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10 Ways to Avoid Problems and Save Money This Winter

November 4, 2009 by Danilo Bogdanovic  
Filed under Homeowners


The leaves and temperatures are falling, which means it’s time to get your home ready for winter. By taking a little time and energy to do these 10 simple things, you will avoid many potential headaches and save money this winter.

1) Get your head in the gutter – Once the leaves fall, remove them and other debris from your home’s gutters. You can do this be hand, by scraper or spatula or by hiring someone. And once you’ve removed the leaves and debris, give them a good rinse with a hose. This will allow that winter’s rain and melting snow to drain. Clogged drains can form ice dams, in which water backs up, freezes and causes water to seep into the house. As you’re hosing out your gutters, look for leaks and misaligned pipes. Also, make sure the downspouts are carrying water away from the house’s foundation, where it could cause flooding or other water damage.

2) Block leaks – One of the best ways to winterize your home is to simply block obvious leaks around your house, both inside and out, experts say. The average American home has leaks that amount to a nine-square-foot hole in the wall, according to EarthWorks Group.

First, find the leaks… On a windy day, walk around inside your home holding a lit incense stick to the most common drafty areas – recessed lighting, window and door frames, electrical outlets.

Then, buy door sweeps to close spaces under exterior doors, and caulk or apply tacky rope caulk to those drafty spots. Outlet gaskets can easily be installed in electrical outlets that share a home’s outer walls, where cold air often enters.

Outside, seal leaks with weather-resistant caulk. For brick areas, use masonry sealer, which will better stand up to freezing and thawing.

3) Size does matter – You may need to add some insulation to the existing insulation in your attic. Insulation costs a little money, but you get your money back quick. No matter where you live, most say that you need a minimum of 12 inches of insulation in your attic.

And you don’t have to worry so much about R-values. An easy way to check if you have enough insulation is to go into your attic and look for the ceiling joists. If you can see them, you don’t have enough insulation because ceiling joists are 10 or 11 inches at most.

Tip: If you’re layering insulation atop other insulation, don’t use the kind that has “kraft face” finish (i.e., a paper backing). It acts as a vapor barrier and can cause moisture problems in the insulation.

4) Let it burn – Turn your furnace on now to make sure it’s even working, before the really cold weather gets here. A strong, odd, short-lasting smell is natural when firing up the furnace in the autumn – simply open the windows to dissipate it. But if the smell lasts a long time, shut down the furnace and call a professional.

Throughout the winter you should change the furnace filters regularly (check them monthly). A dirty filter impedes air flow, reduces efficiency and could even cause a fire in an extreme case. Toss out the dirty fiberglass filters; reusable electrostatic or electronic filters can be washed.

Tip: It’s a good idea to have furnaces cleaned and tuned annually. Costs will often run about $100-$125.

5) Check your ducts – A home with central heating can lose up to 60 percent of its heated air before that air reaches the vents if ductwork is not well-connected and insulated, or if it must travel through unheated spaces. That’s a huge amount of wasted money, not to mention a chilly house.

Ducts aren’t always easy to see, but you can often find them exposed in the attic, the basement and crawlspaces. Repair places where pipes are pinched, which impedes flow of heated air to the house, and fix gaps with a metal-backed tape (duct tape actually doesn’t stand up to the job over time).

Ducts also should be vacuumed once every few years, to clean out the abundant dust, animal hair and other gunk that can gather in them and cause respiratory problems.

6) Windows – Most newer homes comes with double-pane thermal-insulated windows. If you have single-pane windows, you may want to take down the window screens and put up storm windows, which provide an extra layer of protection and warmth for the home. If you don’t have storm windows, and your windows are leaky or drafty, you may want to seriously consider updating to a more efficient window.

Yes, windows are pricey. So budget to replace them a few at a time, and in the meantime, buy a window insulator kit. Basically, the kit is plastic sheeting that’s affixed to a window’s interior with double-stick tape. A hair dryer is then used to shrink-wrap the sheeting onto the window. (It can be removed in the spring.) It’s not the prettiest thing in the world and is only temporary, but it’s inexpensive (about $4 a window) and it’s extremely effective.

7) Have a chimney? – Ideally, spring is the time to think about your chimney, because chimney sweeps are swamped in the fall/early winter. That said, don’t put off your chimney needs before using your fireplace. A common myth is that a chimney needs to be swept every year. That’s not true. But a chimney should at least be inspected before use each year. You’d be surprised at what you’ll find in your chimney – everything from tennis balls to birds.

Ask for a Level 1 inspection, in which the professional examines the readily accessible portions of the chimney (most certified chimney sweeps include a Level 1 service with a sweep).

Woodstoves are a different beast, however. They should be swept more than once a year. A general rule of thumb is that a cleaning should be performed for every ¼ inch of creosote, anywhere that it’s found. If it’s ash, then it’s primarily lye — the same stuff that was once used to make soap, and it’s very acidic. It can cause mortar and the metal damper to rot.

Tip: Buy a protective cap for your chimney, with a screen. It’s probably the single easiest protection because it keeps out foreign objects (birds, tennis balls) as well as rain that can mix with the ash and eat away at the fireplace’s walls. And forget about what it looks like – buy it for the durability.

Another tip: To keep out cold air, keep your chimney’s damper closed when the fireplace isn’t in use. And for the same reason, woodstove owners should have glass doors on their stoves, and keep them closed when the stove isn’t in use.

8) Go backwards – By reversing the direction of your fan(s) from the summer operation, the fan will push warm air downward and force it to recirculate, keeping you more comfortable. (Here’s how you know the fan is ready for winter: As you look up, the blades should be turning clockwise.)

9) Bleed and wrap pipes – A burst pipe caused by a winter freeze is a nightmare. Prevent it before the first freeze. Before freezing nights hit, make certain that the water to your hose bibs is shut off inside your house (via a turnoff valve), and that the lines are drained. (If you’ve ever had a burst pipe, you know just how much of a pain in the ___ it is and how expensive it is to fix)

Next, go looking for other pipes that aren’t insulated, or that pass through unheated spaces — pipes that run through crawlspaces, basements or garages. Wrap them with pre-molded foam rubber sleeves or fiberglass insulation, available at hardware stores. If you’re really worried about a pipe freezing, you can first wrap it with heating tape, which is basically an electrical cord that emits heat.

10) “Ring the alarm” – This is a great time to check the operation – and change the batteries – on your home’s smoke detectors. Detectors should be replaced every 10 years, fire officials say. Test them – older ones in particular – with a small bit of actual smoke, and not just by pressing the “test” button. Check to see that your fire extinguisher is still where it should be, and still works (you have a fire extinguisher in your house, right?!).

Also, invest in a carbon-monoxide detector – every home should have at least one.

By doing these 10 things, you’ll save yourself from many potential problems and save some money this winter. Do them now – the really cold temperatures will be here before you know it!