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Worst cold snap in two years—tips on staying safe, warm and energy-efficient in Illinois winters

In recent weeks, Illinois has been hit with snow and dangerously cold temperatures—the worse conditions since the polar vortex of January 2019. 

Here are some tips to stay warm, safe and energy efficient. 

Staying safe in low temperatures

  • Check on neighbors and loved ones. If you or someone you know doesn’t have access to heat, Keep Warm Illinois lists warming centers near you.
  • Be careful when doing outdoor tasks like shoveling snow. Wear multiple layers of lightweight clothing rather than one thick garment, as this will help keep you insulated. Make sure to cover your head, wear mittens and take frequent breaks.
  • We know pets can be part of your family, too. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has plenty of cold-weather tips for your pets.
  • Remember: Stay inside if you can, and be wary of the wind chill. Prolonged exposure to cold can lead to frostbite and hypothermia. (Know the signs!)

Prepare yourself for wintry weather

Be ready to report any outages to your utility company. Wintry weather can spark power outages. By reporting these failures, utility companies can get to work as quickly as possible to restore your power. The following is a list of resources from the major utility companies operating in Illinois.

Know the numbers for your local and state emergency management agencies. When bad weather strikes, remember that you are not alone. The State of Illinois has a number of emergency resources available to people in need.

For more information, read our five steps to prepare for bad winter weather.

Home tips and energy efficiency

Practicing energy efficiency is the safest and most reliable way to stay warm during the winter. Here’s what we recommend at CUB:

  • Keep your home at a steady, safe temperature (about 68-70 degrees). Blasting the heat can be bad for your furnace and your heating bills, but going too low is dangerous to your health.
  • Don’t overwork your heating system. Clean your radiators, air returns, vents and make sure your furniture isn’t blocking any sources of heat. Close blinds as an extra layer of protection against icy night winds. But open them during the day so sunlight can help heat and light your home.
  • Circulate the heat with the help of a ceiling fan. (In the winter, run the fan clockwise.) Make sure to turn the fan off when you leave.
  • Cold weather is a great way to discover drafts in your home. Sealing your windows and doors with weather strips will help prevent cold drafts from coming through. If you’re not able to seal drafts immediately with tools from the hardware store, roll-up a towel and push it against the bottom of doors to temporarily reduce the drafts during extreme weather. Drafts not only let heat escape from your home, but they can cause money to escape from your wallet! According to Energy.gov, poor insulation can account for up to 30 percent of your energy bills.

Preventing frozen pipes

Take  extra steps to prevent frozen pipes, which is a costly repair:

  • Let your faucets (just barely) drip water overnight to prevent pipes from freezing. Consider collecting the water to use for later, such as watering houseplants. During a relatively brief cold-weather snap,a short-term trickle is less costly than a burst pipe, one water company says
  • Open your cabinet doors under the sink to expose pipes to warmer room temperatures. (If you have small children at home, just remember to hide any harmful cleaners and chemicals.)
  • Do not turn the heat off at night. If you’re going out of town, do not keep your home lower than 55 degrees–that could cause the pipes to freeze and burst. Have a friend or neighbor check your home periodically to ensure your pipes don’t freeze.

Tips on heating safety

  • Fireplaces can be warming and cozy, but dirty chimneys account for 27 percent of home-heating fires. As with space heaters, keep objects away from fireplaces. Efficiency tip: When you’re done using the fireplace, close the damper so warm air doesn’t escape up the chimney.
  • As the Illinois Dept. of Public Health points out, “any heater that uses wood, coal, natural gas, or kerosene produces carbon monoxide (CO), so adequate ventilation is essential.” To prevent possible carbon monoxide poisoning, only use generators outdoors and avoid warming up your car inside your closed garage. (Know the signs of poisoning.) Install carbon monoxide alarms in central locations on every level of your home and outside sleeping areas to provide early warning of problems. Make sure they’re all in working order.
  • It may be tempting during extreme cold, but don’t use an oven or grill to heat your home. If you use a space heater, keep children and pets away from it. Place it on a hard, level surface; keep it away from flammable objects; and don’t leave it on overnight. Also, the Department of Energy recommends that such heaters should be plugged directly into the wall outlet. (If an extension cord is necessary, use the shortest possible heavy-duty cord of 14-gauge wire or larger. Check and follow any manufacturer’s instructions.) The department also recommends buying a unit with a safety switch that automatically shuts off the heater if the unit is tipped over.