Tips to Keep Your Home Warm & Safe This Winter

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 Mikal Hoffman By Contributing Jane
Mikal Hoffman
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Okay, you've been saying to yourself for months now that you have to make sure your house is ready for winter, right? So, no better time than the present - because if it hasn't started already, before you know it, white stuff, wet stuff, wind, frost, ice and more will be landing on your roof!
So, to help out this season, we've outlined a few steps you should take to keep your home a warm, comfortable, and safe place to be this winter.

1. Heating: "Just Chillin'-in my nice and toasty house."
Vent Heat Systems:

Even though we're all about doing things yourself, it's usually a good idea to get a professional to check out your furnace before the season gets under way. You'll want to be sure that everything is both functional and safe. After all, the last thing you want is your furnace giving out on you on the coldest night of the year! Cats and dogs love to sleep with their owners, but not when we start using them as blankets!
If you haven't already, be sure to set up an appointment early on, or even before the season. As you might imagine, the colder it gets outside, the hotter their business gets inside!
A typical inspection will consist of the following:
  • Check the thermostat for proper operation and function. 
  • Filter will be inspected and either changed out or cleaned. 
  • All of the electrical components and controls of your heating system will be thoroughly checked.
  • A generous oiling of the motors and mechanical equipment as necessary 
  • Inspection of the heat exchanger for possible cracks - JANE TIP: Be sure to insist that they do this inspection, as cracks in the heat exchanger are where carbon monoxide will get inside your home. 
  • They'll also check the air flow to see if it is diminished, or if it's necessary to clean the evaporator coil
  • Lastly, they should double check the mixture of air and fuel.

If possible, try to be home when this inspection takes place so that you can be sure that the above items have been completed. Never be afraid to ask - remember, whomever you hire works for you!

 

 Things You Can DoTHINGS YOU CAN DO RIGHT NOW:

Here are a few things that you can do yourself to ensure the safety and efficiency of your heating unit throughout the winter season:

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    • Make sure there is nothing flammable stored next to it: check before you operate a heater of any kind, whether its your water heater or a furnace. 
    •  Clear out the space of clutter: make room for your heater to function at its best. 
    •  Clean or even change out your furnace's filters regularly: Having clean filters will improve the air flow and efficiency throughout your house as well as lower those especially high winter utility bills. Depending on the type of filter you have will determine whether or not you need to clean it, or replace it: Disposable fiberglass filters should be replaced, while electrostatic or electronic filters should be washed regularly (each season). Filters that become dirty will not only reduce your heaters efficiency, but can eventually lead the heat exchanger to overheat causing the whole system to fail.
    • Clean the sediment: One common cause of a reduction in a water heater's efficiency is the buildup of sediment at the tank's base. Where possible, remove the sediment at the base of your water heater's tank. Over time collected sediment can damage the interior lining of the tank when it heats up.


Troubleshooting
:

Some of the most common heating problems are the ones where you smack the side of your head and say, "duh." So look first for the most simple and obvious solutions. Here are a couple of areas to double check:

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    • Make sure that all of the access panels are secure with all the screws in place.
    • Make sure your thermostat is set in the heating mode. Believe us, this is an easy one to forget - but simply setting the dial above room temperature will not turn your heat on if the control is set in the air-conditioning mode!
    • Be on the look out for strange signs and smells which don't quite seem right. Remembering, however, that it is perfectly normal for dust to collect on the heat exchanger over the summer, and the first time you turn on the heat the dust will burn off, resulting in a strong, distinct odor. We like to call it the "Winter Stink Factor." Just open your windows to let the odor dissipate. If, however, you are still noticing strange odors emanating from the heater, then shut it off and consult a professional as soon as possible.
    • If you find that your home is filled with "cold spots," don't worry, it's not Aunt Mary coming back to haunt you. It could very well be a simple adjustment to your dampers to target those trouble spots. Locate the coldest spots of a particular room and try to aim the damper as close to this area as possible. You might find that the damper is clogged, or even broken. For a few dollars, you can replace a damper with relative ease.

Things you might forget...

  1. One of the best heat distributors in your home might very well be sitting near your head: your ceiling fan. While you may think of ceiling fans as being strictly for the warmer weather, they can benefit your home during the winter as well. Ceiling fans will distribute the hot air which gets trapped at the top of the room. Ceiling fans can lower heating costs and reduce the condensation which forms at windows and glass doors. If you do not already have them in your home, you may consider getting them installed for their year-round benefits. Keep in mind, winter is an excellent season to buy them as they are off season for most retailers and often on sale.
  2. One thing every home should have is at least one high-quality carbon monoxide detector. These are as inexpensive and as easy to install as a typical smoke alarm and an investment that could ultimately save your life.
    If you already have detectors in place, double check or better yet, replace the batteries. Test the units to make sure they are working properly.

    If you have smoke detectors that are ten years old or even older, you should look into replacing them as well. Just because the "test" goes off, doesn't mean they can still register smoke. To be absolutely sure, test older units with a smoke device or replace them outright.
    A home should also have a fire extinguisher at the ready - so be sure to charge or replace them as necessary.


Let Your Floor Warm Up Your Feet!
There's nothing worse on a cold winter morning than entering your tiled kitchen with your bare feet. Unless you own a floor heating system!
These units have grown in popularity over the years and can pretty much be installed in any existing room with any type of floor. There are two basic types: the electric cable systems and the hot water floor tubing system, where the hot water that is fed into your home is first pumped through your floor!
Electric cable systems are the easiest option for installation in individual rooms and are usually installed in either heat pads or cables that are compatible with most floor types. Most of these systems are controlled by a wall-mounted thermostat. You can find them through electrical equipment retailers and some home centers.
No, that's not just a rock wall - it's a chimney!
If it's not too late in your area, it's always a good idea to have your chimney and fireplace inspected by a chimney service before you attempt to use it for the season. If possible, it's a great idea to have it cleaned if it's been a few years. This cleaning process is important because chimney flues that have become lined with creosote can become fire hazards.
One of the more overlooked areas of the chimney is the spark arrestor. You'll want to check the condition of the spark arrestor on top of the chimney by making sure there are no tears in the fabric that would allow embers to escape. Obviously, this can also become a fire hazard.
2. Insulation: Don't Let Your House Get The Chills!
A good running heat system is obviously priority number one during the cold weather, but there are still quite a few other tasks you must take into consideration. These can range from the insulation of your home to all the exterior work you will need to accomplish before the temperature starts dropping.

Insulation is by far one of the best ways to keep your home warm while at the same time, keeping your bills down.Let's take a look at your home from the ground up.

  1. It Doesn't Have To Die!

    Believe it or not, there are steps you can take to ensure your lawn will survive the winter. First off, you should keep raking up leaves and clearing your lawn of debris throughout the season. If leaves are left in place they block air from getting into the soil, drying up the grass and making it prone to "snow mold disease."

    Just when you thought you had the winter off, you should keep mowing your lawn regularly with your last mow taking place before the first frost. If grass is left too long it will be flattened over itself with the pressure of a snow cover, resulting in the same problems as leaf cover.

    By fertilizing and reseeding your lawn twice before the winter will help to keep the grass strong and reserving food for over the winter. Purchase a quality fertilizer for your lawn and be sure to apply it to your lawn before the first frost for the best results next spring.
    You can prune back your plants before the winter in order to encourage healthy growth in the spring. Most pruning should be done after the leaves have changed color, as this signifies that the plant is dormant.

    To do this properly, make a clear cut about 1/4 inch from the branch at a slight angle. An additional step for more sensitive shrubs and plants is to wrap them in burlap for protection. Furthermore, you can also spread a layer of mulch around the base of your plants for extra insulation.

    Tree limbs should also be cut back for the winter, especially branches that are potential problems. Trees in your yard should be cut away from power lines, the roof of your house, and your driveway. During a typical storm tree limbs can be weighed down by the wet leaves or snow and snap potentially damaging your property or your person! Clear out any dead branches and shrubbery as well as this will prevent any drainage systems near your home from getting clogged.

  2. Rain, Rain, Go Away - Can it Get In?

    If you live in an area that's prone to rain showers, make sure that those areas around your house where water might collect are bordered off and diverted to a storm drain. By using sandbags and other border materials you can, within reason, direct water away from your home. Be careful however, not to direct it to your neighbor's home as you could potentially be liable for any damage that they incur.

    Be sure to inspect and clean your gutters, because clogged gutters can result in flooding of the basement and major damage to your roof and walls -- especially when snow begins to melt. Check for leaks and the drainage efficiency of your gutters by making sure the downspouts are not discharging water at the base of your home's foundation. Unclog downspouts by placing a garden hose in the opening and using the water pressure to push the stoppage through.

  3. Is That A Crack In Your House Or Are You Just Glad To See Me?

    -Check the siding on your house's exterior, looking for cracks and gaps

    . You can caulk and patch the cracks to prevent leaks and the damage that could result. If you have any raw siding exposed, you can prime it to temporarily waterproof it.
    If you have a brick exterior, you can seal any visible cracks with a high-quality masonry sealer in order to prevent the damage caused by the "freeze (expand)-thaw (contract)" process.
    We don't recommend painting if you've already reached your winter season. Especially if the temperature has already dropped lower than 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

    -Major amounts of heat can also be lost through cracks in the inside walls of your home, reducing the efficiency of your heating system and running up your bills. Seal your home up tight on both the interior and exterior to reduce the risk of drafts, leaks, dry rot, and the house killer, mold.
    Common places to look for cracks in your home are around window frames, doors, pipes, and electrical outlets. Seal up the open drafty cracks where air and wind can seep through as best as you can by applying caulk around your window and door glass and trim.
    Lastly, be sure to check easily forgotten areas where cracks should be treated such as around where the chimney and fireplace penetrate and the gaps around the dryer, bath, and kitchen vents.

  4. Windows & Doors - I Can See You Knockin' But You Can't Come In!

    - From the exterior, you'll want to Install or replace any weather stripping on all windows and doors or any other areas where you notice gaps.
    - Install storm windows and doors, replacing any screens that seem damaged. If the windows in your home are older and not constructed of modern insulated glass, then storm windows are that much more important and if you don't have them, look into it.
  5. The Roof: "Go Up Top, Baby!"

    - Inside:

    A well-insulated and ventilated attic will save you both on your heating bill and prevent ice dams. You should consider adding a second layer of insulation to your attic if you can.
    R-30 insulation is considered the minimum a home should have. Much depends on both the area in which you reside and the age of the home you live in. Newer homes are more likely to have R-30, but if your house is older it's probably time to add insulation.

    - Outside: When clearing out your gutters, be sure to use safe and thorough methods. Access your roof with a sturdy ladder, making sure to not lean against a downspout or gutter to avoid causing damage. You can remove the debris by hand, or if that grosses you out, as it does me, use a spatula, a large spoon, a gutter scoop, or small trowel. If there is dirt that is caked on, it can be wet with a hose to make it easier to remove. Again, you can also use the hose to flush out the gutters a final time after they have been cleaned. This is an excellent time to check for and repair any leaks. One way to cut down on future debris is to cover your gutters with wire or plastic mesh.

    - Inspect your roof for any missing or damaged shingles and have them replaced. You can safely inspect your roof the same way a typical Home Inspector does by simply using binoculars to inspect the shingles and flashing on your roof without ever having to get up on it.

  6. Piping In The Warmth

    - You should make every effort you can to prevent the risk of your pipes freezing, which can cause a blockage of your water supply, and in the worst case, lead to the cracking or breaking of one or more of your pipes .
    When pipes freeze the flow of the water becomes completely blocked. When water expands as it turns into ice, the pipes are very likely to burst. Obviously, this can be an expensive problem to fix, and a disastrous occurrence in the frigid winter months.

    - Outdoor pipes aren't the only ones at risk as pipes that may run along exterior walls or crawl spaces that are exposed to colder temperatures are also susceptible. Contrary to popular belief, both hot and cold-water pipelines alike can freeze, so be sure to protect both.
    The best way to go about this is to utilize foam rubber sleeves or fiberglass insulation, wrapping the insulating material around the pipes. For extra protection in the areas of your home where heat doesn't go, pipes may first be wrapped with special heating strips, and then outer insulation wrapped on top of that. .

    - Faucets that are attached to the outside of your home should be turned off for the winter at their source. Turn off the valve that feeds the faucet and then empty the line of any remaining water by turning the faucet on. This will help protect your external pipes throughout the duration of the colder months.

    Problems that might arise show symptoms rather early, so keep your eye out for them: For example, is the water pressure becoming reduced? There is a good chance the water in your pipes is starting to freeze and you should take action immediately.

    TIP: If an extreme cold front will be moving through and you fear your pipes are going to freeze, despite what efforts you have taken, there is still a last-resort trick. Leave one of your faucets, preferably one that is farthest from the supply of your home's water, open and running slightly. If the water is running, it will be less liable to freeze. Additionally, it may thaw out any water that already may have frozen in the pipes. It might seem like a waste of water, but in an extreme case it is a better alternative than the thousands you might be forced to spend to repair a busted pipe.

  7. My Pipes Froze, Now What?

    1. First, shut off the water supply to the problem pip

    e. If you do not have a valve for a specific frozen line, then you'll have to shut off the water flow at the main water valve of your house. You will now need to check to see if the pipes are leaking or have burst. If you do indeed find a busted pipe, then you will need to have the pipes repaired before you can attempt to thaw them.

    2. Open a couple faucets in order to provide a location for the melting ice to flow. Be careful when using any thawing method that the pipes are not heated too quickly and that the water in the pipes does not boil, as the pressure of the resulting steam could cause them to burst. Be sure to wear protective gloves in case the pipes become hot to the touch. If the pipes are plastic then use special caution as they are prone to melting.

    3. When thawing the pipes, work from the faucet end back toward the frozen area. Here are a couple of different methods to try:

  • Take a hairdryer and focus it on the frozen area of the pipe. It is crucial to remember to work from the faucet toward the frozen area.
  • Find some old rags and wrap them around the pipe where it is frozen. Then, slowly pour hot water on them. As the rags cool, make sure to keep pouring more hot water to keep them hot.
  • Wrap a grounded heat-strip around the frozen pipe.

    Remember that if you locate a leak or a burst pipe do not continue the thawing process. This can lead to much bigger issues if you do!

 


 

 A few last tidbitsA Few Last Tidbits:

You'll want to be sure to take care of the following tasks before the winter sets in:

  • You should take care to drain out your outdoor hoses and sprinklers and bring them inside so they cannot freeze or crack.
  • If you have a birdbath, drain out the water and cover them. 
  •  You should drain and shut off all outdoor water faucets. 
  •  If you haven't already, be sure to prepare yourself with quality winter tools: a good snow shovel or two, rock salt and sand for icy surfaces. Get your ice scrapers for windows and cars ready!
  • Lay out a mat or rug at the exterior and interior of the entrances to your home to protect the floors of your house from mud, snow, and salt stains. You may also want to place a boot tray by the door for people to place their wet boots and shoes before they enter the home.
  • Check out the condition of the walkways, steps, and driveway of your home for small holes and cracks. These should be repaired to prevent water from penetrating and freezing, resulting in larger cracks and larger problems in the future. You can repair smaller holes and cracks yourself, but for larger problems consult a professional.
  • If you have a larger yard and driveway, make sure you have an adequate snow blower or snow mobile. Inspect and service your snow blower or snow mobile to ensure they are functioning properly, and stock up on the necessary fuel. 
  •  If you have a pool it should thoroughly be prepared for the winter. The water should be drained if necessary, and it is essential to have a professional pool cleaner come to clean and winterize your pool. Be sure that the pool is covered with a strong cover to keep out leaves, precipitation, and animals during the winter months.
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