Winterizing 101 - How to Tuck Your House in for a Long Winter’s Nap
Do you like being cold in the winter? What about being cold in the winter… while you’re inside your house?
While answers may vary for question one, most people will agree about question two: Being cold inside your home pretty much sucks. Nobody wants that. So what’s a homeowner to do? WINTERIZE!
Winterizing your home comes with loads of benefits, because you’re:
- Improving energy efficiency, and saving money on home heating costs.
- Performing important annual maintenance that helps protect your home from those potentially damaging wintry conditions. (Bonus: You’ll also be protected from a mouse invasion! Mice don’t like being cold, either.)
- Ensuring that your home will be able to perform its central mission — you know, sheltering you. In this case, it’ll be able to keep you warm and safe throughout the long winter.
So — you smart, capable, forward-thinking homeowner you — take some time this weekend to winterize your home. It’s not hard, and it’s more than worth the trouble. By attending to these seven fairly simple things, you can ensure you’ll be warm and toasty all winter long.
Before we begin, one quick note: if you haven’t already done typical fall home maintenance tasks like cleaning your gutters, trimming tree branches, and cleaning/storing tools and outdoor furniture, check out our blog on “10 Fall Home Maintenance Must-Dos.” It’s not too late for any of that, either.
1. Change the Direction of Your Ceiling Fans
Let’s start with an easy one. Did you know ceiling fans can actually help you regulate your home’s temperatures year-round? Just change the direction of the small switch on the fan’s motor housing. Alternatively, if your fan has a remote, you can use that to reverse the direction.
When you’re standing below the fan looking up at it, it should turn:
- Clockwise in winter. This creates an updraft that helps to pull up cooler air while pushing warm air — remember, heat rises! — back down. Use the fan at its lowest speed.
- Counter-clockwise in summer. That enables the fan to blow cooler air straight down.
2. Winterize Your Plumbing
More basic science review: When water freezes, it expands. If water freezes inside your plumbing or irrigation systems, it could break your pipes or lines. That’s why you need to get the water out of your exterior plumbing before temperatures dip below freezing, and take measures to protect any vulnerable interior pipes. Here’s how:
- Shut down and drain sprinkler systems. To avoid damage from freezing over the winter, your irrigation systems need to be drained or blown out. For in-ground systems, you can either hire a professional or do it yourself. If you’ve got drip irrigation or micro-sprinklers, you can likely do it yourself. (There are plenty of DIY guides online; find one specific to your system.)
- Drain all outdoor water spigots. Failing to do this could have nasty consequences, like a damaged water line or a flooded home. Shut off the water valve to the outdoor spigot. Then, open the spigot to let the water drain out. After a spell, simply close it again (and don’t worry — you don’t need to get every drop out). Keep the water valve turned off till springtime.
- Wrap vulnerable pipes. Do you have any interior plumbing that may be exposed to below-freezing temperatures? Examples may include exposed pipes in unheated attics, basements, or crawl spaces, or in areas of your home or garage that may lack sufficient insulation (e.g., a utility sink in an unheated garage). Wrap those pipes in foam or fiberglass sleeves.
- Consider a water heater blanket. While newer water heaters are already well-insulated, older models can benefit from being wrapped with a water heater blanket. According to energy.gov, it can reduce heat losses by up to 45% and save you up to 16% annually on your water heating bill.
All that said, if — despite your best efforts — you do end up with burst pipes and a flooded basement, remember that your homeowners insurance coverage may help. While water damage from other causes isn’t covered in a typical homeowners insurance policy, water damage caused by burst pipes generally is.
3. Check Your HVAC
Is your home’s heating system in good working order? You don’t want to find out that your furnace needs replacing once temperatures have already dropped. To make sure:
- Replace your filter. You probably didn’t think to change your filter before you decommissioned it for the summer, so it’s a good habit to change it when you winterize. Beyond that, you should change your filter at least once every three months while the furnace is in use. You may want to change it more frequently if (a) someone in your home has allergies, since filters help remove allergens from the air; or (b) you have pets, since their hair may clog the filter. What quality of filter should you buy? It depends on your furnace. Hilariously, better-quality filters sometimes reduce airflow too much, reducing the furnace’s efficiency. So you may need to experiment to see what type works best. And while reusable, washable filters offer an enticingly environmentally friendly option, they’re only a good choice if you’re genuinely committed to washing them every month.
- Test your furnace. Before it gets too cold, do a simple test. Turn the thermostat to “heat,” and set it higher than room temperature. Then, listen to make sure the furnace kicks on, and check your vents to ensure they’re blowing hot air. Finally, make sure the furnace powers down when the goal temperature has been reached.
- Consider getting an inspection. Furnaces are not cheap, and you want yours to last for years. That means taking good care of it… which means hiring a certified HVAC professional to inspect it. Annual inspections are better for older furnaces. Every other year will likely suffice for newer furnaces. It may be cost-effective to consider signing an annual maintenance agreement.
4. Winterize AC Units or Swamp Coolers
Winterizing cooling systems helps them last longer. It also helps you ensure your unit isn’t letting in cold air. Lucky for you, it’s not complicated:
- Unplug it. To ensure safety, cut the power before getting started.
- Drain. If you haven’t already turned off and drained your swamp cooler’s water spigot (see above), do so now. Then, drain the pan by opening the drain. Leave the drain open over the winter. For an AC unit, turn off the water shut-off valve (if it has one) and drain all pipes and hoses.
- Clean. For a swamp cooler, this means vacuuming and hosing out the pan. For an AC unit, this means removing any excess water from the drain pan. You’ll also want to sweep off and hand-wash the unit’s exterior.
- Cover. Use a waterproof cover that fits your unit as snugly as possible. This helps keep out drafts and prevent rust. Make sure your swamp cooler’s damper is closed before covering it.
5. Check Doors, Windows, and Outlets
You might be surprised by how much cold air finds its way into your home through the tiny openings surrounding doors, windows, outlets, and switchplates, especially in older homes. So we recommend taking the time to:
- Check for drafts. On a cool night, walk around your house, checking each door, window, electrical outlet, and switchplate. Use a post-it or sticker to mark any areas where you feel cold air coming in.
- Remedy problem areas. How you fix the draft depends on where you found it and the size of the opening.
- For a drafty outlet or switchplate, you can use canned spray foam insulation to fill in the area inside the wall around the electrical box.
- For a drafty window, one option is that super fashionable but surprisingly effective transparent window film. Kits include both the film and double-stick tape you’ll need. (Note that you’ll also need a hair dryer to finish the process.) Alternatively, weatherstrip tape or removable caulking cord are great options for filling in small cracks.
- For a drafty door, adding a door stopper or draft guard can make a huge difference. If the draft is coming in around the door’s edges, weather-resistant caulk can be an easy, cheap solution.
If you found a ton of issues around your doors and windows, it may be worth considering replacement. Of course, for obvious reasons, you’ll want to wait for the return of warmer temperatures before moving forward with replacement. Let’s not let ALL that cold air in.
6. Check the Attic
Your attic plays an important role in keeping your home warm in the winter, since it houses a significant amount of your insulation. In fact, the majority of a typical home’s heat loss occurs through openings in its attic. So, when you winterize:
- Inspect your attic. Use this Energy Star guide to determine if it contains enough insulation, and how much you may need to add.
- Consider moving any stored items out of the attic. The cheapest, easiest, and most effective way to add insulation is by putting it on your attic’s floor. You can’t do that if it’s where you insist on keeping all your holiday decorations, or that bobble-head collection you know you’ll want someday.
- Add insulation as needed. If you’re new to the world of insulation, it may be worth hiring a handyman to help you with this task. If you’d prefer to do it yourself, make sure to buy the right kind of insulation and follow appropriate safety precautions.
7. Check the Fireplace
For most people, fireplaces conjure up pleasantly orange-tinged images of warmth, coziness, and possibly sleeping cats. Unfortunately, that supposedly warm, cozy fireplace can actually leak a massive amount of heat out of your home. That’s why:
- If you WON’T use your fireplace this winter, get a chimney balloon. This acts as a temporary plug for your chimney, keeping warm air in and cold air out. After all, even when your damper is closed, it doesn’t create an airtight seal.
- If you WILL use your fireplace this winter, have it inspected. For this, it’s best to hire a qualified professional to perform the inspection. Over time, soot and creosote can build up inside the chimney, increasing the risk of chimney fires. A certified chimney sweep will both inspect and clean your chimney as needed.
8. Perform an Exterior Inspection
When winterizing, it’s a best practice for homeowners to get in the habit of regularly inspecting their home’s exterior. Make it a part of your tucking-in-for-winter routine:
- Do a complete walk-around of your home, noting any cracks or damage. Go over every inch, including your foundation. Take photos and write down all issues. Before you begin, however, get a clear idea of what you’re looking for.
- Seal up minor cracks. Even a tiny crack can let a mouse join you for the winter, and do you really want that kind of company? Caulk is your best friend when it comes to sealing up leaky window frames or vents. You can also use it to patch up small cracks in siding or foundations. And it’s pretty easy to do it yourself. (Just practice first on some cardboard.)
- Repair or replace damaged brick, siding, or cladding. If you’re not comfortable doing it yourself, hire a handyman. Not only will this keep cold out in the winter, it’ll also help keep bugs out every other time of year.
- Replace any rotten wood trim, and repaint or weatherproof before winter hits. If you don’t take care of it now, problems will just get worse. For example, instead of replacing a single length of window trim, you could find yourself needing to replace an entire window frame.
And that’s it. Did that seem like a lot? It’s really not. It’s mostly a lot of checking of things, with the potential for a few repairs here and there. And here’s the very cool part: If you thoroughly winterize your home every year, those smaller bits of maintenance and vigilance will mean you’re far less likely to end up with a giant — and expensive — surprise further down the road. So, winterize away, you champion of homeownership.