How to Prepare Your Home for a Cold Snap (Emergency Tools and Techniques)

country house covered in snow

It seems like a day can't go by without a new winter storm, a record cold snap, or snowfall big enough to make your front yard look like Antarctica. Power outages thanks to frozen power lines, snow drifts large enough to keep you stuck at home for days, and roads covered with a layer of ice slicker than a skating rink.

Keeping your home warm, comfortable, and well-stocked with life-sustaining provisions in a severe winter emergency can easily become a matter of life and death.

To make it through a winter storm in one piece (and keep that piece away from becoming an icicle), you'll need water, heat, power, food, and a way to get in touch with the outside world.

Let's take a look at what you can do to ensure that your home is in top shape and ready for mother nature's winter tantrums.

Keep Your Home Warm

Modern homes, unfortunately, are not built to withstand extreme weather.

Building code requires only 19 R insulation in the walls and less than 32 R in the ceiling. They're designed to rely on a continuous connection to the grid to maintain comfortable temperatures.

Without an ongoing contribution from your heating or air conditioning system, a modern, stick-frame home will become very uncomfortable in a matter of hours.

To keep your home comfortable in a middle of a winter storm, you have to ensure your heating system is capable of properly operating and the house itself is sealed and insulated enough to keep the warmth produced by your heater from escaping to the outside.

An infrared thermometer will let you check the temperature of different parts of your home and determine which areas are draining your heat to the outside and in need of improvement.

Start with checking windows and corners-they're the most common culprits when it comes to keeping your home cold and drafty.

frosted window in winter

If you've got older, single-plan windows, this might be a great time to upgrade. A window replacement aside, which is usually pricy and far from the immediate proposition, the following options are your best bet :

  • Caulk the gaps between the frame and the wall on the outside of the windows.
  • Replace the single glass panels with insulated window panels.
  • Press draft stoppers into the window slide groves.
  • Cover the windows with a plastic sheet or a sheet of bubble wrap using double-sided tape, and heat up the plastic with a hair dryer or an air heater once in place.
  • Install temporary window insulating inserts.
  • Buy a set of thermal curtains, preferably at least 6 inches larger on all sides than the dimensions of the window. Thermal curtains will help save on your energy bills even if nature is not throwing years of frustration at your window.
  • Check weather stripping on the doors for damage or areas that have hardened with age.
  • Replace the bottom sweep on the outside doors if it's not sealing properly, and consider purchasing a couple of door draft stoppers as the last line of draft defense. Add insulation tape with adhesive on one side to the door jams that don't seal well.

Keep The Water Flowing

Water freezing in your pipes can generate enough force to burst the pipe and leave you not only without water but with a swimming pool in the lower level of your home.

Your home's foundation extends to or below the frontline to prevent the water in the ground from moving and destroying the foundation as it freezes.

If you look up the frost line for your zip code, you'll find the exact number of inches frost has penetrated the ground in your location before. Everything above that depth is going to get cold enough to freeze.

Your plumbing lines coming up to your home should run below that line. Everything above that line should be either heavily insulated or inside your home. Even then, there is a chance of a problem when the temperatures drop below 31 degrees Fahrenheit.

Insulation is not omnipotent-it just gives you a hand up.

insulation for pipes

In locations that might get extremely cold (we're talking about -30 degrees Fahrenheit and below), water pipe heat cables are often used, stuffed next to the pipe and wrapped with a heavy layer of insulation.

It seems like a lot of precautions, but repair bills after a burst pipe get very pricy, and being stuck without water for days waiting for your plumbing to be fixed and unfrozen is not much fun.

To prepare your home's water system for a cold snap, start with locating the main shut-off valve. You'll find it on the lowest level of your house, inside by the water heater or by the outside wall where the water line comes into the house.

The first thing you'll want to do once you've discovered a burst pipe is shut the main water valve to avoid additional damage to your walls, flooring, and furniture, and a possible short from soaking your electrical lines.

If your house is built in the basement, your water lines will be running inside and kept warm by the house heat. If, however, you are dealing with a crawlspace, it's a good idea to get under and make sure any water pipes visible are well insulated.

Locate outside water valves, make sure they're shut all the way, and cover them with a hose bib, or wrap them in insulation with a grocery bag over it-anything that will add a layer of insulation will do just fine.

If you're up for a more permanent but time and effort-intensive solution-install frost-free sill cocks. Properly installed, a frost-free sill cock will ensure that there is no water in the outside portion of the faucet pipe, removing the need for insulating it.

Make sure to leave a water faucet closest to where the water line is coming into the house slightly open-moving water requires much lower temperatures to freeze.

With water lines taken care of, it's time to go through and cold-proof the rest of the house structure:

  • Seal cracks and holes in the rim joists with insulation and expandable foam.
  • Check the outside of the house for cracks around the pipes or cables going inside the house. Seal with caulk on the outside and expendable foam on the inside.
  • If you have a garage and it's not insulated-it might be a good time to consider that project. At the very least, insulate the roll-up garage doors.
  • Check your thermostat-if your home relies on central heating, a failed thermostat (of one that's out of batteries) will shut down the heat. At the very least, get a set of new batteries.
  • Check, clean, or replace the HVAC air filter—you don't need anything adding additional strain to your heating system as it tries to keep you warm.
  • If you have access to your HVAC lines in the attic or basement-make sure, they're fitted tight and well insulated-an average house loses 35% of the heat through the HVAC lines. Have your heating system professionally, inspected-especially the furnace.
  • If you have a fireplace or woodstove-this is a great time to clean the chimney of creosote and ensure everything is in operational shape.
  • If you're heating with gas or have a gas fireplace-top up your storage tank. Keep in mind- a house connected to a city gas or water system will get neither if power is out. You're also not going to be driving to the store for a propane refill if roads are snowed in or iced up.

Keep the Power On

If your home is heated with electricity directly or a system that involves airconditioning heat pumps or pumps circulating liquid through radiators, a power outage in a middle of a cold snap can turn your home unlivable in less than a day.

Without power, the food in your fridge will spoil; without lights, every second step will mean stabbing your toe into a coach leg or stepping on a Lego; and without a tv or laptop, you and your family will start getting on each other's nerves in no time.

Thankfully, there are multiple options for those of us refusing to forgo power-operated modern conveniences in a power outage:

gas generator

Gas Generators

Natural gas, gasoline, or diesel generator-the most well-known option, can be found in any big box store or online and is relatively easy to get into. You can find a pretty decent generator starting at 350 dollars. The downside-loud, costly to run, and pain to start in the cold.

Power Stations

Emergency power bank -a great option, it will allow you to recharge multiple appliances and, depending on the size, might even run your refrigerator or heater. Look for one with a newer, LiFePO4 battery-they offer almost double the number of charging cycles compared to the previous generation.

Solar and Batteries

Solar panels paired with an inverter and storage batteries (or, on a smaller scale, the above-mentioned power bank) can offer you a way to charge your appliances or, on a larger, more expensive scale, take over the power needs of your home in its entirety.

man installing solar panels on roof


A collection of rechargeable batteries paired with flashlights, solar lanterns, an oil lamp, and a gas stove /heater will keep you in light for days while being very easy on the wallet. Combining that with a smaller power storage bank will allow you to recharge your phone and laptop a few times, keeping you in touch with the world.

Keep You and Yours Well Fed

Keeping enough food stored to avoid being a last-minute shopper fighting for the last pack of toilet paper is a must, with even the CDC recommending at least a few days of food stored in case of an emergency.

Store food that your family normally eats, and make sure to have a way to open containers and prepare the meals. A manual can opener is a great idea, and a propane camping cooking stove will do wonders for the morale and well-being of your group. Make sure to use it in a well-ventilated area.

An alternative that quite a few of us already have is an outside gas or coal grill. While barbequing in a snowstorm will not appeal to many, the rewards of a warm meal are hard to overestimate.

Make sure to store enough water for everyone-an average person needs over a gallon of water a day.

Don't forget about your pets-keep enough pet food and a gallon of water per pet as well.

If you take prescription medications-make sure you're well stocked up in case you can't make it to the pharmacy for a few days.

Keep the Entrance Open

red shovel moving snow off a pathway

Life doesn't take a break during a weather emergency, and if anything, medical crises happen during weather emergencies more than at any other time.

If the worst comes to pass and you or your loved one is in need of medical attention, it pays to ensure emergency personnel can make it to your home. A snow blower, lawnmower, or four-wheeler with a snow blade is indispensable if you have a driveway clogged by snow.

Make sure your vehicle is in good shape in case you have no choice but to make a trip out by yourself.

  • Top up the air in your tires-you lose tire pressure in the cold, and underfilled tires have much less grip on icy or snowy roads.
  • Fill your wiper fluid tank with a winter blend of de-icing fluid.
  • Install a battery (or an engine block heater if a cold snap is not a once-a-lifetime emergency but just a part of normal winter weather in the area)to ensure your car starts when you need it to. Batteries discharge faster in the cold and take more cranking amps to start your vehicle.
  • Put a go bag in the back of your car or truck during the winter—an old warm jacket, boots, socks, a couple of power bars, a blanket, and a flashlight might just save your life if you brake down by the side of the road.
  • Keep a folding show shovel, emergency candle, work gloves, and a bag of kitty litter(dumping kitty litter on ice will often let you get enough traction to get out of a ditch if you've stuck) in the back of the vehicle in case of a road emergency.

Keep in Touch With the Outside World

An emergency radio and a fully charged phone are a must if you're living in an area where extreme weather might rear its ugly head. It'll also give you a heads-up on what's coming and when it might end, as well as bring you emergency announcements.

Look for a model that has a solar charging panel combined with a USB charger and a crank handle to charge manually. Today, many emergency radios will be able to charge your phone as well.

Being well prepared goes a long way toward transforming a cold snap from a terrifying emergency to a fun time to camp out in your home with your loved ones without the distractions of the tv and other everpresent, attention-draining appliances.