Things Your Parents Didn't Tell You About Taking Care of Your Home: Winterizing Your Home
The excitement of owning your first home can be intense and overwhelming. The opportunity to make each room a reflection of you and your tastes, to fill the rooms with things that are meaningful to your family, and to become a part of your new neighborhood can quickly fill up your first few months in a new home. But after you’ve had a chance to settle in, the weather starts cooling off, and the leaves start turning beautiful colors, you realize there may be things you need to do to prepare your home for the change in seasons.
Winterizing your home is an important, but all too often overlooked, part of maintaining a household. Properly protecting your home against cold weather can help save money, increase your personal comfort, and reduce the chance of expensive problems like burst pipes. Many of these steps you will want to do before freezing weather sets in to head off any problems that the cold weather may cause. The first frost date for your area is a good approximation for the onset of cold weather, and there are several agricultural sites that allow you to look up the average first frost by zip code. Some areas of the U.S. can experience their first frost as early as September, so it’s good to know what to expect for your area.
While many of the steps here are simple and cheap, some can get costly. Luckily, the federal and state governments offer tax credits and weatherization assistance for some purchases. The US Department of Energy has a guide on seeking weatherization assistance from the state, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program has a guide on federal tax credits for energy-efficient purchases. Be sure to check these each year, as guidelines and eligibility requirements can change.
Before the Frost:
Remove dead tree branches: Prune back any dead or damaged tree branches, especially if they overhang your house or parking space. Dead branches are more likely to break and fall in a snow or ice storm, potentially damaging your property and passerby. You should also remove any branches that could damage your home or car if they fell, even if the branch is healthy.
Use caulk and weather-striping: According to the US Department of Energy, having a drafty house can increase your energy bill by as much as 5% to 30%. Caulk and weather-striping are effective methods to seal leaks. Window frames are a frequent source of drafts, as is anywhere that two materials meet (such as around the chimney, in corners, where pipes exit the house, and around the foundation). You can test for leaks manually, by walking around on a chilly night and feeling where cold air gets in, or using the incense test. The incense test involves turning off any fans, lighting a stick of incense, and running it near potential leaks. If the smoke wavers, there’s a breeze, which means air is getting in and out. (Move flammable objects away from where you’ll be testing. Incense doesn’t typically get too hot, but better safe than sorry.)
Prepare to keep out under-door drafts: The space under exterior doors is another major place that drafts can pass through. Make or buy a door snake (or door guard) to keep out the cold. Rolled up towels will do in a pinch, or you can make a cute DIY door snake to help guard your house against the wind. You can also put door snakes on interior doors, if you’re trying to preferentially heat a single room.
Improve insulation: Repairing, installing, or improving your house’s insulation can be one of the most effective ways to increase your home’s energy efficiency. Adding insulation is also one of the easiest home improvement projects to do yourself, and it can add value to your home. Insulation is important between walls, in your attic’s floor, and in your basement’s ceiling. You can also install insulation between floors. How much and what type of insulation you’ll need will vary depending on where you live and what part of the house is being insulated (attics need more insulation than walls or floors). The U.S. Department of Energy has a guide outlining the different qualities of insulation needed for different locations and uses.
Winterize A/C and water lines: This is a step that will typically require a professional to help with, but even with that cost can save you money in the long run. Talk to neighbors about who they use, or contact your local better business bureau for recommendations. You can also usually purchase a cover for your air conditioner that can help to keep out snow and debris. If you have a window A/C unit, you may want to remove it and put it in storage till the spring.
Have a professional check and seal ducts: Your air ducts form a core part of both your central heating and A/C system. Sealing your ducts properly can lead to massive savings in both the winter and summer, since the air will stay cold or hot longer. Properly sealed ducts also reduce incidence of dust and mold in your air. You can hire a professional to come to your house to check and seal your ducts. However, be leery of ‘duct cleaning’ services – most homes don’t need them. Your utility company might offer incentives to improve your ducts.
Insulate pipes: Insulating your pipes will help you save on heating water and can reduce the risk of pipes bursting. Most hardware stores sell pre-slit foam that can be easily wrapped around your pipes. Pay attention to the foam’s R-rating. The R-rating is a measure of how effective the insulation is. Most pipe insulation ranges from R-3 to R-7. Higher R-ratings offer better insulation. You can also insulate your hot water heater.
Install more efficient doors and windows: Modern, energy-efficient glass can raise the value of your home and help you save on both heating and A/C. Make sure any windows you purchase are Energy Star qualified. You can also install storm windows or a storm door over or behind existing, low-efficiency windows and doors. Storm windows are mostly helpful in areas prone to inclement weather and/or temperatures far below freezing.
Buy a window insulation kit: Window insulation kits are a cheaper and easier alternative to installing new windows or storm windows. You can get them for as little as a few dollars. If your area doesn’t get particularly cold in the winter, a window insulation kit might actually be a more cost-effective solution. Larger kits can also be used to insulate sliding glass doors.
Replace worn or missing roof shingles: Holes in your roof can let warm air escape and cold water enter, increasing the risk of frost and water damage and increasing your heating bills. If you’re not comfortable repairing the roof yourself, call a professional.
Have your chimney inspected and cleaned: A blockage in your chimney could trigger a house fire, or redirect smoke down into your house. Get a certified chimney sweep to check your chimney for problems and remove things like animal nests and built up suit. Chimney sweeps start getting busy in the late fall and winter, so it’s best to get your chimney inspected well ahead of the cold season. Fortunately, you only need to get your chimney checked once a year.
Have your furnace inspected: Call an HVAC professional to check your furnace out, to make sure that it’s running efficiently and safely. Damaged or old furnaces can cause massive safety problems, including carbon monoxide buildup, on top of increased energy usage and utility bills. The HVAC professional might also be able to clean and properly adjust your furnace. Many utility companies offer a free annual inspection, and some furnace manufacturers also offer inspections at a discount. HVAC crews get busy once heating season arrives, so a furnace inspection is another thing that it’s best to schedule early.
Change out filters: Check your furnace and air filters before heating season starts, and replace them if the filter looks dirty. Standard, disposable filters should be replaced once a month during heating season. Consider installing a permanent filter instead (they’re also called washable or electrostatic filters). Permanent filters are washed instead of replaced, reducing waste. They trap on average over twice as much debris as a disposable filter. A permanent filter should still be washed once a month and allowed to dry before re-installation.
Stock up ahead of time: Make certain your snow blower and shovel are in good repair, and replace them before it snows if needed. Also stock up on sand or salt for your driveway, along with non-perishables for your pantry, and any other winter supplies. People often wait until it snows to buy a new shovel, fill their pantry, or refill on propane, risking the stores running out. It’s always a good idea to keep at least three days’ to a week’s worth of non-perishable food, water, medicine, hygiene supplies, and other necessities in your house, in case power gets knocked out and you’re unable to reach the store.
During the winter:
Modern Single Family Home In Snow
A few steps should be taken once the cold weather really sets in, to help keep costs down and keep your home warm and cozy.
Check smoke and CO detectors: Ideally, you should check your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors once a week. Find out what type of batteries they need, and make sure to keep a supply on hand so you can change out any depleted batteries. The winter sees an uptick in house fires and cases of carbon monoxide poisoning, so exercise extra caution about both.
Run ceiling fans in reverse: Running the fan during the winter sounds counterintuitive, but it can actually be a big help. During the summer most people set their fans to run in a counterclockwise direction so that air is blown down. But in the winter, it’s recommended that you run your ceiling fans on a low speed in a clockwise direction so that air is drawn upward. This will gently pull air upward, forcing the warmer air on the ceiling back down and balancing a room’s overall temperature.
Make use of natural light and heat: Although the sun’s effects will be less noticeable in the winter, it can still have a warming impact on your home if used effectively. If you can, keep curtains on south-facing windows open during the day to let the sunlight in. Close curtains at night to help keep heat from leeching back out the windows after the sun goes down.
Turn down the thermostat: Especially if you’re not going to be home, consider cranking the thermostat to a lower setting. (You can buy a smart or programmable thermostat if you want the house to be warmed back up before you arrive, but not be wasting heating while you’re away.) Even a few degrees’ difference can result in fairly good savings on heating.
Dress warmly: You know how your parents were always saying “If you’re cold, put on a sweater”? Once you are the one paying the bills, you’ll probably appreciate their wisdom a little more. A warm sweater and slippers can go a long way towards staying comfortable in the winter.
Keep gutters clean: Clean gutters allow water to flow freely, reducing the chance that water will freeze in the gutters. Clogged gutters, on the other hand, worsen problems with icicles and run the risk of being damaged by the ice.