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Central Texas, get winter ready: How to prepare home, car, pantry and more

Nicole Villalpando
Austin American-Statesman

Last winter in Central Texas was eye opening. Many of us realized how unprepared we are to be without heat or water for days in a row.

The Farmers' Almanac is predicting a cold winter, but not as severe as last year. 

Winter weather predictions:Farmers' Almanac predicts another cold winter in Texas

The National Weather Service is telling us that it is a La Niña year, which means it should be warmer and drier than normal. 

Snow covers Schieffer Avenue last February. While weather forecasts don't include the same scenario this winter, now is the time to get everything you would need in case of a severe event.

Winter weather forecast:What is La Niña weather? What is a La Niña winter? What does it mean for Central Texas?

Whatever winter brings, now is the time to get ready for any low temperatures or winter ice or snow storms that might happen.

Stock up on essentials

As we learned from last winter, we can't always count on our electric appliances, including ovens and refrigerators. We also can't count on our ability to get to a store or have power and heat. Here are some essentials to have ready:

Multiple flashlights and batteries. Avoid using candles, which are a fire hazard.

Bottled water. Keep one gallon of bottled water per person per day for drinking. Plan for seven days. Also grab extra bottles for washing dishes and bathing.

Nonperishable food and a manual can opener. Food optoins include canned meats, soups, vegetables and fruits; peanut and other nut butters; and pantry snacks such as granola bars and crackers.

Mary Holmes cleans dishes with water from milk jugs and cooks her family dinner after she lost water in February. She filled up milk jugs with water from her work to boil and use at home. Her home also was without power for more than 65 hours.

First aid kit with bandages, alcohol wipes, antibiotic cream, burn cream, ankle wraps, thermometer, fever reducer/pain reliever, and an antihistamine like Benadryl. 

Medications and medical supplies. Have at least a week's worth of medication on-hand at all times. If your medication has to be kept cold, have freezer packs and a cooler ready to go. 

Warm clothing and blankets. Layers are your friends to keep you warm.

Firewood, fire starters and lighters. If you have a fireplace, that can be really helpful in staying warm.

Diapers and wipes. Have at least a week's worth. 

Pet food and supplies. 

A shovel and buckets. We now know the power of turning snow into water for flushing toilets. A shovel also can help clear snow from driveways and sidewalks.

Sand, salt or cat litter. Add traction to icy sidewalks and driveways.

Battery powered or hand crank weather radio.  

Portable cellphone chargers.

Cash. If power is widely out, but roads are passible, ATMS won't be working. 

Medical equipment. Have a plan for how to power any essential medical equipment you use at home. This might include a battery backup or backup generator.

Austin response:'Overwhelming, cascading community impacts': Report highlights Austin's failures during freeze

Ivan Gonzales, from left, works with his brother-in-law Gabriel Martinez  to assist a motorist up a hill on Cherrywood Road in Austin in February. Many drivers became stranded last winter after layers of snow and ice fell on the roads.

Get your car ready

Catch up on maintenance now, especially if you have been working at home and not driving as much. Are your tires and brakes in good shape? Try to keep your gas tank full. 

Once winter weather starts, avoid driving. If you do get stuck, have an emergency kit in your car. It should include:

• Jumper cables

• Sand or cat litter

• A flashlight with extra batteries

• Warm clothes and blankets

• Bottled water and nonperishable snacks

• A scraper to scrape off ice from the car 

Rebecca Wright fills a recycling bin full of snow to boil into drinking water at her home in Austin in February. A pipe broke, leaving her without water.

Get your house winter ready

Do an insurance assessment. Do you have adequate insurance if water comes in from rain, snow or a broken pipe? Does your insurance match the rise in the value of your house and the cost to rebuild your home?

Get your heater serviced. Make sure that everything is working properly before it gets any colder. Most heat pumps last about eight to 12 years. Furnaces last 10 to 15 years. Most people change out their heat pumps and furnaces with their air conditioners — which last only 10-13 years in Texas — because the systems have to be matched. In heat pumps, the compressors tend to go out; in gas furnaces, it's the igniter. Do the maintenance on your system to extend the life as long as possible.

Your heater might need to be replaced if it is more than 15 years old, needs frequent repairs, there's an extreme increase in energy bills even when your thermostat is set on low, it's making loud or unusual noises, or the temperature is not consistent. 

Check the water heater. Most water heaters last 10-12 years. New water heater standards that went into practice in 2015 mean that new water heaters save more energy, but are larger and might not fit in your standard water heater closet. See if your water heater might be on it's way out, so you can make the change and possibly remodel before you have no hot water.

Get the chimney swept and the dryer vent, too. You should get your fireplace cleaned every 50 fires, or every cord of wood for a wood-burning fireplace. While you’re at it, the same company also can clean out your dryer vent. That should be done once a year. Even if it isn’t time to clean the fireplace, make sure the damper is working and the flue is open. The chimney sweep removes the creosote that clings to the chimney and inspects it to make sure there hasn't been a chimney fire and that there are no cracks or animals taking up residence. Most fireplaces last about 20-30 years before cracks start to appear. Shifts in the foundation might add to cracking.

Never use a liquid accelerant, gasoline or charcoal in the fireplace. Instead use fire starters. A couple of household items also can do the trick. Roll dryer lint into little balls or coat cotton balls with Vaseline. You also can open up a snack pack of Doritos or Fritos and sprinkle those chips between the wood. The oil content is highly flammable.

Don't use newspaper, other kinds of paper or garbage. It can break up and fly away easily. 

Make sure you leave 2 feet of space around the fireplace and use the screen whenever there is a fire going. Don't store wood or anything flammable next to it. Keep the damper open even after the fire has ended until you no longer feel heat from the fireplace.

James Farr, service technician and journeyman plumber, with Radiant Plumbing & Air Conditioning, replaces a tankless water heater in Dianne Hill's home. Her water heater broke in the storm last February.

Call the plumber. Much of the damage from last year's winter blast came from pipes breaking. Have the plumber check for pipe leaks as well as that all the toilets are flushing properly, the faucets are not leaking and the showers have good water flow. A good rule of thumb is to do preventative maintenance on your plumbing every six months to a year and use a water softener to help pipes avoid mineral deposits.

Stock up on pipe insulation. Buy a pipe insulator or faucet cover to slip onto any exposed pipe or faucet when the temperature dips. If you already have pipe insulation installed, make sure it’s in good shape.

Check the attic insulation. Insulation compresses with time. Most attics are designed to have about an R-39 value, so you’ll want about 13 inches to 14 inches of insulation.

Look at the roof. Winter and spring tend to be wetter in Austin, and your roof has just taken a beating from the summer sun. Are there missing or folded-up shingles or granules falling to the ground? You want to see shingles in straight lines. If you see a dip, it could be an indication of roof rot.

Clear the gutters. This is the time of year when they get clogged with leaf and plant debris. You don’t want them backing up and damaging the roof.

Refresh the landscaping. Our landscaping got severely damaged by the February freeze. If you didn't see foliage come back, you now can designate that plant or tree as dead. Fall is the best time to plant those trees and shrubs so they take root before the heat of summer.

Weather-proof around doors and windows. Check the caulking around windows and doors for leaks. Add weather stripping around the doors if you don’t have it or the old stripping is worn. This will help you keep in the heat during the winter.

Check the settling of the structure. As the weather shifts, so does your home. Doors and windows might start to stick. You might just need someone handy to adjust door and window locks. If you’re seeing cracks in the drywall and foundation, you want to call a foundation repair company to take a look.

Call the electrician. Make a list of things that aren’t working and make one appointment to save some money.

Change the batteries in the smoke detector and carbon monoxide detectors. If you didn’t do it with the time change, what are you waiting for?

Alternative heat:Austin Energy got few requests for home generator help. Since February's freeze, it's gotten hundreds more

Icicles hang from agave plants on East Side Drive in Austin last February. The cold killed many agaves. Now is the time to replant.

Have a communication plan

Who do you need to check on in an emergency? Who will check on you? Print or write out necessary phone numbers. 

We rely heavily on cellphones for information now. Have a variety of portable chargers that are plugged in and ready to go in case you have a loss of power. Consider getting a solar-powered charger to use if power goes out for an extended period of time.  

Be ready to leave

If it's not safe to be in your house because of pipes breaking or a lack of heat, know where you will go. Keep up to date with where emergency shelters are being set up.

Also, have essential documents, such as insurance plans, Social Security card, driver's license, passport and birth certificates, in one water-proof, fire-proof place that can be grabbed in an emergency.

More resources

Texas A&M has a great severe weather home page: tamu.edu/emergency/procedures/severeWeather.html.

Ready.gov has a whole preparedness plan as well as more disaster resources.

The National Weather Service also offers guides: weather.gov/safety/winter.