A Homeowner’s Guide to Creating a Winter Emergency Plan

Posted on January, 23, 2017 | Posted in: Home Maintenance

snow covered house

Winter can be a magical, peaceful time of year, but its uncertain weather patterns can also make it stressful. Winter storms have a habit of being unpredictable – even the best forecasters cannot say for certain if a storm will drop an inch of snow or surprise us all with two feet. Powerful winter weather can cause power outages, road closures and can keep families shut indoors for days on end.

Being prepared for the unknown may seem like an impossible task, but with the right plan, supplies and a preventative maintenance checklist, you can arm your household against the uncertain weather patterns that come your way.

Why Have a Winter Emergency Plan?

Just like having an earthquake preparedness kit for residents near fault lines is essential, a winter home emergency plan is equally as important. Many climates throughout North America face severe winter storms that can cause damage and massive power outages lasting up to a week — or even more.

Without a plan, your family could be blindsided and not have enough food and water to last that length of time. A winter emergency plan addresses any potential worst-case scenarios, damages or safety concerns that can arise during a winter storm and blackout.

Winter home emergency plans also help to mitigate stress as much as possible. It takes the worry out of what do and how to keep your family safe. It keeps your living situation as normal as possible, too, despite a loss of electricity and mobility.

What to Consider When Creating a Winter Emergency Plan

When you and your family sit down to create a winter emergency plan, there are many things to consider beforehand. Your family’s unique needs will determine what is included in the plan and what all needs to be accounted for.

Here are some factors to consider when creating your winter home emergency plan:

  • Size of your home
  • Your location and climate
  • Amount of accessible storage space available
  • Number of family members and pets
  • Ages of children and what their particular needs are (i.e. diapers, formula, medications, etc.)
  • Where your emergency water and gas shutoff valves are
  • Where your electrical breaker panel is

Happy family inside home

What Should You Include in a Winter Home Emergency Plan?

A winter home emergency plan needs to be an all-encompassing preparedness plan for potential winter storms that can keep your family inside and take out power. Be sure to review your plan throughout the year so it’s ready to go when winter comes.

1. Winter Home Emergency Kit

If you’re preparing for a big snow storm or live in a place that often sees harsh winters, then your household should stock a winter home emergency kit. Keep everything in a large container, or containers, and put it in a safe and easily accessible place. Just be sure you don’t have to go outside to retrieve it.

The following are important items to keep as part of your family’s winter home emergency kit:

  • Three- to four-day supply of non-perishable and semi-perishable foods, snacks and pet food
    • Some good items to stock include:
      • Canned Tuna, Salmon, Chicken, or Turkey
      • Boxed Crackers
      • Granola/Cereal/Protein bars
      • Fruit Snacks
      • Applesauce Cups
      • Crackers with Peanut butter or Cheese
      • Nuts and Trail Mixes
      • Canned Vegetables
      • Powdered Milk
      • Electrolyte Boosting Sport Drinks
      • Multivitamins
  • Three- to four-day supply of water for every family member and for pets
  • Paper cups, plates and utensils that can be disposed of
  • A manual can opener
  • Three- to four-day supply of over-the-counter medicines
    • If you know a winter storm is coming, ensure any family member taking prescription medicine has at least one week’s worth of medicine available.
  • First aid kit and medical supplies
  • Multiple working flashlights with plenty of extra batteries
  • Extra blankets and sleeping bags
  • Battery powered radio, flashlights and clock
  • Chemical hand & body warmers that heat with friction

While not all items will be able to be stored together in one container, you can divide up the items by their function and how they will be used. For extra ease, label each box with what it contains. This can save you time and stress in an already frustrating situation.

2. The Emergency Plan Itself

One of the most important parts of creating a winter emergency plan is to actually lay out a plan for any possible situations that may arise before, during and after a winter storm. Here are our top tips on what to consider including in your plan to ensure your family is prepared for whatever may happen:

  • Safety Plans: Safety is the number one priority during a winter storm. Having a plan to keep your family safe is critical, especially if there is a risk of power outages or fallen trees. You always want to make sure your family is in a safe part of the home (e.g. away from areas where high winds, ice, or extreme weather may cause trees to fall toward the home) with plenty of food and sources of warmth.

Communication should also be a central part of a safety plan, along with considering the needs of young children and pets. You should review the plan with young children often, especially before a storm. They should know where all of your family supplies are, how to use each item, and what to do if they are home alone. Practice what to do if the power goes out and keep children from being scared by making it into a game.

  • Food and Water Supply: When planning your winter emergency kit, food and water supply are likely near the top of your priorities. Many households keep an ample stock of semi- and non-perishable food items on hand. Yet, often times, these items remain on the shelves for years without being touched. Making a plan to rotate through stocked foods items is a good way to use up the older items first and keeping the newer items in supply. It’s also wise to consider restocking your drinking water supply on a regular basis to keep it fresh as well.Even better than relying on your pantry is developing a food and water supply specifically for your kit. Consider how many people are in your family, their general food requirements, and plan for at least 5 days. Ensure to consider feeding to dietary restrictions, preparing foods for infants and toddlers, and utilizing foods that will keep your family healthy through the storm. Review the stocking plan at the beginning of winter and before any major storms. Be sure to check the labels and expiration dates to make certain that nothing has gone bad.
  • Lighting During Power Outages: Power outages are scary for everyone. While you may be worrying about how to keep your family warm, children are often just afraid of the dark. Keeping lighting during a power outage is not only a safety importance, but can comfort children in a scary situation.There are a few different options for keeping your home lit during power outages. An ample supply of flashlights — one for each family member — is important not only to keep the house lit up, but for safety reasons as well. Other safe backup lighting options include battery-powered candles or even a backup generator to power some of your home’s lights and other electric essentials.Consider where your family will be staying during the outage – it’s generally best to keep everyone in one room for warmth and safety. Lighting that room with battery powered lanterns, or even having a few kid-friendly battery powered lights can make a big difference in moral.
  • Keeping the House Warm: The house will cool quickly during a snowstorm or a power outage. Alternative sources of heat are important to consider when creating your winter emergency plan. However, with the possible risks of wood-burning fireplaces or even kerosene heaters, the best option to keep your family warm during a power outage is lots of layers. Be sure everyone has enough clothes and blankets.  If you do plan to use your wood or gas powered fireplace, ensure that it has been recently cleaned or maintained.You can also consider keeping a few tents with the emergency kits. The tents will help conserve body heat in a small area and make a fun activity for the kids. If you don’t have tents, reckon back to your childhood and build a fort with cushions and sheets. While not as insulated as the tent, it still helps conserve heat to a smaller area.

Photo of children playing in snow

  • Prepare for After the Storm: Preparing for potential damages during a winter storm should also be in each household’s winter emergency plan. When the wind picks up, it’s possible for a tree to fall and break a window or cause damage to the roof or siding of the home. Keep heavy-duty plastic sheets on hand with duct tape. These are important supplies to use when you need to make emergency repairs but can’t call a contractor.Also be vigilant for broken or burst pipes. Once the temperature drops, the water in your home can freeze. When the power goes out, shut off your main water valve and open up the faucets around the house. This allows the pipes to drain and helps prevent a flooded basement. Having your pipes insulated with foam beforehand is a great preventative step to keep your home dry!If the power was out for an extended time, you’ll also need to check the perishable food in your refrigerator and freezer. If your food has spent more than four hours over 40° Fahrenheit, don’t eat it. If your frozen food still has ice crystals or are cool to the touch, they’re probably still safe. Keep the doors on the refrigerator and freezer closed to slow the thawing process or consider moving food outside if the temperature is below 32° Fahrenheit.
  • Preparing Your Children and Pets: It’s normal and expected for children and pets to become scared during a storm, especially when the power goes out. Keeping children and pets safe is certainly a priority. To prevent them from wandering off, have some go-to games or activities you can do in the living room or kitchen.

Shadow puppets, card games and coloring books are all great ways to keep young children occupied so they can stay entertained during an outage. Keep a container full of arts and crafts supplies to do winter-themed projects, such as paper snowflakes. This will ensure everyone stays together in the same room. You can also put up baby gates in the doorways to keep everyone together.

If your children are in school or daycare, have a plan to make sure someone is home if they have an early dismissal or can pick them up before the weather turns for the worst. For older children, make sure they feel comfortable driving home in winter weather if school lets out early or call for a ride home. Inexperience and nerves are often the cause of winter accidents, even in favorable storm conditions.

  • Keep Cell Phones Charged: When a storm is on its way, it’s easy to forget about your cell phone batteries as there are plenty of other things to consider. But keeping batteries fully charged is important, especially if the power could be out for a while. If your phone type allows, keep some charged backup batteries on hand. Also, external cell phone charger packs, sometimes called “juice packs,” are a good backup charging option for power outages.It might be tempting to bide your time during an outage on social media or by allowing children to use the phone for games. Don’t give in – keeping your battery charged for calls or emergency message is vital. Keep children occupied with non-electronic games or toys or books. If children insist on using technology and have tablets, be sure to have them use those instead. They should also not use the external charger packs for those items. Save all battery functions for important calls and messaging abilities.If you live in an area without cellphone coverage, make sure you have a landline still connected to the wall that does not require electricity. For any home that still uses landline communications, this is still a good idea as cellphone coverage can drop during these storms.
  • Don’t Forget Your Vehicles: When putting together your family’s winter emergency kit and plan, it can be easy to stay completely focused on the home. However, it’s important to remember to keep all your vehicles prepared for a winter storm as well, in case you’re out and about when it hits. Stocking and preparing all of the family’s cars is just as essential as preparing the home.

Here are some tips to prepare your family’s vehicles for winter emergency contingency plans:

  • Ensure antifreeze levels always topped off as well as stocked with extra bottles in the trunk
  • Car batteries should be checked and replaced as needed before winter hits
  • Keep fuel levels at or near full to prevent water from freezing in the fuel line – this can also be helpful if you become stranded or stuck in traffic for extended periods of time
  • Check tire pressure levels – remember that cold air condenses and tire pressure can drop during winter’s cold weather
  • Have winter tires put on your car before the snow and ice hit
  • Stock a car version of your winter emergency kit including:
    • Basic Repair Tools
    • Jumper Cables
    • Reflective Triangles
    • Flashlights (with fresh batteries)
    • Tire Chains
    • Sand Bags or Cat Litter for Weight and Traction
    • An Ice Scraper
    • A Small Shovel
    • A Battery Powered Radio
    • A First Aid Kit
    • A Gallon or Multiple Bottles of Drinking Water
    • Non-perishable food items like contained in your home kit
    • Blankets or a Sleeping Bag
    • Extra Clothing (especially socks, gloves, and a coat)
    • Portable Cell Phone Battery Charging Packs

You can’t rely on keeping your car on to stay warm and leaving the vehicle to walk to safety is also a bad idea. Leaving the vehicle increases your chances of injury, getting lost, hypothermia, and becoming stranded without the protection of the vehicle. While you are staying huddled in your car, be sure to NOT run the car if snow has piled over your exhaust pipe. If you must run your car, be sure to clear the snow from the pipe to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.

One final preventative measure to take for your safety is to make sure someone knows you’re out traveling in the bad weather and what route you are taking. If your car slides off the road or you become stranded, a family member or friend who knows your route can call for emergency help for you when you do not arrive as expected. No matter how old you get, having a check-in system with someone is important. In the case of winter storms, it could mean the difference between making it home safely and hypothermia or worse.

HVAC tech working

3. Winter Preventative Maintenance Checklist

Another key component of a winter home emergency plan is a preventative maintenance routine. Preventative maintenance looks at all possible issues, repairs and other items around the house that need to be inspected and resolved on a regular basis to prevent serious damage from happening.

Preventative winter maintenance helps ready your home so it can withstand a winter storm and power outage. Preventative maintenance should always happen before the winter season hits.

Here are some preventative maintenance checklist items to review annually and prior to winter:

  • Assess Your Property for Risks: As the winter storm season approaches, it’s best to examine your property, particularly your trees. Watch for any risky tree limbs that could break off during a storm and cause damage to your home or parked vehicles. If you notice a tree is dying or has loose limbs, take care of those before the ice and wind bring the tree down.
  • Foundation Inspection: Regularly inspect your basement and foundation for flooding and moisture. This is especially important during the winter when you need to prevent damage due to massive snow buildups and subsequent melts.
  • Clear Snow: Keeping up with snow shoveling is important to do all winter long. Regularly clearing your home’s exits and pathways and will reduce the risk of flooding once the snow melts. In addition, debris, ice and snow should also be consistently removed from the roof and eaves to prevent roof damage and leaks. Regular snow removal is also important if an emergency situation arrives. Emergency workers must be able to access your driveway, stairs, sidewalk, and entrance in order to help during dangerous situations like fires or medical emergencies.
  • Check Weather Stripping and Caulking: Ensure your windows and doors are properly sealed to prevent cold air from seeping in and to mitigate damage that can occur when your home is exposed to harsh elements.
  • Clean Your Fireplace: If your home has a wood burning fireplace, it will likely be used as an alternative heat source if your home suffers a major power outage. Be sure to have your chimney and fireplace cleaned regularly to prevent fire hazards. Flue fires can spread quickly and are hard to put out. If you use your fireplace with any sort of regularity – or even if you don’t use it often – keeping it clean is essential to preventing fires in the winter.
  • Check Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Detectors: Because a power outage presents other safety risks, it’s important to have your home’s smoke and carbon monoxide detectors tested regularly. Most detectors are backed up with battery power, so they will continue to work during a power outage. If the batteries haven’t been tested in a while, this could leave your home open to fire and carbon monoxide risks. As a rule of thumb, you should be checking detector batteries every six months and replacing as needed.
  • Insulate Plumbing and Check Pipes: Ensure you don’t have any leaks or potential leaks in your pipes before cooling winter temperatures can cause a burst. Expanding ice during a power outage can quickly lead to a flooded basement if pipes are not properly maintained and insulated. Prior to winter, have your pipes insulated and have your plumber show you where your main shut off valve, your water heater shut off, and any other controls are located.

Other Winter Emergency Survival Tips

Because winter home emergency plans are so comprehensive, it can be easy to overlook certain issues or concerns. Here are a few last safety concerns and winter emergency survival tips to address when you’re finalizing your winter home emergency plan:

  • Don’t use candles as an alternative lighting source. This presents a serious fire risk.
  • Test your flashlights regularly and check to make sure backup batteries haven’t corroded.
  • Stay stocked with food and water in the days leading up to winter storms. Don’t leave this until the last minute.
  • Have a communication plan with family members whether they reside at home or are away. Knowing that everyone is safe and sound will eliminate a certain amount of stress from winter emergencies.

Ensuring Your Home Is Prepared

Putting together a preventative winter maintenance checklist is a lot of work, but it’s important to address as many safety issues as possible. Professional contractors like Haller Enterprises will ensure your home is entirely prepared for whatever a winter storm throws your way.

If you’d like to learn more about our preventative maintenance plans or have any heating needs please feel free to contact us.