Winter safety tips to help you outsmart Jack Frost

By Eric Alves, Regional Communications Specialist, American Red Cross of Northeast Ohio. Edited by Glenda Bogar, American Red Cross volunteeer.

With the first day of winter only one day away, like it or not, Jack Frost is getting ready to spend a few months in Northeast Ohio.

Red Cross pet photo 2018While winter weather in Northeast Ohio can be unpredictable, the one thing you can expect is that it will bring headaches. Blizzards, freezing cold, Nor’easters and ice storms can all have significant impacts on travel, schools, businesses and health. They can even impact our homes.

Pretending winter is not coming is not going to make the calendar fast forward to July. Do not let winter catch you off guard. Here are some winter tips to help you stay safe and be prepared for Jack Frost.

Be Informed

It is important to know the difference between advisories, watches and warnings to understand what they mean when one is issued in your area by the National Weather Service:

  • Advisory: Winter weather conditions are expected to cause significant inconvenience and may be hazardous. When caution is used, these situations should not be life threatening.
  • Watch: Winter storm conditions are possible within the next 36 to 48 hours. People in a watch area should review their winter storm plans and stay informed about weather conditions.
  • Warning: Life-threatening, severe winter conditions have begun or will begin within 24 hours. People in a warning area should take precautions immediately.

outside-winter-safety-tips-twPrepare your home

  • Protect your pipes from freezing. To learn how to protect your pipes, click here.
  • Make sure your home heating sources are installed according to local codes and permit requirements and are clean and in working order.
  • Install storm windows and cover windows with plastic from the inside to provide an extra layer of insulation to keep cold air out.
  • Caulk and weather-strip doors and windowsills to add additional protection from the cold winter air.
  • If you have a fireplace, keep a supply of firewood on hand. Be sure the fireplace is properly vented and in good working order.

Get your vehicle winter ready

  • Have a mechanic thoroughly look over your vehicle by checking your battery, antifreeze, wipers and windshield washer fluid, ignition system, thermostat, lights, exhaust system, heater, brakes, defroster and oil.
  • Install good winter tires.
  • Items to keep in your vehicle all winter include a windshield scraper and a small broom, a small sack of sand for generating traction under wheels, matches in a waterproof container, a bright colored (preferably red) cloth to tie to the antenna and an emergency supply kit, which includes warm clothing.

Winter driving

While the Red Cross encourages you to stay off the road if possible, if you must drive during inclement weather, follow these tips on how to drive safely during a winter storm and what to do if you become stuck in your vehicle:

  • Fill the vehicle’s gas tank and clean the lights and windows to help you see.
  • Pay attention to the weather forecast. Before you leave, let someone know where you are going, the route you plan to take and when you expect to get there. If your car gets stuck, help can be sent along your predetermined route.
  • Make sure everyone has their seat belts on and give your full attention to the road. Avoid distractions such as cell phones.
  • Don’t follow other vehicles too closely. Sudden stops are difficult on snowy roadways.
  • Don’t use cruise control when driving in winter weather.
  • Don’t pass snow plows.
  • Know that ramps, bridges and overpasses will freeze before roadways.

If you happen to become stuck:

  • Stay with the car. DO NOT try to walk to safety.
  • Tie a brightly colored cloth to the antenna for rescuers to see.
  • Don’t run your engine and heater constantly to help avoid running out of gas. Don’t use things like lights or the radio without the engine running to avoid draining the battery.
  • If you can, move your vehicle off the roadway. Stay with it –- don’t abandon it. If you have to get out of your vehicle, use the side away from traffic.
  • Start the car and use the heater for about 10 minutes every hour. Keep the exhaust pipe clear so fumes won’t back up in the car.
  • Leave the overhead light on when the engine is running to help rescuers see the vehicle.
  • Keep one window slightly open –- away from the blowing wind –- to let in air.

American Red Cross National Headquarters Building 2001Be sure to download and use the American Red Cross Emergency App for instant access to weather alerts and to let others know you are safe if severe weather occurs. You can find this and all of the Red Cross apps in smartphone app stores by searching for the American Red Cross or by visiting redcross.org/apps.

Frozen, But Not in a Disney Princess Sort-of Way…

True story: One frozen January day in 2013, I went to check on my parents’ home while they were out of town. As I entered the house, it was immediately clear that something was very wrong. I could still see the steam from my own breath even as I walked in to the living room. And there was a rushing sound coming from the back of the house, like I was standing at the observation deck overlooking Niagara Falls.
In their absence, my parents’ furnace had gone out and one of the pipes in the upstairs shower had burst in the frigid temperatures. Water was cascading through the ceiling of the kitchen, pouring out of the cabinets, raining through the overhead light fixture. The carpet in the dining room, just through the arched doorway, was soaked 4-feet out from the pool of water standing on the linoleum.
Everything had to be replaced.
Being prepared and informed may help you and your family avoid the messy and often expensive issue of frozen pipes. With today’s below freezing temperatures already causing concern, here is some information and suggestions around how to thaw  water pipes in the home if they do freeze and what you can do to prevent the problem.
frozen-pipe-ice.jpg
Why Pipe Freezing is a Problem:
Water has a unique property in that it expands as it freezes. This expansion puts tremendous pressure on whatever is containing it, including metal or plastic pipes. No matter the “strength” of a container, expanding water can cause pipes to break. Pipes that freeze most frequently are those that are exposed to severe cold, like outdoor hose bibs, swimming pool supply lines, water sprinkler lines, and water supply pipes in unheated interior areas like basements and crawl spaces, attics, garages, kitchen cabinets – or bathrooms when the furnace has been not working for who-knows-how-long. Pipes that run against exterior walls (like my parents’) that have little or no insulation are also subject to freezing.
Here’s what you can do right now:
  • Keep garage doors closed if there are water supply lines in the garage.
  • Open kitchen and bathroom cabinet doors to allow warmer air to circulate around the plumbing. Be sure to move any harmful cleaners and household chemicals up out of the reach of children.
  • When the weather is very cold outside, let the cold water drip from the faucet served by exposed pipes. Running water through the pipe – even at a trickle – helps prevent pipes from freezing.
  • Keep the thermostat set to the same temperature both during the day and at night. By temporarily suspending the use of lower nighttime temperatures, you may incur a higher heating bill, but you can prevent a much more costly repair job if pipes freeze and burst.
  • If you will be going away during cold weather, leave the heat on in your home, set to a temperature no lower than 55° F.
To Thaw Frozen Pipes
  • If you turn on a faucet and only a trickle comes out, suspect a frozen pipe. Likely places for frozen pipes include against exterior walls or where your water service enters your home through the foundation.
  • Keep the faucet open. As you treat the frozen pipe and the frozen area begins to melt, water will begin to flow through the frozen area. Running water through the pipe will help melt ice in the pipe.
  • Apply heat to the section of pipe using an electric heating pad wrapped around the pipe, an electric hair dryer, a portable space heater (kept away from flammable materials), or by wrapping pipes with towels soaked in hot water. Do not use a blowtorch, kerosene or propane heater, charcoal stove, or other open flame device.
  • Apply heat until full water pressure is restored. If you are unable to locate the frozen area, if the frozen area is not accessible, or if you can not thaw the pipe, call a licensed plumber.
  • Check all other faucets in your home to find out if you have additional frozen pipes. If one pipe freezes, others may freeze, too.
Preventing Frozen Pipes today or tomorrow (or anytime this season):

Before the onset of cold weather, prevent freezing of these water supply lines and pipes by following these recommendations:

  • Drain water from swimming pool and water sprinkler supply lines following manufacturer’s or installer’s directions. Do not put antifreeze in these lines unless directed. Antifreeze is environmentally harmful, and is dangerous to humans, pets, wildlife, and landscaping.
  • Remove, drain, and store hoses used outdoors. Close inside valves supplying outdoor hose bibs. Open the outside hose bibs to allow water to drain. Keep the outside valve open so that any water remaining in the pipe can expand without causing the pipe to break.
  • Check around the home for other areas where water supply lines are located in unheated areas. Look in the basement, crawl space, attic, garage, and under kitchen and bathroom cabinets. Both hot and cold water pipes in these areas should be insulated.
  • Consider installing specific products made to insulate water pipes like a “pipe sleeve” or installing UL-listed “heat tape,” “heat cable,” or similar materials on exposed water pipes. Newspaper can provide some degree of insulation and protection to exposed pipes – even ¼” of newspaper can provide significant protection in areas that usually do not have frequent or prolonged temperatures below freezing.
Future Protection:
  • Consider relocating exposed pipes to provide increased protection from freezing.
  • Pipes can be relocated by a professional if the home is remodeled.
  • Add insulation to attics, basements and crawl spaces. Insulation will maintain higher temperatures in these areas.
  • For more information, please contact a licensed plumber or building professional.

Winter Driving Safety Tips from the Red Cross

While the Red Cross encourages you to stay off the road if possible, if you have to drive in snow or freezing rain, follow these tips about how to drive safely during a winter storm or what to do if you become stuck in your vehicle:

  • Make sure your vehicle is ready for winter with a window scraper, kitty litter or sand in case you get stuck, extra clothes and a Disaster Supplies Kit in your trunk. Pack high-protein snacks, water, first aid kit, flashlight, small battery-operated radio, an emergency contact card with names and phone numbers, extra prescription medications, blankets and important documents or information you may need (for a more detailed list, check out our post about vehicle emergency kits!)
  • Fill the vehicle’s gas tank and clean the lights and windows to help you see.
  • Find out what disasters may occur where you are traveling and pay attention to the weather forecast. Before you leave, let someone know where you are going, the route you plan to take, and when you expect to get there. If your car gets stuck, help can be sent along your predetermined route.
  • If you have to drive, make sure everyone has their seat belts on and give your full attention to the road. Avoid distractions such as cell phones.
  • Don’t follow other vehicles too closely. Sudden stops are difficult on snowy roadways.
  • Don’t use cruise control when driving in winter weather.
  • Don’t pass snow plows.
  • Know that ramps, bridges and overpasses will freeze before roadways.
  • Don’t run your engine and heater constantly to help avoid running out of gas. Don’t use things like lights or the radio without the engine running so the battery doesn’t conk out.
  • If you can, move your vehicle off the roadway. Stay with it – don’t abandon it. If you have to get out of your vehicle, use the side away from traffic.