Winterizing Your Property

Fall is in the air! Temperatures are cooling down and it’s time to start thinking about preparing your property for the problems that can arise with freezing temperatures, ice accumulation, and snowfall. According to the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, “Extreme winter weather is the third-largest cause of insured catastrophe losses after hurricanes and tornadoes. Losses from snow, ice, freezing, and related causes averaged $1.2 billion annually over the past 20 years.”

Preparing your home for winter weather is an essential step toward protecting your property from damage and reducing your utility costs. While much of the work can be considered do-it-yourself, there are inspections or jobs that property owners should consider outsourcing to reputable companies. Here is a comprehensive list of winterizing steps you should take, and when it is recommended to involve a professional.

Roof: A thorough inspection of your attic, skylights, and roof can identify any damage that occurred during the warm weather months that may cause issues when ice and snow start to form. A roof in good condition should be able to withstand 20 lbs. of snow/ice per square foot. If your roof is damaged and is not fixed, you put your property at risk of a roof collapse which is not only costly, but can be very dangerous for the inhabitants of your home.

Roof inspections can be dangerous, so many homeowners will need to hire a professional to do this job. If you choose to do it yourself, wear well-fastened shoes with non-skid soles, and make sure another person is close-by in case you suffer a slip or fall.

Pipes: Frozen pipes can lead to pipes bursting, causing thousands of dollars in damage to your home. Some pipes are at a higher risk for freezing during winter months, such as those on the exterior of your home, located in exterior walls, or exposed pipes in unheated areas of the home. To help avoid the freezing of outdoor pipes, disconnect any water hoses from outside, drain them, and store for the winter season. Then close the interior shut-off valve for that faucet, open and drain the pipes, and install a faucet insulator, which can be purchased at most home improvement stores. Pipes that are in your attic, crawlspace, or garage should be insulated with foam insulation or by wrapping them with heat tape. Wrapping pipes nearest the exterior walls can also help avoid freezing.

Heating Systems: Before you need your heating system, test it to make sure it is in working condition. Make sure all heating vents are unobstructed to allow for maximum air flow. Hire a HVAC professional to clean heating ducts (once every year or two) and to inspect your heating system/furnace once yearly. Signs that you should have an inspection performed sooner include unusual noises (“screeches” or “whines”) that may indicate worn or damaged belts, poor performance, and erratic behavior. If your furnace filters are dirty, your unit will need to work harder to heat your home, using more energy. Furnace filters should be changed once monthly during the winter months.

Gas Heaters: Properly maintaining your gas heater is both a cost efficiency and safety issue. If your gas heater is not properly maintained it can cause dangerous poison to enter the air of your home, and at the very least it may be costing you more money than it should. A professional should check your gas heater(s) once a year, but there are some maintenance things you can, and should, address on your own. First, shut off the heater. Then check the air-shutter openings and exhaust vents for dirt and dust, and vacuum the air passages to the burner. It is also important to clean the burner of lint and dirt. Make sure to check the owner’s manual for any other needed maintenance.

Carbon Monoxide and Smoke Detectors: At least once a year, replace the batteries in every smoke and carbon monoxide (CO) detector in your home. Monthly, test the detectors by pressing the test button. Smoke detectors should be completely replaced every 10 years. CO detectors should be replaced every 5-7 years. Smoke detectors should be installed in every bedroom, outside each sleeping area, and on every level of the home, including the basement. A CO detector should be installed on every level of the home, to include the basement.

Yard/Outdoor Maintenance: Trees and shrubbery should be trimmed of excess limbs. The weight of snow and ice can cause limbs to break and damage your property, or the property of neighbors. Rake any debris away from the foundation of your home. Consider giving your deck a fresh coat of sealer before winter. Drain any water fountains and unplug the pumps. Inspect sidewalks, driveways, and steps for damage, and repair them before the addition of ice, which can be responsible for dangerous falls during the winter. Also, make sure to check any handrails to make sure they are secure to help prevent falls.

Pool: Make sure to clean out leaves, debris, and insects from your pool, skimmer, and pump basket. Make sure to follow the manufacturer's guidelines on additional cleaning steps or addition of winterizing chemicals. To avoid damage from freezing, drain pool to a level below the skimmer mouth but do not empty the pool completely. For more information on protecting your pump, filter, or heating system, consult the manufacturer's guidelines specific to your pool. Consider installing a winter pool cover to both protect your investment and avoid pets or people from falling into the pool when it is not in use. Remember that decks and concrete surrounding a pool can become dangerous when icy. Remove all pool toys and ladders, and store them for the season.

AC Unit: Clean any debris and dirt from the fan blades and condensing coils by using a hose (spray head on highest pressure setting). Covering the condensing unit with a breathable, waterproof cover during winter months is an inexpensive way to avoid rusting or freezing of internal components, and may extend the life and efficiency of the unit. During winter months, window units should be removed, if possible. If they can’t be removed, close the vents and cover with a breathable, waterproof cover.

Windows: Windows can be a major culprit in losing heat (and driving up electric bills) during the winter months. Inspect all of your windows and consider replacing inefficient or very old windows with new, more energy efficient windows. Caulking around your windows should be replaced periodically to ensure that warm air is not escaping, and that cold air is not entering your home. You can also purchase window insulation film kits that can keep up to 70% of cold air from coming in through closed windows. Storm windows can also be installed to help keep out cold air.

Doors: Can you see light around the doors in your home that access the garage or outdoors? If so, your weather stripping should be replaced. It is an inexpensive do-it-yourself repair that can save you money on energy costs. Another inexpensive tool is draft guards which can help cold air from escaping from under doors. Like windows, storm doors can also be installed to help keep out cold air.

Insulation: Make sure your attic is fully insulated. This is the most important area of your home in regard to retaining heat. In order to do this you need to determine the “R-Value” of your attic. R-value is the measure of a material's ability to resist heat conduction. The greater the R-value, the better it performs as an insulator and the more money you save on your energy bill. To help determine the ideal R-Value for your home, visit the Insulation Institute.

Fireplace and Chimney: It is recommended that fireplace chimneys be inspected yearly (even if you do not use them regularly) to look at all heating venting systems, chimneys, stove systems, and furnace flues. During these inspections, defects or issues may be found that require action even if cleaning is not needed. Professional cleaning is recommended every couple of years, depending on how often you use your chimney. Chimneys should be professionally cleaned early in the season.

If you are not opting for a cleaning or inspection this year, do take these few steps to help ensure your fireplace and chimney are safe and are not negatively impacting the heating efficiency of your home. Make sure your fireplace chimney is free of bird nests or small animals. Check chimney draft (making sure the chimney will draw up the fire and smoke properly) with several sheets of rolled up newspaper. With the fireplace damper in the open position, light the newspaper in the fireplace. The smoke should rise up the chimney. If it doesn't, you have an obstruction and need to call a professional in to clean the chimney of creosote and ash, and possible debris. While you are inspecting your fireplace, inspect the fire brick. Open mortar joints should be repaired immediately to prevent a fire from spreading into the stud wall.

Check to make sure that your flue closes all the way and check to see if, when closed, you can feel air coming in. Additionally, you can add a chimney balloon to help prevent loss of warm air through your chimney when not in use. Another easy way to keep cold air out, and warm air in, is to place glass doors in front of your fireplace.

Wood Burning Stoves: Cleaning and inspecting your wood-burning stove yearly can help prevent potential fires. Inspection should include checking for cracks in stovepipes attached to wood stoves (which can release toxic fumes into your home), and checking for corrosion, holes, or loose joints throughout the heating season. You should also clean the stovepipe, look for signs of deterioration or looseness, and then replace the stovepipe if necessary. Additional items to look for include corrosion (rusting) and cracks in the stove’s body or legs, and making sure required wall protection is installed according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Always make sure your stove sits on an approved floor material, and fence off the stove while it is operating if you have pets or small children.

Gutters: Cleaning out your gutters in an easy step that ensures water can continue to flow, preventing icicles and ice dams from forming in your gutters, causing damage. Gutters should be cleaned out in the fall and then again before winter temperatures start in your area. This can be a dangerous job for some homeowners, so hiring help may be essential.

Water Heater: Lowering the temperature on your water heater from 140 degrees to 120 degrees may save you money, and should have little effect on your access to hot water. Additionally, a water heater cover is an inexpensive purchase that helps prevent heat loss, which may help reduce your heating bill.

Irrigation/Sprinkler System for Lawns: Sprinkler systems should be winterized early in the season, before the first freeze. It will include turning off the water supply and blowing compressed air through the lines, ridding them of water to prevent them from freezing and bursting. To freeze-proof an in-ground irrigation system, follow the manufacturer's procedure for draining it and protecting it from winter damage.

Get an Energy Audit: Many utility companies will come perform a free energy audit in your home to help you identify areas that may be driving up your energy costs.

Emergency Kit: Winter storms can cause power outages and or leave residents stranded in their homes for extended periods of time. Having an emergency kit can help your family stay safe and warm in the event of an extreme weather occurrence. Items to put in your kit include: flashlights and extra batteries, a week's supply of any medications (don’t forget your pets!), a minimum 3-day supply of water (1 gallon per person, per day) and non-perishable food, battery powered or hand-cranked weather radio, solar powered or already charged boosters for a cell phone, first aid kid, multipurpose tool, items (like matches and wood) needed for alternate heating sources (fireplace, wood-burning stove), a week's worth of baby supplies and formula, important papers (in case of evacuation), warm clothing, and blankets for all members of the household. It is also a good idea to have sand, salt or non-clumping cat litter to place on walkways so they are safer to walk on, and waterproof, insulated boots for better traction when walking outside.

REMEMBER: Never use a generator, grill, camp stove or other gasoline, propane, natural gas or charcoal-burning devices inside a home, garage, basement, crawlspace or any partially enclosed area. Locate unit away from doors, windows and vents that could allow carbon monoxide to come indoors. Carbon monoxide can be deadly, and alternate heating & cooking sources are also prone to electric shock and fire.