year.
Get An Annual HVAC Tune Up
Check your furnace prior to each winter season. Schedule regular HVAC tune ups, especially if your furnace is older. Servicing your furnace on a regular basis can help you avoid a breakdown when the temperatures drop. While you’re at it, have your air ducts inspected for leaks and repaired if necessary. Leaky ducts contribute to HVAC inefficiency and make it harder to keep your home climate controlled, forcing your HVAC system to work harder than necessary to do its job. Keeping your ducts in good shape just helps ensure your home will be comfortable all year round.
Inspect and Maintain Your Fireplace or Stove
If you have a gas or wood-burning fireplace, or a gas or wood-burning stove, have your unit cleaned and serviced before winter begins. Even if you didn’t use your chimney last year, get it cleaned by a pro anyway. You never know when you’ll need to use your fireplace, and problems could have occurred with your chimney that you’re not even aware of. A bird may have built their nest on your chimney, or cracks in the liner may have developed over time. Know that your chimney is in good condition, so you can use it at any time if needed.
If possible, upgrade your home’s insulation. One of the easiest ways to do this is to add insulation to your home’s attic, because you can do it without opening up the walls in your home. Although it’s easy to roll out or blow more insulation into your attic, hire a professional to get this done. If the insulation is installed incorrectly it may block airflow or a vent in the attic, causing moisture and mold problems.
Keep Firewood On Hand, Just In Case
A lot of people have wood-burning fireplaces they never use. Often, these homeowners never keep firewood on hand. In the event that your furnace goes out or your power is disrupted, a wood burning fireplace could keep your home comfortable until the problem is resolved. In the event of a massive winter storm, you may not be able to buy firewood very easily. Keep extra firewood on your property for emergencies.
Consider Purchase of a Propane Heater
Indoor-grade propane heaters can be used to keep your home warm in the event of a power outage. Never use an outdoor-only propane heater inside your home. Propane heaters designed for indoor use come with safeguards that could prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, while outdoor heaters have no such safeguards. Indoor propane heaters are available for purchase at home improvement stores and hardware stores. Store heaters in a well ventilated area away from flammable objects.
- Read the owner’s manual, paying close attention to the safety instructions, before using the device.
- Know the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning before using your indoor propane heater.
- Never leave your propane heater running in an empty house.
- Propane heaters are for temporary use and emergency use only. Do not use this as the sole source of heat in your home.
You can be prepared for the next very bad storm, power outage or emergency.
- Keep fresh batteries and flashlights on hand at all times. Have enough flashlights for everyone in your house.
- Keep matches in your house.
- Keep a supply of non-perishable foods (like canned goods) on hand at all times.
- Buy an emergency weather radio with a crank for manual battery charging.
You may already have a to-do list of home improvements to update your home. Consider future electrical grid outages when adding, updating, or reinstalling systems while designing your home addition. For example, if you’re building a new home, consider a fireplace installation – even if you don’t plan to use your fireplace in the day-to-day operation of your house. Alternatively, consider installation of a whole-house generator to keep your house comfortable and functional during the next bad storm.
Finally, remember that bad storms can bring down lines of communication. Be prepared to take care of yourself without the ability to communicate with others. Don’t assume that you’ll be able to reach family members or neighbors by phone or email if something goes wrong. Be ready to take care of yourself!
Are You Ready? Now Is the Time
Just because they call it the “storm of the century” doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen again for another 100 years! Bad storms happen all the time. Power outages are a common occurrence in winter. Ice storms bring down power lines, leaving homes dark and cold. You can be ready – but now is the time to perform upgrades and buy products that can help you survive.