How to Climate-Proof Your Home in an Era of Extreme Weather
As the planet warms up and natural disasters increase, here's how to protect your property — and your pocketbook — from climate-related devastation. Photo: Simone Wave/Stocksy
Flooding in Alberta. Wildfire smoke in Quebec. Record high temperatures in British Columbia. A catastrophic ice storm in Ontario and Quebec that left more than a million people without power. In a single year, Nova Scotians endured Hurricane Fiona, which caused an estimated $800 million in insured damages, summer wildfires that destroyed 200 buildings and a storm that dumped a record-breaking 300 mm of water in 24 hours.
As the Earth’s climate changes, extreme weather is worsening. According to the Canadian Climate Institute, a Toronto-based non-profit policy research organization, weather-related disasters are about twice as frequent now as they were 50 years ago.
Canadians face three main perils: Flooding, extreme heat and wildfire. Severe weather caused $3.1 billion in insured damages in 2022, according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada. Living on a warming planet means taking extra measures to protect your home, your health and those you care about. Investing some time and money now, could save lives – and money – in the future.
Here are steps to take to climate-proof your home, whether you rent or own, have a big budget or a small one, no matter where you live.
Fight the Freeze
Rising global temperatures mean an increase in winter rain, freezing rain and sleet – and if it’s cold enough for snow, you might get more of it, like the blizzard that blanketed Buffalo, N.Y., in more than a metre of snow in 2022. Wonky atmospheric patterns may also push cold Arctic air farther south for extended periods. Download the WeatherCAN app for forecasts and alerts tailored to your location.
Power outages can last for days or weeks. Stock up on flashlights, candles, batteries, blankets, non-perishable food and water. Consider buying a portable power generator, a standby generator or a solar panel and battery system. Have shovels and de-icing agents ready and insulate pipes and faucets to keep them from bursting.
Clear the Air
Wildfire smoke contains fine particles that are so tiny they can slip into the lungs and trigger short-term respiratory problems, such as coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing. Protect indoor air quality by adding weather-stripping to your windows and doors for a strong seal.
Keep tabs on air quality and understand the warnings. Many parts of Canada use a modified Air Quality Health Index (AQHI), a collective rating of harmful gases and particulates that tops out at 11+. People with heart or breathing problems, or chronic conditions like cancer, should reduce or stop outdoor activities once it hits seven. Exercise indoors, garden for 30 minutes instead of an hour, or take public transit to work instead of biking.
Get local information from apps like PlumeLabs and IQAir, and stay indoors when AQHI gets to 10, with the windows and doors closed. Invest in an air purifier with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter to clean the air, and make sure it’s the right size for the space.
Beat the Heat
Although flooding and wildfire are the most expensive climate disasters, extreme heat is the deadliest. Aging bodies sweat less than younger ones, and medications can make it harder to cool off naturally.
The number of hot days (over 30 C) are expected to double in some parts of Canada by 2050. Dangerous heat killed 619 people in B.C. during the 2021 heat dome, mostly older adults or people with disabilities who were indoors without air conditioning. Heat pumps use electricity and refrigerants to move heat around, providing air conditioning in summer and heating in winter. Because they use electricity instead of gas or oil, they are often cheaper to run over time and don’t emit greenhouse gases. Seek out government grants and loans to defray the cost.
Keep your windows closed during uber-high temperatures and invest in blinds, shutters, heat-resistant curtains or window films to keep the sun’s rays at bay. Outside, install shade sails or awnings to shield windows; plant shade trees and climbing vines near exterior walls; and arrange potted or hanging plants on balconies.
If you’re planning a larger renovation, update the insulation in the walls and roof, and install a white reflective membrane on a flat or low-sloped roof to deflect the sun’s rays.
Stop the Fire
If you live in a wildfire zone, swap out combustible wood shingles or shakes for a metal roof, asphalt shingles, or other Class A fire-rated roofing materials, and replace vinyl cladding with cement fibreboard, brick, metal or stucco.
Move flammable materials 10 metres from your exterior walls: That means bushes, decorative wood chips and your conveniently located wood pile. In the yard, pick up combustible debris and prune tree branches to two metres above the ground. “Maintaining the vegetation on your property and removing it from near your home can reduce the risk of your home igniting,” says Anabela Bonada, from the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation in Waterloo, Ont.
Hold Back the Flood
Flood-prone homes should have a sump pump; it could save you from getting hit with higher insurance premiums after filing basement flood insurance claims. “We’ve seen those claims in the $75,000, $125,000 and even $240,000 range,” says Glenn McGillivray, managing director at the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, an independent research centre associated with Western University in London, Ont. Make sure you know how it works and test it a few times a year. Add a back-up battery in case the power goes out.
A backwater valve can keep sewage from flowing into your basement when extreme rainfall overwhelms sewers. Outside, convert paved areas to permeable surfaces or planted areas to absorb stormwater and protect your home from overflowing sewers, rivers or streams.
Renters should purchase contents insurance. The landlord is responsible for the building, but not your keepsakes, clothing or electronics. If you live in a basement apartment, tuck your valuable documents into waterproof bins that are stored well off the floor.
Fix Up the Neighbourhood
Climate adaptation is all about community, says Courtney Howard, an emergency room physician in Yellowknife, whose neighbourhood was evacuated due to wildfire risk last summer.
Get to know your neighbours, and their needs, skills and tools. Make your community climate resilient by keeping lawns mowed and trees trimmed, or planting rain gardens to absorb stormwater. Start, or join, a community greening program, and establish a buddy group to check in on more vulnerable neighbours during extreme weather. “Many solutions start with a potluck,” says Howard.
A version of this article appeared in the Dec/Jan 2023 issue with the headline ‘Batten Down the Hatches’, p. 22.