Winterizing your home

photo credit: Juliancolton2
photo credit: Juliancolton2

A quick winter preparation guide

Jack Frost will be visiting this year, you can bet on it. And if you haven't yet winterized your home, now is the time to take care of it. Winterizing a house is one of those necessary yearly chores that simply comes with owning a home, but it is also a great opportunity to review the condition of the house and the HVAC system. Something like a yearly "check-up" on the overall health of your home.

One thing to keep in mind while going through a winterizing checklist is the efficiency of your home. An upgraded and efficient heating (and air conditioning) system can literally save you hundreds of dollars each year in lower energy costs. Maria Vargas, with the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program, says there are a number of things homeowners can do to avoid getting stung by high energy bills this winter. She explains any heating or cooling equipment over five years old could be a candidate for an efficiency upgrade.

The Checklist

Start the winterizing process outdoors by checking out the roof and chimney. Clean the gutters and drainpipes of leaves and other debris and run water through them to ensure proper drainage. Any area where water might get caught and collect over the winter is a spot where ice could form and expand, causing damage. Also make sure no leaves or other debris have collected in the chimney. Many homeowners choose to add a screen over the chimney opening to make this chore much easier.

While you're up there take a look at the condition of your shingles and make sure the vents and fans are not blocked and are operating properly. Also take a look at vents on the sides of the house for blockage. Go to the attic to look for signs of roof leakage, and finally, close the damper on your fireplace or wood stove, but make sure to open them before lighting a fire.

The next stage is to get rid of drafts and air leaks through caulking and insulation. Vargas states, "We (Energy Star) encourage people to seal their home envelope -- the outer walls, the ceiling, the windows and the floors -- and that all helps increase the energy efficiency of your home." She adds that properly sealing a home's envelope can cut energy costs by 10 percent.

To properly seal the house all exterior cracks need to be caulked, with special attention paid to windows and outdoor faucets, both notorious areas for leaks. Inside the house check for cracks or leaks around windows and electrical outlets on exterior walls. Around doors look for drafts and weather-stripping that needs to be replaced. Roddy McColl, a first-time homeowner who purchased a mid-1920s house in 1998, quickly found out his house flexed causing the doors to unseal. He says, "Every year I look into trying to figure out better ways to baffle the areas around the doors because the doors move around."

Insulation is also key to sealing a house. Vargas says anyone who has moved into a new home should take a close look at the insulation and add it where appropriate. When McColl moved into his pier-and-beam foundation house he solved an insulation problem by installing a two-part vapor seal/paper-backed fiberglass insulation under his home. With that long-term fix in place, McColl's key outdoor winterizing chore in the relatively warm Southwest is turning his outdoor water supply off and protecting the pipes.

Protecting pipes is an important part of winterizing. The outdoor water supply, as well as the sprinkler system, needs to be drained and shut off. All exterior plumbing should be insulated. To protect interior plumbing during very cold weather do not leave your house both unattended and unheated. Otherwise pipes in exterior walls could freeze and crack.

The key to a comfortable winter, especially in regions with harsh weather, is the furnace/heat pump/boiler system. This is an area that needs to be checked out before the temperature outdoors dips too low, and is certainly an area you don't want to replace in the middle of the season. Vargas says to take a look at the age of the equipment and consider upgrading anything over five years old. She explains that one in four furnaces in the United States is over 20 years old and that old furnaces cost much more to operate. Energy Star approved furnaces are 15 percent more efficient than standard models, plus a new furnace will most likely not fail on you when the going gets cold.

If you decide to upgrade your heating system, Vargas says remember it has two price tags -- the first is the price you pay at purchase and the second is the price you pay to operate that product over its life. "Too many people focus on the first price tag," she says. "So it's very important to get a contractor in who is going to make sure that you get something that isn't oversized, which is the right thing for your home, and ultimately is towards your benefit for the long-haul."

Sizing of both heating and cooling equipment is very important. This is definitely an area where bigger is not better. Vargas says if you are replacing equipment make sure the new boiler, heat pump or furnace is sized correctly for your home. Equipment that is too large actually works against the efficiency of your house.

With the furnace in working order, the next step is to check and tighten the ducts. Leaky ducts waste a lot of energy and contribute to poor air quality in the home. Ducts should also be cleaned periodically. Once every five years is a good rule of thumb.

Once you've completed the major steps in winterizing your home take the time to cover the details, such as checking smoke alarms indoors, and handrails and walkways outside. Also you should reverse the switch on ceiling fans so the air blows upward, forcing hot air back down across the room.

Winterizing, like any chore, isn't fun. And if it leads to major upgrades in the heating system, or serious roof repair, it should be left to professionals. Winterizing is an important part of home ownership, however, because it protects your investment and at the same time gives you a great opportunity to review areas of your home that might need repair or replacement. Jack Frost is coming for a visit -- are you prepared?

Here's a little bit extra ...


EPA's Energy Star program

The EPA introduced the Energy Star program in 1992 as a voluntary labeling program to identify energy efficient products. Maria Vargas, who is with the program, says it is focused on technologies that allow homeowners to improve comfort while doing the right thing for the environment and save energy costs.

Radon

While winterizing your home, take the time to check for radon -- an invisible gas that increases the risk of lung cancer. Many hardware stores carry test kits, and the kits are also available through mail order, local health departments and other retail outlets. If you find radon, methods exist to remove it from your home.


Beginning in 2010 you may receive rebates on winterizing chores through the "Cash for Caulkers" proposal.

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