In February of 2021, a massive storm named Winter Storm Uri barreled out of the Pacific Northwest U.S. and wreaked havoc on everything along its path, which turned out to be most of the U.S. “By the morning of February 16, 73% of the area of the Lower 48 states was covered by snow, the most widespread snow cover in the contiguous U.S. in at least 17 years,” The Weather Channel reported.
The massive storm caused catastrophic power outages in several states, and failure of the water supply as well. Texas bore the brunt of the storm and faced more than $195 billion in damages, making it the costliest natural disaster in state history. The Texas Department of State Health Services put the death toll at 236 people.
The storm produced heavy snow, high winds, and extreme cold temperatures from Seattle to Albuquerque to Houston and throughout the Midwest and Northeast states. The southern tier of states, their citizens, and their utilities were not prepared for a storm of that intensity. In Texas, 75% of the people had difficulty obtaining food during and immediately after the storm, and 63% had difficulty obtaining water as power blackouts covered most of the state from February 15-18.
Those blackouts were caused as all forms of power generation strained to meet demand or simply didn’t work in those conditions. Texas’s grid is built for hot temperatures, not winter storms.
If you’ve lived through a storm like that, you may have vowed to make sure you’re not vulnerable again. Fortunately, you can do quite a few things to make your home a warmer and safer place during cold weather, and you can also prepare your emergency supplies in case you face an extended power outage. Here are some ideas.
Your first step should be to make your home as airtight as possible, which will keep the warm air in and the cold air out. For that, you’ll want to use caulk and spray foam to seal all the gaps you can find, such as around windows, doors, exhaust vents, and penetrations of all kinds. Door sweeps seal the gap at the bottom of your exterior door, too, which can let in a shocking amount of cold winter air. They’re effective in the summer, too.
You can also get a home energy assessment from a professional energy auditor. Your auditor will test your home with a blower-door test, an infrared camera, and some other high-tech tools and then give you a report that details exactly how you can improve your home. You can also get a tax credit of up to $150 for your assessment, thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act. Your assessment will help you know exactly what improvements to make and will improve your home’s performance 24/7/365.
Your home energy assessment report will also give you direction on your home’s insulation. This could be a big job requiring a professional contractor, and it’s usually not as simple as air sealing, but when you do it correctly, it can make a massive difference. Greatly improving your home’s insulation levels could, in fact, cut your heating and cooling costs by half or more. It just depends on how much insulation your home has now. Whatever that is, you can usually improve it.
With just a bit of slip-on pipe insulation, you can protect your copper plumbing pipes from cold temperatures. This stuff could not be simpler to use; just slip it over all the pipes you can get to. Obviously, you don’t have access to the pipes within the walls, but do the best you can. Plumbers tell us to let faucets drip during cold weather, as well as to keep water flowing.
Preparing for a major winter storm, whether the power goes out or not, means being ready to stay home for a couple of days or so. For that, you’ll need a good supply of the basics, like food you don’t need to cook, a gallon of water per person per day (we suggest canned water as plastic bottled does not keep as long), food and water for pets, and warm clothes. Some other things to consider include:
A heating system service: Your HVAC system should be serviced yearly by a trained technician to make sure it’s working properly. Your tech will make sure that the blower is functioning right and that the unit can reach the proper operating temperature. Plus, you should be changing out the filter right about monthly so you have clean air circulating.
Staying informed: Getting a weather radio will make it easy for you to keep track of the updates for the weather situation in real time. There’s still a place for some old-school tech. You may also wish to keep some local paper maps in case you need to travel and cell towers are down.
Providing backup lighting: Camping supplies can serve you well during outages, and this lantern is a good example. It runs for 30 hours on the high setting and 70 hours on the low setting and uses 4 D-cell batteries. Totally basic and effective and much better than candles.
Providing backup power: For electric power, you could go for a small portable power station that can keep your cell phones charged, or consider a much larger unit that could run a microwave, TV, coffee maker, and other devices for more than a day.
Providing Backup Heat: Winter Storm Uri was such a nightmare for people with no heat, and a heater like this might just be a good option for many people. It’s portable and the piezo igniter uses a battery and not AC power. It’s available to use either natural gas or liquid propane. The snag, though, is that some natural gas lines froze during Uri.
Another option I’ve found is this “camping” heater that’s labeled for indoor use. It’s for small spaces, up to 225 square feet, but that’s better than nothing. It will be a bit expensive to keep it going nonstop over a couple of days, as it uses small propane cylinders that cost about $5 each, but if you were to stock your stash with about a dozen cylinders, you could keep warm for a couple of days.
Winter Storm Uri was an historic storm, and we know it won’t be the last we face. But there is a lot we can do to prepare before the next major storm or cold snap. A little bit of action goes a long way.
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