When the temperatures drop people, property, and animals can be at risk. The weather can create health hazards like hypothermia and frostbite. It can freeze and break pipes, and even indirectly cause fires when home heating methods turn dangerous.
Preparing your home
Before the temperatures drop:
- Insulate any water lines that run along exterior walls or in unheated areas so your water supply will be less likely to freeze.
- 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 1/4" of newspaper can provide significant protection in areas that usually do not have frequent or prolonged temperatures below freezing.
- Weatherproof your home by adding weather-stripping, insulation, insulated doors and storm windows, or thermal-pane windows.
If freezing temps are expected:
- Leave all water taps slightly open so they drip continuously. Since the water temp of the drips is above freezing, it helps to warm the pipe.
- Improve the circulation of heated air near pipes. For example, open kitchen cabinet doors beneath the kitchen sink.
- Drain water from swimming pool and water sprinkler supply lines following manufacturer's or installer's directions. Don't use antifreeze, which is dangerous to humans and pets.
- 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.
Preparing your car
In addition to regular maintenance, every fall:
- Have the radiator system serviced, or check the antifreeze level yourself.
- Replace windshield-wiper fluid with a wintertime mixture.
- Replace any worn tires, and check the air pressure in the tires.
Preparing your family
Infants less than one year old should never sleep in a cold room because infants lose body heat more easily than adults. Warm clothing and temperatures are especially important for babies. If the infant must sleep near you to stay warm, take precautions to prevent rolling on the baby. Pillows and other soft bedding can also present a risk of smothering and should not be near the child.
Older adults often make less body heat because of a slower metabolism and less physical activity. If you are over 65 years of age, check the temperature in your home often during severely cold weather. Also, check on elderly friends and neighbors frequently to ensure that their homes are adequately heated.
Stay dry and warm. It's important for everyone in order to to avoid hypothermia and frostbite. Remember to wear your hat, gloves, scarf, coat, etc. Wool, silk, or polypropylene inner layers of clothing will hold more body heat than cotton. And stay dry - wet clothing chills the body rapidly.
Don't forget about the pets. Cold temperatures can be just as dangerous for them.
- If you’ll be using a fireplace, wood stove, or kerosene heater, install a smoke detector and a battery-operated carbon monoxide detector near the area to be heated. Test them monthly, and replace batteries twice yearly.
- It's a good idea to have your chimney inspected each year.
- Use fireplace, wood stoves, or other combustion heaters only if they are properly vented to the outside.
- Do not burn paper in a fireplace.
- Use only the type of fuel your heater is designed to use - don’t substitute.
- Do not place a space heater within three feet of anything that may catch on fire, such as drapes, furniture, or bedding, and never cover your space heater.
- Never place a space heater on top of furniture or near water.
- Never leave children unattended near a space heater.
- Make sure that the cord of an electric space heater is not a tripping hazard but do not run the cord under carpets or rugs.
- Avoid using extension cords to plug in your space heater.
- If your space heater has a damaged electrical cord or produces sparks, do not use it.
- Store a multipurpose, dry-chemical fire extinguisher near the area to be heated.
Cold weather puts an extra strain on the heart. If you have heart disease or high blood pressure, follow your doctor's advice about shoveling snow or performing other hard work in the cold. Otherwise, if you have to do heavy outdoor chores, dress warmly and work slowly. Remember, your body is already working hard just to stay warm, so don't overdo it.
The Wind Chill index is the temperature your body feels when the air temperature is combined with the wind speed. Be aware that winds can present an added danger. When there are high winds, serious weather-related health problems are more likely, even when temperatures are only cool.
Do not ignore shivering. It's an important first sign that the body is losing heat.
The danger of hypothermia:
When exposed to cold temperatures, your body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced. Eventually your body uses up its stored energy. The result is hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature. Body temperature that is too low affects the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move well. This makes hypothermia particularly dangerous because a person may not know it is happening and won't be able to do anything about it.
Hypothermia doesn't just occur when it's below freezing. Rain, sweat, or cold water can chill the victim even when the temperatures are above the freezing mark.
Warnings signs of hypothermia:
- shivering, exhaustion
- confusion, fumbling hands
- memory loss, slurred speech
- bright red, cold skin
- very low energy
If you notice any of these signs, take the person's temperature. If it is below 95 degrees, get medical attention immediately.
If no medical care is available, or not immediately available, begin warming the person:
- Get the victim into a warm room or shelter.
- Remove any wet clothing.
- Warm the center of the body first. Electric blankets or your own body heat can help.
- Warm beverages can help increase the body temperature, but not alcoholic beverages.
- Keep the person dry and wrapped in a warm blanket, including the head and neck.
- A person with severe hypothermia may be unconscious and may not seem to have a pulse or to be breathing. In this case, handle the victim gently, and get emergency assistance immediately. Even if the victim appears dead, CPR should be provided. CPR should continue while the victim is being warmed, until the victim responds or medical aid becomes available. In some cases, hypothermia victims who appear to be dead can be successfully resuscitated.
The danger of frostbite:
Frostbite is an injury to the body that is caused by freezing. Frostbite causes a loss of feeling and color in affected areas. It most often affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, or toes. Frostbite can permanently damage the body, and severe cases can lead to amputation. The risk of frostbite is increased in people with reduced blood circulation and among people who are not dressed properly for extremely cold temperatures.
At the first signs of redness or pain in any skin area, get out of the cold or protect any exposed skin. You should also know the symptoms:
- a white or grayish-yellow skin area
- skin that feels unusually firm or waxy
Frostbite first aid:
- If you detect symptoms of frostbite, seek medical care. If there is frostbite but no sign of hypothermia and immediate medical care is not available, proceed as follows:
- Get into a warm room as soon as possible.
- Unless absolutely necessary, do not walk on frostbitten feet or toes - this increases the damage.
- Immerse the affected area in warm but not hot water. If you're treating yourself, check the temperature on unaffected body parts.
- Or you can warm the affected area using body heat. For example, the heat of an armpit can be used to warm frostbitten fingers.
- Do not rub the frostbitten area with snow or massage it at all. This can cause more damage.
- Don’t use a heating pad, heat lamp, or the heat of a stove, fireplace, or radiator for warming. Affected areas are numb and can be easily burned.
After the chill
You, your family and your animals are fine, but what about the house? Frozen pipes are a big concern now:
- If you turn on a faucet and only a trickle comes out, suspect a frozen pipe. Locate the suspected frozen area of the water pipe. Likely places include pipes running 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 more ice in the pipe.
- If your pipes do freeze, do not thaw them with a torch. Apply heat to the section of pipe using an electric heating pad wrapped around the pipe, and electric hair dryer, a portable space heater (kept away from flammable materials), or wrapping pipes with towels soaked in hot water.
- 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.
- If you cannot thaw your pipes, or the pipes are ruptured, use bottled water or get water from a neighbor’s home.