When temperatures drop close to zero, there's more to getting through winter than donning a scarf and drinking a cup of hot cocoa.
Here are some tips to keep your life running smoothly when the winter chill hits dangerous levels.
Keep yourself warm
Frostbite is a serious concern when temperatures fall.
“The most important thing is prevention,” says Dr. Barbara Hoffman at Lancaster General Health Urgent Care, Rohrerstown Road. “Covering exposed areas is critical.”
That means wearing gloves or mittens, boots, hats and lined clothing, Hoffman says. And it’s also important to protect the arms and legs, since cold air can flow up a loose sleeve or pant leg.
If you suspect frostbite, don’t just thrust the frozen extremity under hot water, she warns.
“Doctors recommend gentle re-warming,” Hoffman says. “Simply rub the skin or use lukewarm water.”
Danielle O’Shea, a physician’s assistant at LGHealth, says undamaged tissue should warm up within 20 to 30 minutes. If it takes longer, or if you’re experiencing a numbness or tingling sensation and are unusually clumsy, see a medical professional, she says.
The very young and old are particularly at risk, O’Shea says, as are people with health problems ranging from diabetes to alcoholism.
She says people should dress in layers, with a wicking layer closest to the skin to remove moisture.
“The parts of the body that are most prone to frostbite are the ears, the face, the chin, the fingers and toes,” she says.
Hoffman says it’s also important to keep a blanket or spare clothes in the car in case it’s disabled and you’re stuck in the cold.
Keeping dogs and cats safe
They have fur, so they’ll be fine in this weather. Right?
Wrong, according to Lancaster County SPCA director Susan Martin.
Martin, who doubles as an animal cruelty officer for the county, says she has been flooded with reports of people leaving their animals outside, either free to roam or chained up, in bone-numbing cold.
“I have about 30 cruelty calls to go out on right now,” she said Monday afternoon.
“We’ve already dug up one dog ... that was frozen to the ground.”
Pet owners who keep their dogs outside or who let cats wander at will need to take extra measures when the temperature plummets, Martin says.
“They need to bring them in. They definitely need to be in a heated facility when it gets this cold,” Martin says. “People don’t realize, but dogs and cats are subject to frostbite.”
Some people assume cats can easily find a warm place to curl up, or that dogs make their own heat inside a dog house.
Not true, Martin says.
“When it gets this cold, a dog cannot retain its body heat, even in a dog house,” she explains. “With temperatures like this, if you don’t have a door on the dog house, straw in the dog house and insulation, the dog may not survive.”
When it’s this cold, she says, animals shouldn’t be left outside for more than 10 minutes at a time.
“Even if it’s a bit of a hassle, bring them in,” Martin says. “It’s just temporary, until the weather breaks.”
Keeping your car in working order
Hop behind the wheel and turn the key. Does your car start up quickly, or has the cold left it sitting uselessly in the driveway?
Gary Schmalhofer, owner and head mechanic at Frank’s Garage on Union Street, says cars are better at handling the cold today than they were a few decades ago.
“We see fewer starting problems now,” he says. “Of course I’m old — but I remember 50, 60 years ago, cars just would not start in this kind of weather. Now, the electrical systems are better, ignitions are better.”
That doesn’t mean there aren’t still ways in which cars can be kept at peak performance in sub-freezing weather.
Make sure you’re using the right kind of oil, Schmalhofer says.
Check that your battery is at full power, and consider replacing it if it’s more than four years old.
Top off your antifreeze.
Has your car had a tuneup lately? If not, make an appointment to keep the engine running smoothly.
Keep your tires inflated to 35 PSI, Schmalhofer says. Any lower, and you can run into problems when the cold reduces pressure.
Don’t be too hasty to dump a dry-gas additive into your fuel tank, however. Schmalhofer says gas today has plenty of additives already to help prevent condensation.
Finally, he says, don’t drive with your engine cold.
“You should really warm your car up in this kind of weather,” he warns. “Don’t just jump in and take off.”
The EPA’s Office of Transportation and Ambient Air Quality disagrees with that last suggestion.
“Contrary to popular belief, idling isn't an effective way to warm up most car engines,” according to the EPA website. “Today's automobile manufacturers recommend driving off right away and urge that drivers wait no more than 30 seconds to begin driving, even on the coldest days.”
Keeping your pipes from freezing
Fire was sparked in an East Lampeter Township home last weekend when a resident reportedly tried to heat frozen pipes with a torch.
That’s not the safest way to open up your pipes, according to the American Red Cross.
Here are some suggestions culled from the Red Cross website:
Turn the faucet on and leave it on. As you treat a frozen pipe, water will start to flow and will help melt the remaining ice.
Heat the frozen pipe safely, using an electric heating pad, an electric hair dryer or a portable space heater. You can also try wrapping pipes with towels soaked in hot water.
“Do not use a blowtorch, kerosene or propane heater, charcoal stove, or other open flame device,” the website warns.
If you can’t find the frozen area, if the frozen area isn’t accessible or if you can’t thaw the pipe, call a plumber.
Of course, prevention is better than remedial action after the pipes are frozen. The Red Cross recommends insulating pipes before the mercury drops.
Also, in cold conditions it helps to let cold water drip from any faucets served by exposed pipes. Even a trickle will help prevent pipes from freezing.