January and February are the harshest weather months of the entire year. The wind, snow and bitter cold can wreak havoc on a vacant home.
Power outages are very common this time of year. The majority last for a few minutes but sometimes they can go on for hours or even days. When power is eventually restored, it is usually accompanied by a spike in voltage or a surge of electricity that can pop breakers on the panel or even permanently damage some electrical components of your home. If your house is vacant, an essential system can remain off even after the power is restored to the house.
Many houses in the Hamptons have a well for their domestic water supply. Without electricity to power the pump, there is no fresh water for the house. Having a surge protector helps limit the damage done by these voltage spikes. And having a standby generator system that detects power losses and automatically transfers to emergency power is the best way to ensure your home is fully powered at all times.
Houses that are heated by electric baseboard or forced hot air cannot operate without electric either. And if the heat is off for any extended period of time, it is likely that the temperature inside the house can drop below freezing allowing the water in the pipes to freeze. When this water freezes, it expands and can rupture the copper pipes inside the walls. Once the house warms back up, that ice will melt and that broken pipe will flood your house. A vacant house with a burst pipe can have water running indefinitely until someone returns to the house to find it. You can install a flood detection device on your water main that connects to your alarm system. When the house is occupied and in use, everything works normally, but when armed in “away” mode, this device detects water passing through it, turns off the water main and notifies the security system. It won’t prevent a flood, but it limits the damage caused by turning off the water supply and notifying you of the issue right away.
During these colder months, the heating system must work extra hard. If it is especially cold out, your home may burn through propane or fuel oil faster than usual. If you run out completely, the heat may not re-start once the tank is filled. It can suck in sludge from the bottom of the tank which can clog the nozzle or it can become air bound from bubbles caught in the fuel lines preventing the actual fuel from flowing to the boiler or furnace. It is best to have your fuel oil and propane on automatic delivery to prevent running out. In the event that it does happen, it is important to have a technician go inside the house to manually re-fire the heating system to ensure it is all working properly.
Another concern is heavy snowfall. Snow drifts against the house can block the fresh air intakes for furnaces or boilers, starving the systems of air and causing them to shut down. Heavy snow on flat roofs and decks or balconies can overload the structures and they can collapse under the weight. Deep snow in the driveway can prevent propane/fuel oil deliveries from being made, your caretaker from accessing the property or even stop a fire truck in the event of a fire. The driveway should be plowed and snow should be cleared from all of these areas after any significant snowfall.
When snow on the roof starts to melt in the warm mid-day sun and then refreezes at night, it can form backward icicles that can work their way up and under the roofing shingles and behind the waterproofing membrane. The heat from inside the house then melts this ice and the resulting water leaks into the house. This is called ice damning, and is one of the most common causes for winter water damage in homes in our area. Ice damning is very hard to prevent and the best way to defend against it is to have your house checked regularly throughout the winter and early spring – especially after heavy snow storms – and any snow that accumulates on the roof should be manually cleared away.
Winter weather can also damage your unused vehicles. Cars left outside and not in a garage should be covered with a form fitting car cover. On-board computers drain the batteries quickly under normal circumstances; cold weather only expedites this, and a battery that is left completely drained and dead for too long can no longer hold a charge and must be replaced. This can be prevented by connecting a trickle charger or battery tender to all vehicles not used on a regular weekly basis. Your caretaker should start the cars at least once per month and let them warm up to circulate the fluids in the engine.
The worst thing that happens to summer homes in the winter is that they are left vacant for too long. Having a minimal service plan with a local caretaker ensures small problems do not become big ones. The cost of this service is only a fraction of the expense and aggravation of an insurance claim to repair damages in the spring.