How to keep your house warm and safe during the polar vortex

  • Experts say keep a thin stream of water flowing from a faucet where pipes are near an outside wall to guard against pipes freezing.

    Experts say keep a thin stream of water flowing from a faucet where pipes are near an outside wall to guard against pipes freezing. Associated Press

Updated 1/29/2019 6:57 PM

I'm supposed to keep the kitchen sink faucet dripping.

Or is it streaming? And should I run out to the hardware store to buy one of those plastic-foam garden hose bib protectors?



Settle down.

Perfect Home Services President Justin Carrol, and one of his plumbers, Joe Sandoval, talked me off the ledge, as did Lisa Cooper, spokesman for State Farm insurance.


1. Now is not the time to be frugal with the heat. If you normally program your thermostat to lower the temperature when you go to bed or leave the house, use its "hold" function instead and set a higher temperature than normal. You don't want the house cooling down, because the furnace may not be able to get the temp back up as high as you want later.

2. Don't panic if you have set the temperature at 70 but the house is a little cooler. Most furnaces won't be able to keep up. Furnaces are likely to run constantly this week, Carrol said. That's a good thing. If you hear the furnace starting and stopping frequently, that may mean it is on the verge of failing, he said.

3. Should I remove the air filter to help the furnace? Carrol said it won't improve the heating ability, but it can help extend the life of a failing furnace a little, by preventing its motor from overheating.

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4. If you have a high-efficiency furnace, make sure the air intake and exhaust pipes sticking out the side of your house are kept free of ice and snow

Good luck getting a heating contractor. Carrol says he has everyone working at his 30-person Lisle-based firm, and they are triaging requests. "We're doing an all-hands-on-deck here," he said.


Cooper said an eighth-inch crack can leak 250 gallons of water a day. In 2018, the No. 1 cold-weather damage claim State Farm had was for water damage from frozen pipes -- about 1,500 claims, costing $27 million -- she said.

1. Keep a thin stream of water flowing from a faucet where pipes are near an outside wall. (For many of us, this is the kitchen sink.) Sandoval and Cooper say run both the hot and cold. Don't worry about a frozen drainpipe, Sandoval said; they are bigger than service lines, usually at least 1½ inches.

2. If your toilet is along an outside wall, flush it from time to time, even if it hasn't been used.

3. Find the main water shut-off valve in the house. Practice turning it off. Because if a pipe does freeze, turning the water off before the pipe thaws will minimize water damage. Don't force the valve if it is stuck. And if you do have a leak and can't move the valve, call your town's public works department. Municipal workers will come out and turn off the water via the underground valve in something called a "buffalo box."


4. Insulating your pipes won't prevent freezing, Sandoval and Carrol say. Better to insulate the wall behind the pipes on those outside walls. But for now, keep the cabinet doors under the sink open, and you can point a space heater at the cabinet, Sandoval said. "It just all comes down to what temperature your water pipe is exposed to," Carrol said. (The Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety still recommends pipe insulation.)

5. If you have a shut-off valve for your garden hose faucet inside the house, close the valve. Then take the hose off the faucet, drain what water is left in the faucet, and shut it off.

6. If you turn on a sink and nothing comes out, assume a pipe is frozen, Carrol and Sandoval said.

7. Is your water heater 8 years old or older? Keep an eye on it. Water coming in to the heater will be colder this week than usual. Sediment buildup may have led to tank deterioration, making it easier to crack and leak.

Once we reach 10 degrees, you can stop leaving the faucet running and can resume normal furnace operations, according to Carrol.


If you are going to use an electric space heater, Cooper said, make sure it is at least 3 feet from anything that can burn, such as drapes. Don't use it anywhere near water. (If you want to warm up a bathroom for the kids' baths, heat the room, then remove the space heater.) Plug the heater directly into a wall outlet, not a power strip or an extension cord. Don't leave it on overnight or while you are sleeping. Choose one that will shut off if it is tipped over.

Kerosene heaters should use only kerosene, not gasoline. Use them only in well-ventilated rooms, as they emit carbon monoxide, and keep them away from flames and other heat sources.

More advice about space heaters and wood stoves is available at

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