A unifying feature of being Canadian is the constant struggle with extreme winter weather.

Every winter we brace ourselves for the accompanying heavy snowfall and ice buildups by wrapping ourselves warm and putting winter tires on cars. However, are we doing enough, if anything at all, to minimize damage to our homes during such weather?

There are in fact a number of key things that homeowners can do ahead of time to prevent as much damage as possible. The first step is building a general level of awareness about their home and community’s vulnerability to severe winter weather. Look at your local government’s
website for any area-specific advice on protecting your home.

Have your municipality recommend a good home inspector to examine your home’s capacity to handle heavy snow loads and to determine the age of key structures such as interior plumbing. Figure out whether you are in a snow belt area and thus in need of special precautions.

After assessing your level of risk, take targeted action to protect your home. Start with your roof. The pressure generated from a significant amount of snowfall, freezing rain or a series of snow events can cause a roof to collapse. Look at the slope of your roof: the less it slopes, the more exposed it is to heavy snow and ice build-up. Aim for a slope that is greater than 10cm vertically and 30cm horizontally. After a winter storm, check your roof for any new water leaks from the roof or attic, new internal door jams, new cracks in the drywall or plaster, and/or sagging on the ridge-line (where the two sides of the roof meet) on sloped roofs. Any of these are warning signs of an imminent roof collapse, and so if you notice these indicators take swift action to remove snow and ice buildup.

While it is always best to call a professional contractor to do these tasks, in the event that you remove buildup yourself there are a few techniques to keep in mind. For snow removal, purchase a long snow rake with an extendable arm. After removing snow layers, drain ice using electric heating cables to melt the buildup, or alternatively make use of a chemical de-icer by punching a hole in the ice every three feet that exposes the roof surface and fill each hole with the chemical. Watch out for ice dams – a ride of ice that develops at the edge of your roof or drains which prevent snow or water from melting off your roof, subsequently causing leaks into walls and ceilings from the water that gets blocked behind the ice. Look for attic penetrations, remove any roof heat sources from your attic, insulate any heat incandescent light fixtures, and seal any vents between your attic roof. Finally, whenever the time comes to re-roof, have a secondary moisture or snow and ice barrier installed to prevent heat loss. Maintain your roof constantly to ensure drainage systems are free of debris and working properly.

Frozen pipes are a second main area of concern. They can cause water to back up and the pipe to rupture leading to substantial damage. Before winter arrives, make sure to insulate any exposed pipes. Seal any leaks that can seep into the house and lower temperatures, and disconnect garden hoses and shut the indoor valves that control water flow into the house. Keep your thermostat temperature constant throughout the day, making sure when you’re out of the house that it is no lower than 12C (54F). During a power outage, turn off the main water valve coming into your home to stop freezing in the pipes.

Winter is Canada’s greatest challenge, but taking these steps, and keeping in touch with your insurance broker to make sure you’re covered financially in case of disaster will at least make this season a little bit less stressful.