Technically speaking, winter won't officially start for another month. Try telling that to your thermostats, pets and automobiles; they'll feel the effects of winter weather long before Dec. 21. Experts advise drivers, renters, and pet and home owners to take preparative actions now that could save headaches later on in the winter months.
DRIVE CAUTIOUSLY; BE PREPARED
Planning ahead can keep drivers safe during winter-weather conditions, according to Bevi Powell, director of communications for AAA East Central. Safe driving on slippery roads all starts with the rubber.
According to Sue Bloom, shelter manager at Chautauqua County Humane Society, dog owners might consider covering their smaller pets with sweatshirts when letting them outside in order to protect them from the elements.
P-J?photo by Scott Shelters
''Preparation is the most important thing. Make sure you have an aggressive snow tire,'' Ms. Powell said. ''A specialized winter tread may be more aggressive than an all-season tire's tread. In an area with a lot of snowfall, like Western New York, an aggressive winter tread may be preferred.''
Next, drivers should check under the hood. ''Make sure your battery is in great working condition. Especially if the battery is older than three years, you need to get it tested and possibly replaced,'' she said. ''During the first snowstorm, we get a lot of calls at AAA for dead batteries or for stuck vehicles.''
Ms. Powell advises vehicle owners to check their brakes and to use regular windshield-washer fluid, which will not freeze. ''Any problems with your car will get worse during the winter,'' she said.
Once the vehicle is prepared for wintery roadways, the driver must be prepared for adverse conditions. ''Make sure you have some alternate routes to your destinations,'' Ms. Powell said, noting that different paths provide drivers options when conditions or accidents block roadways from use. ''When you're driving in snowy weather, make sure you keep a larger cushion between you and the cars around you.''
If automobile preparation doesn't save a driver from winter-travel mayhem, some final items could prevent additional trouble or injury. ''Make sure you have a safety kit in your car.'' Ms. Powell said, adding drivers should keep their AAA cards with them, along with shovels, flashlights, blankets and lock de-icer in case of emergency.
With a lengthy winter season in southwestern New York, energy costs for many area residents reach their highest points early in the season and don't let up until spring.
New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County's Energy Smart Communities offer tips on how to save renters and home owners money this winter.
According to a press release from Cornell, people shouldn't set their thermostats to higher than 72 during the day when they're in their residence. For every degree a person lowers his thermostat during each 24-hour period, he will save 3 percent on the next heating bill. The release advises people to lower their thermostats when they're out of the house or in bed to as low as 55 or 60 degrees and asks them to avoid opening their windows if their homes get too warm. Instead, the residents should simply turn down their thermostats.
Residents should also take advantage of the elements around them. ''If you have a group of people in your apartment, let the heat they give off help keep your apartment warm. Turn down your thermostat and save some money. Turn the thermostat back up when they leave,'' the release states. ''On sunny days, take advantage of the free heat. Open blinds, shades and curtains, especially if your windows face south, to help keep your apartment warm. At night, close the blinds, shades and curtains to help keep heat in your apartment rather than allowing it to escape through the window.''
The release asks people with hot water heaters to turn them down when leaving for vacation and to set them at 115 degrees normally, while also fixing water leaks, which run up energy bills.
When cooking Thanksgiving dinner or any meal, the release advises residents to cook multiple items at once and to leave the oven closed as much as possible, asking people to not constantly peak at the food.
Other cost-saving tips provided by Cornell to homeowners include: making sure to insulate attics, sealing cracks around windows and doors, insulating outside walls and floors over unheated basements and crawl spaces, choosing energy-efficient windows, and insulating and sealing heating and cooling ducts. Cornell's website advises homeowners to wrap hot water tanks with insulating, water-heating blankets, noting that water heating accounts for 14 percent of a typical energy bill.
Wendy Sanfilippo, WNY Energy Smart Communities Coordinator at Cornell, advises homeowners to take advantage of a free or reduced cost home performance, or energy audit. More information and a list of contractors who take part in the program can be found on nyserda.ny.gov. The site notes that through the use of energy audits, residents can save up to $700 a year.
According to NYSERDA, homeowners experiencing icicle formation should contact a professional to fix the problem. The organization's website tells residents to understand that fixing roof leaks will not prevent future ice build-up and recommends the following: seal air leaks, add insulation, check ventilation and clean gutters.
REMEMBER YOUR PETS
As with most things in life, animal needs and behaviors change with the cooler temperatures and snowy conditions. Sue Bloom, shelter manager for Chautauqua County Humane Society, offered some tips on how to keep your dogs and cats happy this winter.
''When you take your pets out - because they're using the salts on the roads and sidewalks - when you bring them back in you need to check their paws. Wipe their paws off,'' she said. ''Depending on how long they're out, they can get frostbite on them, especially if they're longer-haired. If they're long-coated or short-coated, that's going to make a difference too on how they can deal with the weather out there. If they're smoother-haired, they don't have the ice balls and all those salts eating inside the pad. When you bring them in, wipe them off with a wet cloth and then dry their paws.''
Choosing to leave an animal outside for the season can be a risky maneuver, according to Mrs. Bloom. ''Most of the dogs, or even cats, if they're outside, you want to provide them some type of housing. Dogs are supposed to have houses with a cover over the top and it should not be directly in a wind area," she said. "Put some hay in there to keep the heat. A lot of people tend to put blankets in there, but they tend to get wet and freeze.''
Not all houses are for all dogs. ''A dog house should fit the dog,'' Mrs. Bloom said. ''A lot of people also forget that the water freezes. It's really hard for the animals to get enough water out of an ice cube. You need to change that frequently. They have heated water dishes. They're going to need more food to stay warm. As the weather drops, bringing that animal in at all costs would be best.''
After bringing pets in for the winter, area residents might have some other obstacles to overcome.
''Some Christmas items, like poinsettias, can be poisonous. Animals cannot digest tinsel or garland. Cats will pull the lights off the trees. They might chew through the wires and electrocute themselves,'' Mrs. Bloom said. ''You can block off the area so the animal can't drink from the tree. Maybe consider buying an artificial tree.''
An increase in activity around the holidays can affect an animal's mood and behaviors. ''You've got a lot of people coming in and out. Your animal may not be used to that. You should have a safe place for your animal to go in your home in case they're not comfortable with that,'' Mrs. Bloom said. ''Your dog or cat might be sick because people gave them too many table scraps. It's easier to just eliminate that situation by not having your pet around the dinner table.''
Throughout the rest of the winter, cat and dog owners can keep their animals active and in shape. ''There's plenty of activities that can be done inside. You could hide your cats' snacks around the house. They're born to hunt,'' Mrs. Bloom said. ''Hide and seek is a great one. That way they can come find you. It gives them something to do. If you have carpeted stairs, throw the ball up, and they can chase it up and down the stairs.''
Owners should go outside with their animals, according to Mrs. Bloom. ''Take your animal out with you when you're shoveling. A lot of times, animals don't want to go outside because you're not outside. Tying a dog out on a chain is different than taking them out for a walk. You might need to put in that extra effort,'' she said. ''If you have a yard where your dog goes, shovel that area. Some dogs with little feet, giving them a little better area, giving them that extra incentive will give them a chance to go out, go potty and even play. We don't like to walk through snow up to our knees. It's the same thing with them. It gives them that space to move around without being totally frozen.''
Finally, remember that some small, thin-coated dogs might need a little extra something to keep warm on those cold winter days. ''Put a coat on the smaller breeds,'' Mrs. Bloom said. ''It doesn't have to be anything fancy. It could be a kids' sweatshirt that you put on them and just take it off when it comes back in.''