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Winterizing your Home:
Preparing for Winter Weather

  
As I write this in September, it's once again time to think about snow, ice and bitter cold all over the country. Some areas will be seeing snow very shortly, so it's time to get your home sealed up to keep out the chilly winds of winter.
    There are a number of things you can do to get your home ready for the onslaught of winter. It's best to do your winterization NOW before the worst of the weather gets here, since some of these tasks are impossible to do once the snow starts falling. 

Checking your Plumbing System


     One of the biggest problems here in upstate NY is that of frozen and burst water pipes. Once the water inside the pipe freezes, it often expands, causing the pipe to burst and cause some major water damage. If there's nobody at home to shut off the water when this occurs, the water damage can really break the bank account. Fortunately there are steps you can take to minimize the risk of a major indoor flood.

1) Shut off the water supply to outdoor hose bibs and sprinkler systems. The water in the exterior supply should be drained to prevent cracked piping, and in the case of a sprinkler system, the piping should be blown out with compressed air.

2) Anyplace you have an exposed water pipe in a cold area, it should be covered with insulation. These areas include garages, crawl spaces, attics, and uninsulated basements. There are several types of insulation available; fiberglass and foam insulation. Fiberglass has better insulation properties, but if it gets wet from any leakage, it will need to be replaced. While foam insulation doesn't insulate quite as well, it sheds water much quicker if it becomes wet. The insulation should cover the entire pipe, including any elbows. Don't ignore the area around pipe hangers; these areas are prone to freezing too, and if you fail to insulate properly around them, Murphy's Law dictates that this is where the pipe will freeze.

3) Plastic piping remains more flexible and doesn't freeze quite as easily as metal piping. It handles expansion better in cold climates, so it's actually a better choice for a place like upstate NY. You might consider replacing your metal piping with approved plastic (PVC) piping, especially if it runs through a very cold area of the home.

Note: Though it may seem like a stellar idea, NEVER run any water piping inside of a heating duct. I've seen this done in some crawl spaces, and it makes me cringe. If the pipe were to leak inside the duct, it might run into the furnace, resulting in some very costly damage to the heating unit. Bad bad idea.

Proper Insulation of the Attic and Water Pipes


     Proper insulation is one of the best ways to prevent heat loss from the "building envelope" during the winter months. Especially important is the insulation in the attic.
     Warm air naturally rises, so you need to have a good layer of insulation in the attic to prevent the heat from escaping. Not only does it keep the warm air in the conditioned living space, but it keeps the roof surface cooler, which is also very important. If escaping heatWinter House Icon warms the roof surface and melts ice and snow, it could re-freeze near the eaves and cause an ice dam. Since the roof is then prevented from shedding melt water at the eaves, the water backs up under the shingles (or other roof covering) and causes a leak.
     In this area, it's recommended that your attic be insulated to an R-value of 38, which translates into about 12" of insulation.
    
A few more smart ideas:

1) While checking the attic insulation, take a look at the eave area from the attic. Make sure that there is no insulation blocking the air flow from any soffit vents. If perforated vents are installed in the eaves, blocking the air flow will prevent air from entering and cooling the attic area, once again resulting in a warmer attic and ultimately, ice dams.

 2) Check that any bathroom or kitchen ventilation that runs through the attic is insulated as well. Uninsulated duct work running through the attic could cause water to condense on it during cold weather, and run down the duct work into the living space.

3) From the basement or crawl space, inspect the flooring insulation, if present. Be sure that it's pushed up securely, but not compacted, between the floor joists. Also, be sure that the insulation is installed with any vapor barriers facing the LIVING space, not the basement.

Check your Roofing


1) Check for loose or missing shingles on the roof surface. Repair or replace as necessary BEFORE the weather gets really cold, since roof sealing compounds do not adhere well in very cold weather.

2) Clean any leaves or debris out of gutters and downspouts. If it becomes wet and freezes, it will slow (or stop) the water flow, causing water backup, ice dams, or a total collapse of the gutter.

3) Inspect around any roof penetrations like chimneys, skylights, and waste vents. Any cracked or poorly sealed area should be sealed with roofing sealer.

Cooling System: Preparing Your Air Conditioning System for Winter


1) Be sure to remove any window cooling units before frost arrives. They can be damaged by the cold air, not to mention that you'll be losing heat around the a/c unit.
 
2) Outdoor cooling units need some preparation for winter too. Carefully remove any leaves or debris that have accumulated on the ground near the unit. Mice love these cozy little areas and will quickly make themselves at home around the a/c unit if any debris is left behind. Also, clean leaves or debris from the condensing unit. Cover the entire unit with a tarp or some other breathable covering so it doesn't sustain damage from ice or freezing.

Heating Units: Checking Your Furnace and other Heating Units
BEFORE They are Needed


     Of course, your heating system is of utmost importance now. Don't wait to check it for proper operation!  You'll hate yourself if you bump up the thermostat some chilly October morning and find that it's not working.
A few tips:

1) Check the air filter and replace it if it's dirty. Post a schedule somewhere in the basement for changing the filter every month. It's an inexpensive way to get the best operation from your heating unit.

2) It's a good idea to have a heating professional clean the unit before cold weather sets in. They can check for any carbon monoxide escaping from the heating unit, and give it a tune-up so that it has the best air-to-fuel ratio for proper combustion.

3) If you use home heating oil, keep the tank as full as possible during the winter months. A tank that is less than half full is more prone to water condensation inside the tank, which can cause a furnace malfunction and rusting on the interior of the fuel tank.

4) If you can't have a heating professional inspect your system, at LEAST give it a test drive well in advance of cold weather. Push the thermostat up until the heating unit kicks on, and listen to the operation of any fan units. If you smell any combustion fumes or observe any signs of trouble, get it checked out. Carbon monoxide fumes are a byproduct of poor combustion and can kill you while you sleep. If you have ANY doubts, DO NOT run the unit until it is serviced. Don't take a chance with your family's safety.

Sealing the "Building Envelope"; Plugging up those Energy-
Wasting Holes


     Now is the time to check around doors, windows, and any ventilation ducts that are run to the exterior of your home. These are areas that are very prone to heat loss during cold weather. It will be nearly impossible to seal some of these areas once the snow flies, so do it before the weather gets REALLY nasty..

1) Check for cracked or missing caulking around the exterior of all doors and windows. Seal them up with weatherstripping tape or caulking as needed.

2) On the interior, use a "smoke stick" or a lit incense to check for drafts around the windows and doors. This can sometimes help you discover small air leaks that you may have missed. Even a small air leak in -10F temperatures with a stiff wind can translate into a big energy loss.

3) If there is an area on the outside of your home where 2 different types of building materials meet, this area should be checked thoroughly for drafts and heat loss. When an addition is put on, or renovation is done to the exterior, it's quite common to overlook the continuity of vapor barriers and weatherproofing where the addition meets the original structure. Seal as necessary.

Maintenance of Fireplaces, Chimneys, and Wood Stoves


     Again, a very important aspect of winterizing your home. A few quick checks NOW can prevent a disaster later. 


1) It's a good idea to have the chimney cleaned by a professional chimney sweep each year. This removes creosote from the interior of the chimney, which can cause a chimney fire. If you can't remember the last time it was professionally cleaned, chances are it's due for a cleaning.

2) If you decide against a professional cleaning, try to look inside the chimney at the termination of the flu (without falling off the ladder and breaking a leg). It's not uncommon to find small animals nesting in the chimney flu. Birds, raccoons, chipmunks, squirrels....you name it. Make sure the flu is unobstructed. While we're on the subject, it's a good idea to have a rain cap and/or spark arrester installed on the chimney. Rain water running down the inside of the chimney can hasten the buildup of creosote by cooling the exhaust smoke before it reaches the outdoors.

3) Operate the dampers on any chimneys, fireplaces and wood stoves. They should move freely at all times. Check that smoke moves freely up the chimney by using a smoke stick, incense, or by lighting a small fire if you've already checked for creosote and obstructions.

4) Keep the dampers closed when the heating device is not being used. An open damper can result in a significant heat loss, especially when winter winds create an updraft, sucking the heat from the interior right up the chimney. It's a good idea to use a glass door enclosure on fireplaces as well, keeping the doors closed when the fireplace isn't being used.

5) Wood stoves should be cleaned and inspected for cracks as well. Any metal flues  that are run to daylight should be disassembled and thoroughly cleaned before operating the wood stove. Check that the stove is stable (not prone to tipping) when it is loaded with wood, and that all flues are reassembled tightly.

That's all for now, but I'm sure a few more tips will pop into my head during the coming weeks. I'll post them here as I do my own winterization and you can check this site for updates.

Stay warm and safe, and as always, feel free to email me if you need some friendly advice on buckling your home down for winter :).

     


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