Extreme Winter Weather Guide

By Vernon Trollinger, February 25, 2013, FAQs, News

blizzard at nightOne important lesson I learned while attending college in the upper midwest was that cold winter weather was nothing to sneeze at. Cold snaps called “Alberta Clippers” blew across the prairie, dropping temperatures into the minus teens for a week or more. Factoring in the wind chill factor made outside temperatures feel like minus 20 degrees or so. Walking back from evening film lectures usually conjured up uncomfortable thoughts of Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”.

All that aside, surviving bitter and extreme winter weather is mostly a matter of common sense about knowing what to do when when you are working outside, at home during a power failure, or getting stuck in your car.

Wear Layers of Clothing

If it is bitterly cold outside, then don’t go out. Stay inside and stay warm. However, if you are working outside (or plan on traveling somewhere — such as a film lecture), the first rule is to wear layers of clothing. Thermal underwear (good ol’ long johns) is designed to hold warmth near your skin. The best kind, such as Thinsulate, uses a fabric that wicks perspiration and moisture away from your skin and keeps you dry. The same goes for socks, boots, and gloves (although mittens keep your hands warmer, since your fingers are not separated). Wrap a scarf over your mouth, because this will help warm the air before it enters your lungs. And — most importantly— always wear a hat to keep your head and ears warm. In general, the idea with layering your clothes is to trap layers of warm air against your skin – wearing a thick coat over your regular clothes just won’t cut it.

Don’t Overheat, Don’t Overexert

If you are working outside shoveling snow, take it easy and pace yourself. Oddly enough on sunny winter days when the temperature is below 20 but above 5 degrees, you can overheat beneath all your layers, especially when you’re shoveling snow. The trouble is that your sweat can become trapped in the layers of your clothes and then freeze once you step into shadow or the sun goes down. To avoid this, make yourself comfortable by shedding your coat. You can always put it back on if you get cold.

During cold weather, your body works extra hard to maintain its temperature. When you factor in the work of clearing your driveway or sidewalk, it becomes very easy to overexert yourself. Heart attacks while shoveling snow might sound something out of an urban legend, but a January, 2012 study, “Snow-shoveling and the risk of acute coronary syndromes”, published in the Clinical Research in Cardiology found that 35 of 500 patients (7%) were documented to have had heart attacks while shoveling snow. According to Dr. Adrian Baranchuk of Queen’s School of Medicine in Kingston, Ontario, “That is a huge number; 7 per cent of anything in medicine is a significant proportion.” Again, pace yourself and don’t be afraid to ask a neighbor for help if you think the job is too much for you. After all, they are probably thinking the same thing.

Power Failure: Winter’s Discontent

Let’s say the snow storm is howling outside. Inside, you’ve got your cup of cocoa, your favorite blanket throw, your feet elevated to the optimum comfort level, the kids are in bed, and you’re reading your favorite cooking magazine with an article about sunny Tuscany to help you forget about the weather. As long as you have electricity, everything will be fine.

Somewhere out in the dark, there’s a muffled boom. Your electricity goes out.

If your home has its own generator for electricity or a fireplace with fuel, then you’re set. No worries. But if you don’t, your home could get very chilly in few hours if your utility company can’t get the electricity back on. Here’s a few things you can do to safely keep your family warm in winter during a power failure.

A power failure in winter often occurs during ice storms and to a lesser extent during high winds. Depending on how extreme the weather might be, an average home can retain enough heat for 8 to 12 hours in winter to remain above freezing. All the same, you’ll still want to retain as much heat as possible. Smaller spaces are easier to heat. If power isn’t restored in about an hour, then it’s time for everyone to put on extra layers and hang out in a more centralized part of your house. Preferably, this would be a room with the fewest exterior walls. Close off upstairs rooms since this will slow the loss of heat from the center of the house. Make sure all windows are covered with drapes or spare blankets to slow heat loss. If the power outage goes on for more than 48 hours, and it’s hard to stay warm, you may want to move everyone into your basement because earth temperature is between 45 and 50°. If this isn’t an option, consider leaving your home and moving to community shelter. Going to a shelter is more important when the safety of infants or elderly adults is at stake.

As the temperature drops, you’ll want to look out for your home’s plumbing as well. Because water pipes run through exterior walls, they are the first to freeze. While some suggest allowing water taps to trickle, the fool-proof way to prevent them from freezing up and bursting during a power failure in winter is to turn off the main water supply valve and then drain the pipes. This is easy to do, just open every tap in the house. Be sure to fill pitchers with drinking water as well as the bathtub with water for flushing the toilet before turning off the water supply. Remember  you can always turn the water back on long enough to refresh your water supply. Also, water in your water heater tank should stay warm for a long time.

Burning Issue

Always avoid using charcoal or gas grills, bar-b-ques, or kerosene heaters for heat in your home. Apart from the obvious fire hazard, these give off deadly amounts of toxic carbon monoxide (a colorless, odorless gas). Therefore, never burn anything bigger than a candle without adequate exhaust ventilation to the outside. Designate one person to stay awake and watch for fire and make sure they know where the fire extinguisher is located.

Bodily Warmth

Groups of humans give off tremendous amounts of heat in a small space —which can go along way to keeping your family warm. Infants and the elderly are another matter. According to the CDC, infants under one year old lose body heat far more easily than adults and consequently require additional care to keep warm. Older adults over the age of 65 tend to have slower metabolic rates and engage in less physical activity which both make them more susceptible to rapid heat loss.

In any case, when an individual can’t maintain body heat and their body temperature falls below 95°F, they can develop hypothermia. One of the first symptoms of hypothermia is constant shivering. The colder a person becomes, the more confused their thinking. They become sluggish and clumsy and their speech becomes slurred. Recommended first aid is to get the person out of the cold, dry them off, cover them with blankets, and provide them with warm, non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated beverages.

Frost bite is cold weather’s other danger. Frost bite occurs when body tissue freezes, turning it very pale or white. Typical areas affected are the tips of ears, nose, toes, and fingers. These should be warmed slowly to avoid further injury and then examined by a medical professional.

Road Hazards

Once again, the best advice for driving during a winter storm or during extreme winter weather is just don’t do it. But again, if you need to, there are certain things you need to consider so that you will arrive at your destination safe and sound.

Make sure that your radiator fluid is up to handling low temperatures. Generally speaking, a 50-50 mix is good down to minus 15, but it would help to talk to your mechanic first for more detailing information. Note here that wind chill is a factor that applies to people and animals because blowing wind makes it feel colder. Your car’s temperature sensor will register only the air temperature. Make sure, too, that your vehicle’s water pump works well and that the cabin heat system is working normally.

Check over your windshield washer fluid level to confirm it is the winter-mixture (contains ethanol) and carry an extra jug with you to wash off splattering road slush. Also check your rear windshield defroster and that your exhaust system are intact. The CDC has complete checklist here.

Often during bad winter weather, state DOT’s issue “tow bans” which means that if your car goes off the road into a ditch, no one will tow you out until the ban is lifted. Depending where your vehicle gets stranded, you may be forced to wait a long time. Throwing kitty litter or sand under your drive wheels can often help get you back on the road. Many winter motorists keep a bag or two as well as a shovel in their trunk.

If you do get stuck, it might be safer to sit tight in the car and weather the storm. Make sure that the exhaust pipe is not blocked by snow or ice to keep those gases out of the car. Only run the engine for a few minutes at a time and be sure to keep the vents set to re-circulate the cabin air. Idling your engine will provide you with heat and keep your car’s battery charged with electricity for hours. If you think you smell exhaust, open a window to get some fresh air. After all, car exhaust can kill. Experienced winter motorists also take along blankets, hand warmers, and snacks. These help keep them awake and alert until help arrives after the storm passes.

In case you’re curious, the coldest winter night I remember during college was Dec. 24, 1983. The air temp was -40; the wind chill drove it down to -80. I happily stayed inside, huddled under a thick quilt. Hopefully, this extreme winter weather guide will help you avoid, prevent, and weather any storms you and your family might face this year.

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A native of Wyomissing Hills, PA, Vernon Trollinger studied writing and film at the University of Iowa, later earning his MA in writing there as well. Following a decade of digging in CRM archaeology, he now writes about green energy technology, home energy efficiency, DIY projects, the natural gas industry, and the electrical grid.

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