With each passing winter, the term “polar vortex” is increasingly becoming a part of our everyday vernacular. No longer isolated to Canada and the Northern US, recent years have seen states as far south as Texas being hit with its freezing temperatures!
A polar vortex is a large area of low pressure and cold air surrounding the Earth’s poles. Normally, that’s where it remains, but it can occasionally extend into lower latitudes. When this happens, it brings frigid temperatures and severe winter weather to environments that normally don’t experience such conditions. Commonly, regions can experience windchill temperatures into the -50°F range, which poses problems for homeowners. While many modern homes are built to withstand their region’s typical winter weather, a polar vortex can expose vulnerabilities in even the most well-designed residences. Improve your chances by being proactive and prepare your home for the most common headaches.
Frozen Pipes: A Silent Menace
One of the most common and costly problems during a polar vortex is frozen pipes. This issue is not limited to external plumbing; even the pipes running through the exterior walls in your home can freeze. Here are steps to prevent this:
- Insulate Exposed Pipes: Use foam pipe insulation on any pipes exposed to exterior walls or unheated spaces. Pay special attention to basements, attics, and garages.
- Keep the Heat On: Maintain a consistent temperature in your home, day and night. While it may increase your heating bill, it’s far less costly than dealing with burst pipes.
- Let Faucets Drip: Allowing a trickle of water to flow through the pipes can prevent freezing. The movement of water makes it harder to freeze. This will be a critical step for those fixtures on exterior walls.
- Open Cabinet Doors: In kitchens and bathrooms, keep cabinet doors open to allow warmer air to circulate around the plumbing.
- Seal Cracks and Openings: Caulk any holes or cracks near pipes. This can prevent cold air from seeping in.
Ice Dams: Protecting Your Roof
Ice dams form when interior heat escapes from the home and into the attic. This happens thanks to attic bypasses, which are unintentional, but notable areas where heated air can escape into the cooler attic above. These bypasses are usually recessed lighting fixtures, attic doors, ceiling fans, smoke detectors, outlets, light switches, exhaust vents, etc.
Ice dams prevent melting snow from running off of your roof, and the melted snow ends up pooling on your roof because it’s trapped at the frozen overhangs where there is no heated
living space beneath it. This can cause leaking through your shingles – damaging the walls, insulation, furniture, electrical, carpet, and lead to mold. Shingles are designed to shed water, not hold water. If you should find yourself in need, you’ll need an ice dam removal expert who can provide 100% steam ice dam removal services. To avoid needing ice dam removal in the first place, try these steps first:
- Adequate Insulation and Ventilation: Ensure your attic is well insulated and ventilated. This will minimize the amount of heat rising to the attic, reducing snow melt on the roof. The best way to nip this in the bud is to have a home energy audit this next year before winter. These home energy experts can tell you where you have attic bypasses (if any).
- Use a Roof Rake: After heavy snowfall (and when it’s safe), use a roof rake to remove snow from the edge of your roof. These are specifically made to reach your roof while standing and are commonly made with sturdy metal extension rods. This comes in handy, as you’ll pull the snow off the roof towards you and the ground. It’s really effective and can help prevent an ice dam by removing that volume at the roof’s edge and gutters.
- Install Heat Cables: For some homes, specifically those with design flaws that would be too costly to repair (imagine rooflines, trusses, and gables), you can consider installing heat cables along the roof’s edge to prevent ice buildup. The drawback here is they’re energy drainers, they can be problematic, but they can help in certain situations and be cheaper than a remodel.
Power Outages: Staying Prepared
Polar vortex conditions can lead to power outages and not just little episodes of inconvenience either. In 2022 and 2023, residents in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range experienced being without power for over a week in some remote locations due to downed trees and ice.
Being prepared for a loss of electricity is crucial.
- Emergency Kit: Have an emergency kit ready with flashlights, batteries, personal items of great importance (such as prescription glasses, medications, and important records), a first aid kit, and a portable charger for your phone.
- Food and Water Supply: Store non-perishable food and water. A rule of thumb is to have at least a three-day supply for each family member. If you have the room, store more! As you can see from California and other areas, you may need those supplies to sustain you for much more than the recommended three-days.
- Generator Use: If you have a generator, ensure it’s in working order and you understand how to use it safely. Store and cycle out gasoline so you actually have a way of fueling it. Avoid allowing its exhaust to enter your home, as that can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. Aim the exhaust away from your home and ensure it’s in an “open air environment” and not building up in your garage or porch.
Best Heating Practices
Efficient heating is vital during a polar vortex. It’s not just about keeping warm; it’s about doing so safely and economically.
- Use Programmable Thermostats: Set your thermostat to a lower temperature when you’re asleep or away from home. It’s usually recommended to never go below 60°F and not above 68°F. Below 60°F and you risk leading to water pipe freezes and too warm above 68°F can place a strain on the overburdened power grid.
- Insulate the Home: Use weather-stripping or draft stoppers to seal doors and windows, keeping the cold out and the heat in. Utilize your curtains by keeping them open during the day to allow sunlight to naturally heat your home and close them at night to keep the heat in.
- Space Heater Safety: If using space heaters, keep them away from flammable materials and turn them off when leaving the room or going to bed. Not only for your comfort, these can be lifesavers if you have a particularly vulnerable set of pipes on an exterior wall that can get too cold and need warming up!
Preparing for a polar vortex involves a multifaceted approach. By taking proactive steps to prevent frozen pipes, ice dams, and by being prepared for power outages, you can significantly reduce the risks and discomfort associated with this extreme weather phenomenon. Remember, the key is preparation. By implementing these strategies, you can ensure that your home remains a safe, warm haven during even the most severe winter conditions.