When winter weather ravages regions unaccustomed to the icy attentions of Jack Frost (like one perilous February in Texas) the effects can be devastating and linger well-after the winter fury itself has passed. We’re talking about winter weather-related property damage, and the National Oceanic and Environmental Administration (NOAA) indicates that between 1980 and 2020, winter storms caused $50.1 billion in damage in the United States alone.1
For property owners in areas where heavy ice and snow aren’t the regional norm, collecting property data related to winter storm damage may seem like overkill — that is, right until you need to call the insurance company about a burst pipe or collapsed ceiling. Additionally, while property insurance policies generally cover damage from lengthy winter storm conditions, some insurance policies don’t account for issues like water damage or ceiling collapse. Instead, they may cover “named perils” like windstorm, hail damage, smoke damage and fire. So, when it comes to winter storm damage, it’s important to know just what your specific policy covers, then know which property features pose a higher risk for damage due to a severe winter storm. By documenting these in your property Statement of Values for the insurance company, and taking logical mitigation steps as needed, you can reduce your potential for damage while making sure you have the coverage you need when the North Winds turn your way.
A few winter-vulnerable COPE (Construction, Occupancy, Protection, Exposure) details you’ll want to note about your property include:
Skylights and Roof Vents
As snow and ice pile up and weigh heavily on roofing, architectural features like roof vents and skylights can become increased points of structural weakness for your property. If not properly secured, these areas can be subject to leaks or even collapse. Having these areas checked regularly for tight seals and structural integrity can be important to reducing your risk for future skylight- and vent-related damage.
While roofs are always potential areas of damage during severe winter weather, flat roofs, in particular, can take a beating. Where a peaked roof leverages gravity to draw heavy snows down from its surface, a flat roof has no such advantage. It can allow heavy snow and ice to pile up, putting added stress on the building’s structure. Rapid freeze and thaws can cause roof cracks where water may pool. With enough structural wear and tear, a flat roof can potentially cave under the weight of snow.
So how do you reduce your risk for winter weather issues with your flat roof?
One thing you can do is find out if your roof has a waterproofing membrane and, if so, when it was installed. A roof membrane is thin water-resistant layer over the roof surface, that can help keep out moisture from your flat roof materials for up to 20 or 30 years.
An annual roof inspection is another way to prevent cold weather issues. Have your expert check for any cracks that might become larger with the expansion and contraction of freeze and thaw, or debris that might block gutters and drains. Sweep your flat roof clear of any debris once a year, so leaves and other natural materials have less chance to build up.
Clear snow regularly from the roof’s surface after a storm. The weight can actually compress the structure of your house, causing other structural integrity problems.
And, odd as it may seem for a warm-weather climate, you might want to consider roof insulation. This may be unnecessary for areas that are rarely hit with freezing weather. But roof insulation acts to prevent the heat in your building from melting the snow on your roof, creating potential for leaks. A layer of foam or fiberglass insulation on the underside of your roof can help keep the warm air of your building where it belongs—inside! A property valuation specialist can help you find out what type of roof insulation you already have, if any.
Less of an issue for homes in the Southern and Western United States, but worth noting — buildings with very heavy insulation can be more prone to damage than those without it. Water from a roof leak can collect in the insulation fibers over time, until the weight simply becomes too much for the structure below. As mentioned in the previous section, insulation can be useful to keep warm air from melting snow and ice on the roof and causing leaks. So the way to prevent damage due to heavy insulation is not to get rid of the insulation itself, but to check your roof regularly for areas where water can seep in. This can include the flashing around chimneys, old roofing, missing shingles or roof tiles, etc. By preventing water from entering the insulation in the first place, you help mitigate risk of damage inside your structure.
When ice forms around the edge of a roof and its gutters due to cycles of freeze and thaw, this can block rain or thaw runoff from safely flowing through proper channels. These wedges of ice are called “ice dams.” The water from rain or melted snow, left with nowhere else to go, can seep into the structure of a building, through the ceilings and walls, causing damage. To help prevent this, make sure your gutters are free of any debris that might block water from passing, causing it to freeze in place.
Additionally, by keeping the space under the roof cool, you can help prevent building heat from melting any ice and snow on the roof, reducing the potential for ice dams. Roof and soffit ventilation can aid with this — as can, yes, roof insulation.
Wet-Pipe Sprinkler Systems
Buildings with wet-pipe sprinkler systems have a greater potential for damage from winter cold. With a wet-pipe system, the pipes contain water and are connected to a water supply, so that the system’s response to the heat of fire will be immediate. And while this can be very effective for fire prevention, it can become problematic in severe cold weather. This is because, if the power and heat go out or if the property doesn’t have a heating system at all, the water within the pipes is more likely to freeze and burst. In general, a wet-pipe sprinkler system should only be used in areas kept at 40°F (4°C). So when you’re tracking property data, it’s important to note what kind of sprinkler systems you have. A professional property valuation specialist will typically include this information as part of the COPE details that are gathered for insurance purposes.
Outdoor Sprinkler Systems
Outdoor sprinkler systems can experience damage due to a sudden freeze, as well. Once again, the best solution to this problem is one of prevention. That is, turning off the water to the sprinkler system, unplugging any booster pumps, and relieving any pressure in the system prior to an oncoming freeze.
Pools can be areas for potential damage, too, due to heavy snow and icy temperatures. If your pool has been winterized, you have little to fear when the winter chill strikes. But for these sneaky unexpected cold snaps, a quick, nasty freeze can cause a pool many problems. Frozen water expands, and in a pool that means that any water in the nooks and crannies of your pool structure will expand, too, creating tension in your pool structure and potential cracking.
Any pipes filled with water can also face this fate. So the key becomes keeping the water running through your pool system 24/7, if possible. This gives ice less of a chance to form.
Pool covers — even mesh ones — can collect snow, adding stress to both the cover and the pool structure. While experts recommend you not try to break up or melt ice on a pool cover yourself because the jagged edges of ice could puncture or tear the cover, a cover pump can help remove water from a pool as the snow and ice naturally melts.
Documenting the Details Before Damage Strikes
By knowing what property elements are susceptible to damage during severe winter weather and documenting these details for your property’s Statement of Values, you’ll better-prepare for everything nature throws at you — Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall.
- NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters (2021). https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/, DOI: 10.25921/stkw-7w73