Winterize Your Home
Insulating your attic will retain heat in the winter and repel it in the summer.
A worn roof allows warm air to escape.
Improperly draining gutters will freeze and rupture.
Properly caulking your windows will retain heat.
An inefficient furnace wastes money and energy.
Even though Spring is in session, some parts of the country are still feeling the effects of Winter. Sometimes, homes tend to be cold and drafty places. Such is the case with too many homes, and it’s not too late to remedies that situation. Here are 10 things to do to winterize your home, not just for this winter but many winters to come.
Insulate, Insulate, Insulate
Most older buildings in most parts of the country, from blustery Maine to sunny California, simply aren’t well insulated. Indeed, buildings account for nearly 40 percent of all energy used in this country. Nearly 75 percent of all electricity consumed, figures that would fall dramatically if only it were easy to add that insulation after the fact.
It’s not so easy to do so, but it’s possible. If it’s an older home you live in and you have a chance to take off the siding in a major restoration, then you’ll want to wrap the building in a nice sturdy blanket of Tyvek, a metalized, breathable exterior insulation that does wonders for sealing up drafts and saving energy dollars. Tyvek is too thin to act as a standalone insulator, though, so the next step is to blow or foam in insulation in walls and between attic rafters—or, more conveniently in some situations, to lay in prefabricated cells containing insulation material.
None of this is cheap, but in many areas, retrofitting will earn you tax credits, and in some places around the country grants are even available for this purpose, so it’s worth asking around to see about ways to save. (Stop one: the reference desk of the local library.) Winterize your home by reinsulating an existing structure is a tiring and challenging task, but it pays off immediately.
Fix Leaky Roof
Older roofs tend to be inefficient, too. One quick way to improve them is to add a layer of elastic or elastomeric material, a gummy, rubbery polymer that readily adheres to shingles and roofing asphalt. Elastomerizing plugs up obvious holes and helps cut down on water leaks, too, which are all too common when snow and ice melt just in time to exploit the expansion and contraction of standard roofing materials. Even a
coat of simple white paint helps winterize, though it doesn’t do much on the insulation front. Elastomeric paints need to be reapplied every ten years or so, and the process is not inexpensive, but they work well in almost every climate.
While you’re up on the roof, by the way, check to be sure that flashing hasn’t come loose and that shingles or other material are all in place. It’s easy to overlook a missing shingle—and for want of a shingle many a joist or ceiling has been lost. For flashing, often a piece of aluminum tape will do the trick, a minute’s work to save hours of cursing later.
Clean Your Gutters
Leaves fall in fall, and plant debris and dirt fill a gutter at just about any time of year. Winter is no exception, and while cleaning gutters is no one’s idea of fun, it needs to be done regularly. One reason is to prevent the formation of ice dams—that is to say, water that backs up around a clogged gutter drain and then freezes, a good recipe for cracking a gutter in the first place and thus necessitating an even less fun replacement job. If you see a crack just beginning to develop, that aluminum flashing tape can be the stitch in time that saves nine.
Weatherstrip and Caulk
Imagine that you’re a squirrel or a mouse. Yes, it’s a silly exercise, but those critters can get inside your home through impossibly small entryways, and once they’re there they can do a lot of damage. The same is true of cold, of water and ice. Now, with all that in mind, inspect every possible point of entry, from scalloped shingling to siding to window and door frames. I managed to make a once-cold room downright comfortable simply by slipping a length of foam rubber along the sash cord of an old window; the window itself was good and sturdy, but the sash cord had a roomy enough enclosure that cold air managed to work its way in from outside, chilling a now-cozy room.
Caulk and weatherstrip window trim and doorframes, and think of that mouse. Do you have a sweep under your exterior doors? If not, you’re letting just that much more cold air out in summer and cold air in in winter. If you don’t like the looks of a sweep and are at all handy around a sewing machine, make yourself a draft snake. Take a couple of strips of fabric, four to six inches wide and cut to the width of an exterior door, allowing for a few extra inches for flaps. Sew these to form a tube with a closed bottom. Now fill the tube with dry sand, kitty litter, or foam pellets and sew the top shut. Lay the draft snake at the base of exterior doors to block the flow of air inward and outward.
Many buildings lose significant amounts of energy throughout the year through “leaky” single-pane windows. If you have such windows, try this test: Go stand next to one and feel around for moving air. If you can, then it’s a candidate for replacement.
Heat gain or loss can be brought under control through better weather-stripping and caulking. But real efficiency is gained only by putting in new double-paned windows. Many of these feature a narrow space between the layers that is filled with air or argon gas. This improves efficiencies and are particularly recommended for cold climates. Many windows, too, include low-emissivity coatings. New windows can be an expensive proposition. Bu there are often rebate programs or city, state, and even federal tax incentives available that lessen the cost. A side benefit of double-paned glass is that it cuts down on ambient noise coming in from the outside.
Winterize Your Plumbing
If your plumbing pipes run through exposed crawlspace areas or are exposed outside, to say nothing of irrigation and other exterior-supply pipes, then take time before winter’s onset to wrap them. You can buy foam-rubber insulation in various lengths and easily cut it to fit with a box cutter, holding it in place with duct tape. Remember that even plastic pipe can freeze and split, and though it’s more cold-tolerant than metal, it’s worth wrapping as well. You don’t have to use foam-rubber, by the way; old pillowcases, bubble wrap, or similar materials can be put to work. But, foam-rubber is cheap and handy, so there’s no reason why you shouldn’t use it in the first place.
If you have an outdoor sprinkler system, shut it off. Before you do, open all the valves, take an air compressor, and shoot a good stream of air down into the pipes to force out any standing water that might otherwise freeze. Close down hose bibs at the shutoff valve, too, and cover them with screw caps.
Unless you have long professional experience working around furnaces, have yours inspected by a professional before the onset of winter. A professional will have the tools necessary to detect leaks, failing parts, and other bugaboos of a furnace, and furnaces have an uncanny ability to go down at the coldest part of the year, so it’s worth the trouble and expense of bringing in the heavy artillery first thing. An annual inspection
can save big bucks down the road—and replacing an old furnace with a new, energy-efficient one can save even more.
One thing you can do yourself is to check the furnace filter every month. If you’re using a disposable filter, change it out every month or so. (Follow the manufacturer’s instructions.) If you’re using an electrostatic filter, which is common in newer units, then just give it a good rinse to remove trapped dust, dirt, and particulates. Put a reminder in your calendar, since this is the kind of chore that’s all too easy to lose track of.
Reverse Ceiling Fans
Of course, you knew that your ceiling fan has a switch that reverses the blade direction. Switch them so they run clockwise in winter, counterclockwise in summer. The feature is often not well documented—and who reads fan instructions, anyway? —but is worth noting. The idea is to use the air circulation provided by the fan to move warm or cold air most efficiently: hot air rises, cold air sinks. In winter, run the fan at the lowest speed, since you simply want to encourage the air to move along. In the summer, run it at whatever speed you like, depending on whether it’s the principal source of air in the room or working in concert with an air conditioner.
Fireplace & Flue Cleaning
For some reason, too many homeowners take the fireplace for granted: In the winter, they build a fire or two, and in the summer, they pretend the darn thing isn’t there. Well, it is. When the fireplace is in use, it builds up soot, tar, and other residue from burning wood, and this gunk can choke off a chimney over the years. In the summer, conversely, chimneys make inviting homes for rodents and birds. All this is good reason why people used to work full-time as chimney sweeps—an occupation that’s been making a modest comeback in some parts of the country.
Check online listings for fireplace experts in your area who can make sure your system is in good working order. Speaking of Tyvek, by the way, many older chimneys are being retrofitted with Tyvek sleeves that are terrifically efficient and save a lot of money in what might otherwise be an expensive chimney restoration project.
Check Your Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarms
Your home is nicely winterized, and you’re ready to hibernate. There’s just one more thing to do: You want to be sure that the sealed envelope you’re in isn’t so nicely sealed that you’re in danger of suffocating. If you don’t have a carbon monoxide alarm, get one. Many older appliances and pipes can leak the dangerous gas, and at $25 or so, an alarm is an inexpensive investment. The same is true of fire alarms, which should be distributed liberally around your home. Check the 9-volt batteries for all these units every month and change them out every six months. That may be overkill, but it’s most definitely a better-safe-than-sorry proposition.
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