Herb Denenberg Column for week of November 18, 2002


In todayís insurance market, smart insurance buyers and smart consumers are putting more emphasis on preventing losses in the first place, and minimizing the severity of any losses that cannot be avoided. Thatís important for a number of reasons. First, by striving to prevent loss you may be avoiding accidents that can lead to death, injury and property damage. Second, by preventing loss you can save money, as even the best insurance policy does not pay for all of your losses and doesnít even attempt to compensate for the inevitable disruption and inconvenience associated with losses. Third, by preventing losses you escape the deductible burden, which falls on the policyholder. Fourth, by pre- venting loss, you can avoid submitting claims to the insurance company. Thatís an important plus as each claim submitted makes more likely your non-renewal and may assure difficulty when trying to place insurance with another company.


With winter coming up, this is the perfect time to take loss prevention steps which can help you avoid submitting claims under your homeowners policy, and which can also more importantly prevent death, injury, and loss of property.


Here are some steps most homeowners should be taking right now:


CHECK HEATING SYSTEM. The Insurance Information Institute (III) recommends that you check your furnaces, boilers and chimneys once a year. That can be an important step in preventing fire, smoke damage and carbon monoxide poisoning. While youíre at it install a carbon monoxide detector, an essential safety measure for any home with a furnace or other potential generator of death by carbon monoxide. Also be sure you have smoke detectors in every bedroom, in the halls outside of each bedroom, and on every floor. Make sure theyíre working.


CONSIDER INSTALLING A CENTRAL STATION ALARM SYSTEM. This step is one of the most important you can take in preventing loss. A central station alarm can provide protection when youíre not there, perhaps making it possible to catch a fire or other peril before it is out of control. Furthermore, a central station system can be designed to assure youíll hear the alarm in every room, regardless of which detector picks up the sign of trouble. Iíd recommend a burglar alarm, smoke and heat detectors, a carbon monoxide detector, a water-rise detector (which can pick up flooding in the basement), and a freeze detector (to alarm when the temperature starts dropping to dangerous levels, likely to lead to freezing).


CLEAN AND CHECK THE GUTTERS. If youíre gutters arenít working, water can back up in them when ice and snow starts to melt. That can lead to ice damming, which forces water to back up through the roof into the house. Ice damming claims can lead to extensive damage immediately and complications later on such as mold. Devices to keep leaves and other debris out of gutters are now designed so they actually work, something that was not always the case. While youíre checking on your gutters, make sure your grounds have the right slope to carry water away from the foundation. That is important to prevent leaky basements, and to help minimize the possibility of termites.


INSULATE PROPERLY. The Insurance Information Institute says if too much heat escapes through the roof, it can cause ice and snow to melt and then refreeze. That in turn causes more build-up of snow and ice. This cycle can cause roof collapse and can contribute to ice damming. According to the III, the attic should be five to ten degrees warmer than the outside air. In addition, proper insulation of crawl spaces and basements helps prevent pipes from freezing.


MAINTAIN MINIMUM HOUSE TEMPERTURE. The III says that unless a home is kept at least 65 degrees, thereís a danger of pipes in walls (where the temperature is lower than that of the house) freezing.


KEEP TREES IN SHAPE. Winter winds and storm can bring down branches and even trees. So it makes sense to keep them pruned and trimmed in order to avoid injury to people and surrounding property. This also can help avoid injury to the trees themselves.


KNOW YOUR PLUMBING. The III recommends knowing where your pipes are and where your water shut-off valve is. In the event of a burst or leaking pipe you want to take action immediately. The III says if your pipes do freeze, shut down the water system immediately to minimize damage.


KNOW OTHER EMERGENCY SHUT-OFF LEVERS. An oil heating system should have an emergency shut-off button, usually located at the top of the basement stairs. If you donít have one, get one installed. Everyone should know where it is and what to do in the event of a problem with the heating system. Different parts of the plumbing system may also have shut-off levers.


TAKE SPECIAL CAUTION WITH PORTABLE HEATERS. Among the most hazardous of home appliances and equipment are portable heaters. Make sure they are in good shape and are properly used and maintained. Read owners manuals and follow recommended precautions. For example, keep them away from curtains and other possible sources of ignition.


PROPERLY MAINTAIN STAIRS AND HANDRAILS. These can be especially dangerous when covered with ice and snow. So make sure they are in good shape at all times. Many safety experts recommend double handrails both inside and out. Try to have all snow cleared as soon as possible to avoid slips and falls.


TAKE SPECIAL PRECAUTIONS IF HOUSE IS UNOCCUPIED FOR EXTENDED PERIOD. One such precaution is to have the water system drained by a professional. This will help avoid freezing and burst pipes. If a home is unoccupied, take the standard precautions to make sure someone is periodically checking on it in case problems develop in your absence.


DRAIN OUTSIDE WATER FAUCETS BEFORE ADVENT OF FREEZING WEATHER. If you have hose faucets on the outside of your house, make sure to drain them and shut the inside valve before freezing weather comes. Itís also a good idea to disconnect, drain and store outside hoses.


STAY ON TOP OF HOUSE MAINTENANCE. If itís broke, fix it and fix it right away. Keep your home in good condition, and youíll avoid problems and insurance claims. For example, Jeanne Salvatore of the III says that many of the expensive and sometime disastrous mold claims might have been eliminated by good maintenance and quickly fixing leaks and other water and moisture problems.


(Herb Denenberg is a former Pennsylvania Insurance Commissioner and consumer advocate.)

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