Winter is my least favorite time of year. I’m not overly fond of being cold, and I loathe driving in snow and ice. Plus, when you live in a climate that experiences heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures, winter means doing some serious planning — you have to prepare your home and your family for inclement weather. After years of winter prep, I’ve pretty much boiled it down to four steps.
It starts with inspecting your heating systems.
Service Your Systems
When the temperature drops, the last thing you want to happen is to be caught without heat. At the beginning of the season, make an appointment to have your furnace and ductwork examined by a professional. This will not only ensure that it’s in good working order, it will also help you catch any problems before there’s a breakdown. Furthermore, annual servicing will prolong the furnace’s life and keep it running more efficiently.
Don’t forget to change your filters! Dirty filters put a strain on the system, wasting energy and costing you more money. By keeping filters fresh, you’ll see more efficiency and better air quality.
If you have — and use — a fireplace, it’s imperative you maintain it. Chimney fires occur most frequently during the winter months, and can be incredibly serious. Using a flashlight, look inside the chimney for build-up, obstructions, and obvious cracks. Establish that your damper opens and closes freely, and seals tightly. Then, thoroughly clean the ashes from the fireplace. Next, go outside and check the chimney for broken bricks and crumbling mortar, and repair as needed. Finally, be sure to have your chimney professionally cleaned every other year.
Since many people use alternate heating sources during the winter –sometimes without taking the necessary safety precautions — house fires can pose an additional risk. For added safety, replace the batteries in both your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Keep multiple fire extinguishers on hand, and train all occupants of the house on how to use them.
Prep Your Pipes
Winter weather can wreak havoc on plumbing pipes. If they freeze and burst, you can expect both flooding and water damage — and that’s no fun at all.
Start outside the house with your spigots. If you don’t have frost-proof spigots installed, you’re going to need to find the water shutoff for all outside lines and turn it off. Since a frozen garden hose can burst an interior pipe by expanding and increasing pressure throughout the whole system, you’ll want to disconnect, drain, and store all hoses before the first freeze. Next, open and drain spigots, and install a faucet insulator. If you have a sprinkler system, hire a professional to blow out the lines with an air compressor — this will ensure they don't burst.
Inside, you’ll want to focus on plumbing pipes in unheated areas, such as attics, crawl spaces, and garages. If you live in a moderately cold climate, you can use inexpensive polystyrene insulation, which has a slit in the middle and will slip right over the pipe. If you live in a severe climate, use thermostatically controlled heat tape to wrap problem pipes. Once you insulate, your hot water heater will get a much needed break as the heat in the pipes will stay much longer.
Be Energy Efficient (and Cozy)
No matter how efficient your furnace is, drafts and leaks are capable of making it work much harder. Seeing that even the tiniest gap around a window frame can let in a surprising amount of cold air, you’re going to want to do a thorough sweep of your home, hunting for cracks, gaps, and leaks. Using a candle flame or digital thermometer, check every window, door, skylight, and vents. Pay close attention to the siding and foundation. Pull back attic insulation to seal cutouts in drywall for electrical fixtures, pipes, fans and outlets. Use caulk for small cracks and foam sealer for bigger gaps.
Even after weatherstripping and caulking, older windows can still be drafty. Luckily, proper curtains and shades can help prevent heat loss — they are remarkably insulating! Close your curtains (or lower the shades) at night and when you’re away to conserve heat in the home. It’s also helpful to install door sweeps to stop drafts from entering your home under exterior doors.
If your heat ducts are leaky, you’re going to have a hard time keeping the house warm — not to mention a much higher higher utility. You can improve their effectiveness by wrapping exposed ducts in unheated areas of the house (attic, crawl space, unfinished basement, garage) with precut insulation, which will wrap right around them. Next, direct your attention to the places where ducts, vents, and registers meet floors, walls, and ceilings. If you detect any leaks or gaps, seal them with mastic, rather than duct tape.
If your thermostat isn’t programmable, replace it. Not only will it be affordable and easy to install, it will save you a lot of money. Set your thermostat to 68 degrees when you’re occupying the house, and 60 degrees when you will be away for more than eight hours. Simply by turning your thermostat down 10 to 15 degrees for eight hours, you can save 5 to 15 percent per year on your heating bill. Give your furnace a little boost by setting your ceiling fan blades to move clockwise — this will lift cool air to the ceiling and push heated air down where you can enjoy it.
Finally, if at all possible, install a smart meter. Thanks to their numerous money saving benefits, the number of smart meter installations in the country is growing rapidly. Smart meters work by digitally sending meter readings to your energy supplier. This allows for more accurate billing (no more estimates), and a better understanding of your energy usage. Using the meter display, you can see the impact your energy habits have on your bill, and make smarter decisions to save both money and energy.
Prepare for Winter Storms
And now we come to the worst part of winter — the terrifying (and sometimes debilitating) snow and ice storms. While most snow storms are just inconveniences, they can occasionally cause some serious problems. That’s why it’s always a good idea to be prepared for being snowed in.
Stock your pantry with at least three days worth of supplies for every member of the household — although I feel a week’s worth is better. You’ll need non-perishable food, bottled water (two litres per adult per day), baby supplies, pet food, and a manual can opener. Put together an emergency kit, and keep it all in one place where it can be easily accessed — for instance in a storage locker in the garage. You emergency kit should include:
- Rock salt and sand
- Snow shovels
- Dry, seasoned wood for your fireplace or wood-burning stove
- Extra blankets
- Battery powered radio
- First aid kit
You should also keep extra medicine on hand, both over the counter and prescription.
If temperatures drop below 25 Fahrenheit, turn on all faucets to the point where they’re barely dripping. Also, set your thermostat set as high at night as you normally have it during the day. While both of these actions may cause your bills to be a bit higher, they will keep your pipes from freezing.
In the event of a power outage, place rolled towels at the bottoms of doors that have gaps, cover single paned windows with blankets, and close doors to unused rooms. If an extended power outage is expected, store frozen food outside and refrigerated food in the garage as both will be colder than your unpowered fridge.
Winter is definitely a pain, but it doesn’t have to result in high power bills, burst pipes, or dangerous fires. By properly preparing your home for the chilly months, you can save money and avoid disaster. So grab a cup of hot chocolate and start making some plans!
Liz Greene is a dog loving, beard envying, pop culture geek from the beautiful city of trees, Boise, Idaho. You can catch up with her latest misadventures on Instant Lo or follow her on Twitter @LizVGreene.