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January 25, 2021

Safe at home: Beware of winter risks inside and out

Robert J. Donnelly

For many homeowners, staying at home conjures thoughts of comfort and safety, especially during winter weather. Snow, ice, and freezing temperatures, however, can increase risks for homeowners — both inside and outside their abodes.

Even though average temperatures worldwide are rising, seasonal weather can fluctuate sharply. With changing weather patterns, even the southern United States can experience cold snaps and ice storms. In turn, these conditions can cause property damage and personal injuries and can increase homeowners’ liability exposures.

Perils Outside the Home

Snow Accumulation. The buildup of snow and ice can cause damage to roofs, trees, exposed equipment, and power lines, causing outages that might lead to problems in a home’s interior. Rapidly melting snow and ice can be risky in different ways, from large chunks falling suddenly off a roof to water intrusion into the ground floor and/or basement of a home.

Blocked or Slippery Walkways. Ice and snow on sidewalks and driveways pose a slip-and-fall risk, not only to property owners but also to guests, domestic employees, and passersby. Accidents can lead to significant third-party liability claims, or in the case of domestic employees, workers compensation claims.

Heavy Ice. The weight of ice and snow can topple trees or break off large limbs, which may damage the homeowner’s or neighbor’s property or sever utility lines servicing the properties.

Indoor Risks

Unfortunately, winter’s fury doesn’t always remain outside. Homeowners can face numerous interior risks, including:

Power failure. Loss of electrical power can lead to food spoilage, loss of heat, and potentially cut off water supply if the home’s water is sourced from an underground well that relies on an electric pump. By the same token, a power outage can put sump pumps out of commission, increasing the risk of basement flooding.

Frozen or burst pipes. As lifestyles evolve and homeowners prefer second-floor laundry rooms and additional bathrooms, many homes now have more plumbing. This trend increases both the possibility of everyday leaks as well as exposure to sudden outdoor temperature drops that can cause pipes to freeze or burst. According to Chubb, internal water damage accounts for 45% of all interior property damage — a more frequent peril than fire or burglary. In a survey, Chubb found half of all homeowners believe damage from a plumbing or appliance leak will be less than $5,000. However, Chubb’s average cost for water leak claims is more than $55,000.

Fire and carbon monoxide. When it’s cold outside, homeowners tend to use fireplaces, boilers, and heating equipment more often, increasing the risk of fires. Another risk is the release of carbon monoxide (CO), which can cause serious injury or even death. Garaged vehicles with remote starters, for example, can cause a CO buildup if the garage door is closed. Homeowners should remain vigilant for CO risks and ensure adequate ventilation whenever they use equipment that burns fossil fuels, propane, wood, charcoal, or other fuel.

Water intrusion. Melting snow and ice can seep inside due to improperly installed attic insulation, flashing, or seals on windows and doors.

Mitigating Risks at Home

To protect your loved ones and your property during winter, it’s advantageous to work with an experienced risk advisor who can help you identify exterior and interior trouble spots, and to ensure appropriate insurance coverage. Some tips for mitigating winter risks at home include:

Inspect: plumbing and appliances for leaks, and where possible, replace rubber hoses with steel mesh-reinforced hoses, which are more resistant to bursting.

Check: certificates of insurance when engaging snow removal and landscaping services, to make sure they’re properly covered for liability, or you could end up on the hook for third-party damage.

Comply: with local ordinances regarding snow removal from sidewalks and driveways.

Minimize: the disruption of power outages with a properly ventilated backup generator.

Consult: a professional arborist to examine trees and landscaping and to prune limbs and growth that might be susceptible to breakage during winter weather.

Connect: sensors, alarms, and other safety devices that can monitor and shut off water and other equipment in the event of leaks or gas emissions, or alert you to a sudden loss of power.

Install: CO detectors, in addition to smoke detectors, throughout your home and test them regularly. The National Fire Protection Association recommends placing at least one CO detector and smoke detector on each floor of a home, including the attic and basement. You may also want to consider installing detectors in your garage if it’s attached to your home.

Protect: your family and assets by working with a trusted risk advisor to ensure appropriate property and liability insurance is in place with features such as additional living expenses, sewer/utility pipe backup coverage, and discounts or reimbursements for installing water flow shutoff devices and low temperature alarms. 

Following these tips can help you protect your home against damage and your family against liability risks. Contact your risk advisor to discuss your unique needs.