Stay warm, protect your pets, and keep a few tips in mind if you have a disability or medical condition
Old Man Winter is unpredictable. Some years have days of mild weather with minimal snow and ice. In other years, winter wallops us with blizzards, power outages, and treacherous conditions.
No matter the forecast where you live, preparation is crucial for winter home safety. This guide covers carbon monoxide detectors, heating equipment, insulation, inspections, life-sustaining equipment, pets, and much more to help your family stay safe and warm all winter.
Follow these nine basic steps to stay safe at home this winter. Let’s break them down:
Check your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Test them to ensure they work. If your models use replaceable batteries, change the batteries now rather than wait for them to run low. Get new smoke detectors if they are more than 10 years old and replace carbon monoxide detectors that are more than five years old.Make an evacuation plan and ensure that everyone in the household knows to get outside and stay outside if a detector goes off. Conduct a drill with your family to practice your plan.
Get your chimney, fireplace, furnace, water heater, and roof inspected (and cleaned, if needed). Chimneys and fireplaces account for nearly three in every 10 fires caused by home heating equipment,1 and carbon monoxide poisoning can result from blocked flues and chimneys.
Practice safe heating and ventilation. Keep a three-foot zone clear around heating equipment, especially if children are in the home. Definitely don’t keep anything flammable or combustible within three feet of heating equipment. Turn your space heaters and other portable devices off when you leave a room or go to sleep.Avoid using your oven to heat the house. Gas ovens can result in carbon monoxide poisoning. Electric ovens are slightly safer, but they can still malfunction and cause a fire if they're left on for hours. Your electricity bill is liable to skyrocket, too. Ovens simply aren't meant to heat homes.
Here are some other safe heating tips:
Use only manufacturer-recommended fuels in fuel-burning space heaters.
Use durable fireplace screens to keep embers from shooting around the room. Check that ashes are cool before you dispose of them.
Blow out candles when you leave the room or go to sleep. Keep a 12-inch space clear around them, and use sturdy candle holders that won’t tip over. Keep flashlights, battery-powered candles, or other battery-powered devices on hand in case of power outages so you don’t have to rely on candles. Avoid candles altogether if someone in your home uses oxygen.
Clean your heating equipment. Dirty equipment causes about a quarter of home heating equipment fires.1
Insulate or winterize water hoses, sprinkler systems, pipes, and attics. Keep your house heat at 55 degrees Fahrenheit or higher to avoid burst pipes. Disconnect garden hoses, and drain sprinkler systems and outdoor faucets.
Choose ergonomic snow shovels that lessen the burden on your back and arms. You should be good to go if your shovel is lightweight, has comfortable handles, and lets you stand up straight. To reduce the strain on your body, shovel every few hours (ideally as snow falls) rather than doing all the snow at once.
Prep home, vehicle, and pet emergency kits in case of power outage, heat loss, or other crises. Include these supplies in your home kit: Two-way radio (hand cranked, battery-powered, or solar-powered), cellphone charger (solar-powered or hand-cranked), flashlights, lanterns, batteries, clothing, blankets, hand and foot warmers, and a minimum of three days’ water, medications, and nonperishable food.In your pet kit, include a few days’ worth of food and water and blankets to keep them warm. Make an evacuation plan for your pet well in advance: find out if you can bring your pet with you to a shelter, hotel, or relative’s home in case of evacuation. If not, who can temporarily take the pet in? Additional supplies to keep handy in case of an evacuation include ID tags, your contact information, pet carrier, leash, and proof of ownership (a picture of you with the pet, for example). Microchip your pet for extra security.
When packing vehicle emergency kits, think about supplies such as socks, hats, mittens, and blankets, snow brush, ice scraper, jumper cables, flashlight, and batteries (or choose a hand-crank flashlight). It’s also great to keep a Swiss Army knife, windshield cleaner, reflective warning triangles, first aid kit, nonperishable food, and bottled water in your car in the winter.
Know where to go and what to do in case an emergency occurs. For instance, find the cold weather shelters in your area and arrange for friends to watch your pets if necessary. Establish contact with various service companies ahead of time in case you eventually require someone to clear your snow, fix frozen pipes, or repair your roof.
Maintain backup items if you use medically necessary or life-sustaining equipment. Based on your conditions, could you need a power generator, prescription refills, or a manual wheelchair in case you cannot charge your electric wheelchair? Make arrangements for these items in advance of power outages and storms. If necessary, contact your power utility to get priority status as a customer who uses life-sustaining equipment.
Use outdoor lighting that works from afar. The days grow shorter in winter,but you don’t have to struggle or slip in the dark. Outdoor lighting options include smart bulbs, motion sensors, and photocells (photocells work based on changing light levels).
You can mix and match, perhaps using motion sensors for stairways, and both photocells and motion sensors for floodlights, security, and pathway lights. Smart bulbs allow you to turn lights on and off remotely whenever you want or according to a set schedule. They also come in handy to create the illusion you’re home when you are not.
If you don’t have the budget to change your lighting setup, simply ensure that your outdoor lights work and that the fixtures are secure each winter.
Heat, heat loss, and insulation
A warm home can help keep you safe and healthy over the winter. If your floors are bare, adding carpet or rugs can do wonders to keep the house toasty and improve heating efficiency. Blackout curtains also trap some heat inside, but keeping them open on sunny days can let heat in.
Change the direction on your ceiling fans, too. Look for a switch on the base of the fan to make your blades go clockwise (at a low speed). This recirculates warm air since heat rises.2
Fixing cracks and air leaks goes a long way, too. Check around doors and windows for loose seals. Install draft stoppers, caulk, foam, and weatherstripping on doors and windows you actually use. If there’s a window you don’t use, window insulator kits or bubble wrap could help seal out cold air.
Doors: Put in new weatherstripping since it degrades over time. Also, older doors and wood doors are not always the best for insulation. When possible, replace these doors with Energy Star-rated fiberglass or steel doors.3 Storm doors can help with heat loss at older main doors, too.
Pet/dog doors and mail slots: To keep out winds, you can install weatherstripping, double layer flaps, or electronic dog doors that are activated by a microchip on the pet's collar when it approaches. Magnets can also help the bottom of the flap stay put.
Attics: A well-insulated attic keeps your home warm. Work with a contractor to ensure your home is adequately insulated, or if you prefer a DIY method, check out Energy Star’s guide on sealing and insulating attics.
Chimneys and fireplaces: Heat easily escapes up a chimney if there’s nothing to block it. If you never use your fireplace, a contractor can permanently close your chimney. If you use your fireplace, try a closed damper, chimney balloon, or draught excluder to prevent excessive heat loss. Just don’t forget they’re there when you run a fire!
Keep a dust pan, whisk broom, glass cleaner spray, and discarded newspapers near the fireplace. When you empty the dustpan, do so into the fireplace rather than in the trash. Embers can remain potent and could set your trash on fire (or your vacuum, if you vacuum up embers).
Hoses and water faucets
Bare water pipes can freeze and burst over the winter. Luckily, it’s pretty easy to install insulation. Measure the diameter of your pipes, and get foam tubes from a store. Cut them to the length you need, and put the foam tubes over the pipes.
Insulate basements, garages, and crawl spaces to keep these spaces warmer and reduce the risk of pipes freezing. Check windows and doors in these areas for cracks or air leaks, and seal them.
Another thing you can do is leave bathroom and kitchen cabinet doors open to warm up pipes. (but safely secure chemicals and poisons in the cabinets if kids are around.) You can also run water at a trickle from a faucet connected to a bare pipe.
Roofs present several dangers in winter. Perhaps most obvious is the potential of fall/injury from a snowy or icy roof. Unless you’re well-versed in roofing, let contractors handle repair, snow removal, and other roof tasks. They can even remove icicles. If you do decide to handle icicle removal yourself, wear a hardhat and safety glasses. Caution children to avoid these frozen daggers.
Before winter arrives, contract with a business to clear your roof and gutters of debris such as pine needles and leaves. Build up of debris in the gutters can cause rot and clogs, resulting in dangerous accumulation of ice or snow.
Roofing companies can also inspect your roof for problems with shingles and see if any areas need sealing or repair. For instance, the seals around chimneys could be loose. Look around your property and roof for low-hanging tree branches. They can turn deadly in a storm and cut off power. Get them trimmed back to be safe.
After snow has fallen, a few telltale signals can indicate whether your roof is winterized. For instance, suppose icicles form even when snow is not melting. That indicates thin or insufficient insulation, or air leaks in the attic. A bare roof in between lines of snow also points to insulation issues.
Ice dams also point to roof issues and indicate potential growth of mold and mildew. These dams form at roof edges and block melting snow from leaving the roof. Water then backs up, and often, leaks into a home. The resulting moisture in insulation, ceilings, and walls increases the odds of respiratory illnesses in household residents.
If you notice part of your house is damp, move immediately to dry it out and remove snow from the roof. Talk with a weatherization contractor to address the issue of heat loss from your home.
Note: Your roof is at higher risk of ice dams if it features complicated designs, skylights, recessed lights, or attic heating ducts.4
Roof snow removal (good for ice and icicles too)
Roof heating cables are a good snow melting solution. Telescoping roof rakes are another way to remove snow.
Driveways and sidewalks
Before winter sets in, check that your snowblower or snowplow are in good shape. Get an ergonomic shovel if you do not already have one. Shovel as soon as possible after snow stops falling (or shovel occasionally as snow continues falling) since it’s easier to shovel light, fresh snow.
Push the snow rather than lift it, and take frequent breaks. When you shovel, push with your legs rather than straining your back. To protect against frostbite and cold, wear hats, gloves, coats, and other warm, water-resistant clothing when you are outside.
It’s also best to shovel your driveway and sidewalk before snow gets walked on and icy. If ice does become an issue, a thin layer of sandbox sand helps with traction. Note that sand offers traction only when it is on top of ice. It doesn’t work if it’s beneath.
However, don’t use fertilizer, salt, rock salt, and ice melt in place of sand as they are not great for the environment. These materials can be problematic for pets, too. If you must use ice melt on walkways, mix it with sand.
Snowblower safety issues: Operating a snowblower can strain your back and heart and exacerbate medical conditions, just like shoveling does. Have someone else clear your snow if you have certain medical issues and talk to your doctor before engaging in strenuous activities.
Snowblowers also cause more than 5,000 severe injuries per year to fingers, hands, feet, and other parts of the body.6 They can be dangerous even when turned off. People have had their fingers amputated after trying to remove snow clogs. Leftover energy in a snowblower impeller or engine can cause clogs to shoot out like missiles.
If you need to clear a clog, use a broom handle, small shovel, or stick to remove clogged snow, and keep your hands and feet away from moving parts of a snowblower. Newer snowblowers can be safer than older models, but the Consumer Product Safety Commission noted an increase in injuries from 2001 to 2016.7
Have children stay inside until you are finished with the snowblower, and avoid wearing scarves and loose pants and jackets. They can get caught up and tangled. If your snowblower is loud and gas-powered, wear hearing protection.
For areas that receive a lot of snow: Place reflective markers on your mailbox, trees, and other items in your yard to prevent snow plows from mistakenly running over them.
Air, germs, and illness
Viruses and bacteria tend to flourish in winter when everyone hunkers down together. If it’s a warm winter day (say, about 40 degrees Fahrenheit), it’s OK to open the windows occasionally to let fresh air in. In general, if you can keep the house at a lower temperature and remain comfortable, do so. Just five degrees makes a big difference in some situations.
Follow tried-and-true practices such as changing furnace filters, washing your hands frequently, and swapping out old toothbrushes to keep everyone in your household healthy during the winter.
Humidifiers possibly reduce the spread of flu and cold viruses in a household, but fungi and bacteria grow easily in them. Make sure they’re clean before operating them. However, the benefits of humidifiers are questionable. Some studies indicate they even boost the risks of eczema, asthma, and allergy. Even models that say they contain “antimicrobial material” or “germ-free mist” don’t always offer these benefits.8
Use a hygrometer to measure the humidity inside your home, especially if you’re dealing with frequent nosebleeds and dry skin. A good reading is 40 to 45 percent. If the reading is under 30 percent, try a humidifier if you want and see if it helps. Wash the humidifier frequently, and change the water every day. If you or someone in the house has asthma, consult a doctor before turning to humidifiers.
Now, if your issue is actually air that’s too damp or moist, explore a few avenues before hauling out the dehumidifier. (You likely have a problem with too much moisture if mildew grows on the walls or condensation forms often on windows.) Try letting your bathroom and kitchen fans run longer or upgrade them. If your fireplace is vent-free and uses propane or natural gas, don't run it as often.
Winter safety tips for people with disabilities or certain medical conditions
Winter can be extra challenging if you have a disability or medical condition. Here are some safety tips:
Life-sustaining equipment: In case of a power outage, contact your utility companies to let them know you use life-sustaining equipment. You’ll get early warning if outages are likely, and the utilities should keep you in the loop about restoration of power.9
If you receive dialysis or other critical treatment, learn about backup sites and emergency plans. Backup plans in general are incredibly important, whether they include staying at a different location with electricity, using a backup battery for your life-sustaining equipment, or running a portable power station or gas-powered generator. Talk with your doctor when making safety plans.
Backup equipment and batteries: Keep backup equipment handy if the power goes out or if your main devices break. For instance, you could get a manual wheelchair to back up your electric wheelchair. Keep an extra set or two of eyeglasses around, and stock up on hearing aid batteries.10Medications: Before a winter storm, get refills on prescription medications so you have plenty on hand if necessary.
Medical bracelets/medical alerts: Summon help quickly if you fall or otherwise need assistance. GPS systems offer extra protection if your property is large or you go outside often.
Exterior lighting: Consider motion detector exterior lights for added security and visibility.
Equipment accessibility: People who are deaf, hard of hearing, or are on certain medications that impact sleep can benefit from bed shakers and strobe lights associated with smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Smart home devices can also flash lights and send cellphone notifications in a variety of emergency situations.
Emergency assistance: Many city and county emergency management agencies have voluntary registries for folks who might need help in an emergency. See if your locality offers this service and get on their lists.
Caregivers: Include caregivers in your emergency preparations. For instance, make sure there is enough food for them in your emergency kit. Plan alternatives in case your regular meal deliveries or caregivers are unable to show up. Nonperishable food can get you through a bad situation in the winter, and neighbors or relatives may be able to serve as alternate caregivers. Make these arrangements before winter weather emergencies occur.
Service animal and pet safety: Dress service animals in coats if they accompany you outside; they are at risk of freezing, too. Put weather boots or paw wax on critters before you venture out. Even if your own driveway doesn’t have salt or harmful chemicals, your neighbors or city crews probably use them.11Emergency contacts: Ensure that your emergency contacts know how to operate any medical equipment you use. Try to have at least one or two places you can go if your home gets too cold or you lose power.12Heat: “The winter months can be particularly daunting for those who are receiving at-home care or struggling with a disability. You need to focus on keeping warm,” said Marie Burke, a home care expert at O’Flynn Medical. “Keep the main parts of the home heated to around 68-69 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Chat with your doctor to see if you have medical conditions or medications that make you particularly at risk of losing body heat.
Use electric blankets with caution if you have poor sensation in your feet and legs, as you may accidentally burn your skin.
Dress warmly in multiple layers, cover your feet with socks and slippers, and use blankets when sitting. Wear layers and a cap to bed. Extra blankets keep you warm when you sleep.
Stay inside on especially cold or windy days, if possible. Going outside can make you lose body heat quicker and it may be hard to regain it.
Avoid drinking alcohol since it can lead to body heat loss.
Accessible, easy-to-read thermometer
Temperature changes can be difficult to notice, particularly for seniors and people who are ill. Thermometers offer a clear-cut solution. They do need to be accessible in a safe, oft-trafficked location and have large screens with easy-to-read numbers.
Double check your home and car insurance to see what’s covered as far as water damage, compensation for a fallen tree branch, floods during spring thaws, and similar winter events. For just a few additional dollars a month, you may be able to get more extensive protection.
If you’re gone for a while
Winter is a popular time for holiday travel and vacations to warmer climes. If you’ll be gone for a while, your home should not look like it’s deserted. Try adding security systems and smart home devices such as light bulbs and cameras. Make advance arrangements for neighbors or service contractors to remove snow if it occurs while you’re away.
Winter home safety
For the most part, safety at home during the winter boils down to being proactive: for example, getting your chimney inspected and cleaned, replacing the batteries in the smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, insulating water lines, walls, and attics, weatherstripping doors and windows, and cutting away tree branches that could fall onto your roof.
If you have a disability or medical condition, a bit more preparation could make huge improvements to your safety. Either way, it’s smart to have backup plans and supplies in case the power or heat goes out.
That said, don’t stress if you find yourself unprepared in the thick of winter. Check your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors now, and tackle other measures as the weather allows. Contact your power utility if you use life-sustaining equipment, and consult your doctor for ideas regarding backup devices and emergency plans. Put together an emergency kit and have someplace to go if your home loses power or heat.
Rubinstein, Aaron J., et al. (2019, April). The Incidence of Snow Blower-Related Injuries to the Hand in the United States. PubMed.gov. Retrieved Jan. 10, 2022, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30855366/