How to Make Your Home Climate-Safe

The world’s climate is changing—but there are things you can do to protect your home and your family from its worst effects.

Extreme weather and climate disasters have become far more common in the U.S. over the last five years—resulting in thousands of lives lost and billions of dollars in damages. Whether it’s extreme heat or cold, flooding or wildfires, hurricanes or tornadoes, it’s happening with greater frequency and more damage than ever before. “We’re heading towards a world that’s going to be pretty inhospitable, where extreme storms become the norm,” says Patrick Donaldson, principal architect at Harka Architecture in Portland, Ore. “We really need to start thinking differently about the way we build.”

Whether you’re already dealing with climate-related damage—or you’re looking to prevent it from happening—you can take steps to protect your home, no matter what your budget.

Keep these ideas in mind the next time as you’re planning home improvements or repairs, to help keep everything and everyone you love safe and sound.

Learn about your climate risk

If you’ve already dealt with flooding, wildfires, storms, or other extreme weather, you probably have a sense of your current risks. But it’s helpful to get a sense of what may happen in the decades to come. Online tools like NOAA’s Climate Explorer and FEMA’s National Risk Index can be good places to start assessing how temperature changes, sea-level rise, and other changes will impact your home and community now and in the future.

That may also help you decide whether it’s worth investing more money in protecting your home. “Ask yourself how long are you planning to be there, and what may happen in that time frame,” says Rob Moore, senior policy analyst on the climate adaptation team at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “If I owned a home in Miami Beach, I’m not sure I’m going to count on being there for 50 years—it could be underwater in that time frame. What investments do I really want to make in a house that I’m not sure is going to be on dry land in 50 years?”

You may also want to review your insurance policy, to make sure that you’re covered for the types of risks that you may face. Regular insurance policies, for instance, don’t usually cover flooding—you’d need to buy separate insurance from FEMA for that, Moore says.

Reduce your energy and water usage

Choosing more energy-efficient appliances, heating and cooling systems, and even energy-efficient light bulbs reduces your family’s carbon footprint, and makes it easier for you to cover your home’s energy needs in the midst of a power failure. “Lower energy use helps slow the speed of climate change, costs less to use, and it opens up the door to be able to use alternative energy sources and stay off the grid,” Donaldson says.

Reducing your water usage can be incredibly important, especially if you’re living in an area that’s at risk of drought. For instance, some homes in the suburbs outside Phoenix have already been cut off from the city water supply, Moore says. “One of the big climate risks is water scarcity and drought. Choosing highly efficient appliances can reduce your household’s water use. That should be near the top of the list.”

Add a backup power source

Power outages are happening more often: The average number per year increased by 78 percent over the last decade, according to Climate Central. Gas-powered generators have been the most common energy backup, but using solar batteries and solar panels can allow you to use the sun’s power by day, and store excess energy to keep your home powered at night. 

Electric vehicles may be another source of energy in a pinch. The electric Ford F-150 can be used as a power generator, and other EV manufacturers are looking for ways to allow drivers to use their car batteries to power essential equipment in the event of a power outage.

Landscape smarter

Something as simple as a shovel, some dirt, and a properly chosen plant or two can make a gigantic difference to your home’s climate safety, energy-efficiency, and even your comfort.

Regrade your property

All you need is a shovel and some dirt to help protect your home from flooding. Make sure your land slopes away from your home, so water naturally flows away during storms, Moore says. If you’re in an area that’s prone to flooding, you can also create rain gardens, lower areas on your property where floodwaters can pool a safe distance from your home.

Choose native plants

Don’t fight the local climate—choosing plants and grasses that are native to your area will result in healthier, easier-to-care-for landscaping. “Especially in areas where water is scarce, hardier native plants need less care and less water,” Moore says. “That also helps reduce fire risk.”

Consider your landscaping placement

Where you plant is almost as important as what you plant. “Planting deciduous trees that shade the south side of house blocks the bulk of that hot, high sun in the summer,” Donaldson says. “In the fall and winter, when you want the sun to come in, the shade’s no longer affecting it.” Trellises with vines placed by windows can also provide shade.

In areas that are prone to wildfires, clear brush and other flammable plants away from your home’s exterior. “Planting a lot of shrubs and big ornamental grasses close to your house can be like tinder,” Moore says.

Extend your downspouts (and maybe add a rain barrel too)

“Most people’s downspouts only lead a foot away from the house,” Moore says. “You want water to drain a minimum of 4 feet away. You can go out to hardware store and buy downspout material for just a few bucks to run it out farther.” A rain barrel will collect the first 50 gallons of water for future use in your gardens, and can help reduce flooding in smaller storms. 

Design with your climate in mind

Your home’s exterior—AKA the “envelope”—should be as strong as possible to protect you from extreme weather. “When you’re thinking about the skin of the building—the roof, walls, and floor, the windows, all the areas that touch outside—you want to think about making them more durable and insulated,” Donaldson says.

Add insulation

“The biggest remodeling bang for your buck is insulating your attic,” Donaldson says. “Since heat rises, you’re losing the majority of heat in your home through your roof.” Insulation keeps your home’s temperature steady longer, reducing your energy bills and helping you stay comfortable longer in the event of a power outage. Donaldson also recommends insulating the basement, and blowing cellulose insulation into the walls to make your home more airtight without disturbing your siding.

Choose climate-savvy materials

You’ll find plenty of options for building materials—but keeping your climate in mind can help steer you toward products will protect your home. In areas where wildfires and extreme heat are common, look for flame-resistant and heat-resistant siding and roofing materials, such as metal or Hardie board, while homes in flood zones need water- and mold-resistant products.

If you’re living in an area that’s started to experience more extreme temperatures, be sure to research the materials you’ll be using to see what guarantees they offer. “A lot of the sealants, finishes, paints, and stains that we use—their warranties are within a certain temperature range,” Donaldson says. “Some of these materials melt, break down and degrade at temperature extremes, so it’s worth researching that before you use it.”

Vinyl windows may also be impacted by temperature shifts. “Vinyl and glass have very different expansion and contraction coefficients, so vinyl moves a lot more than glass,” Donaldson says. “The vinyl heats up and the gasket fails. As we break temperature records, that’s going to be an even bigger problem.” He recommends fiberglass windows as a more climate-safe option.

Be strategic with your exterior paint and roofing colors

Colors like dark gray and black that absorb heat from the sun could make your cooling systems work much harder in hot climates—so opt for white or light colors. “Dark colors may have a benefit if you’re in a cooler climate,” Donaldson says, where they can help your home hold the sun’s heat.

Add architectural details that suit your location

Built-in shutter systems can help protect your doors and windows if hurricanes are an issue in your area, and big, reinforced overhangs can help keep heavy rains and debris away from the home, Donaldson says. Homes prone to flooding may require raising the foundation, putting the house up on pilings, or adding protective eaves to allow water to move around—but not through—the home.

Windows placed strategically to take advantage of breezes can help cool your home at night—then be shut and shaded during hot days to keep your house cool while minimizing A/C usage, Donaldson says.

Protect key systems

Many homes have their heating and cooling systems, water heaters, and appliances like washers and dryers in vulnerable locations, such as basements or garages. Placing them on higher floors, or even just elevating them off of the ground, can be helpful. “Anything you have that’s vulnerable to water coming in, elevate,” Moore says. “That could save you from having to replace them.”

Strategize your improvements

Updating your home for climate safety isn’t likely to be a one-shot deal. But as appliances and systems need replacing, it pays to upgrade them with products that are higher quality and better for the environment. “You may spend more money, but there will be an ROI on that, in fewer repairs later and easier maintenance,” Donaldson says.

Decide what makes the most sense for you—but keep future plans in mind when you do. “Don’t do something now that you’ll have to tear out down the line,” Donaldson says.

Before you balk at the price of a climate-safe improvement, look for local, state, or federal incentives that could help you cover the cost of securing your home. Legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act includes tax credits and other benefits that can make improving your home’s energy-efficiency more affordable.

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