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How To Prepare Your Home For Winter, Like A Sailor

As a long time sailor as well as a handyman, I've become more aware over the years how similar a home is to a boat. A well maintained home is safer, cheaper to own and more of a pleasure to live in. As winter comes knocking on our door again, it's time to get your home ready for another voyage around the far side of the sun, so to speak. Preparing your home for winter can be very much like preparing a sailing yacht for an ocean voyage.

Sealing Leaks With Caulking, Weather Stripping and Insulation

One of the best ways to save on winter heating bills is to reduce the amount of cold air that comes inside your home through cracks and crevices. If you were to add up the surface area of all the cracks and crevices in a typical 2,500 square foot home, you would find that it has the equivalent of a 2'x2' window, wide open, 24 hours a day. Imagine how much cold air could come in that window, especially when strong winter winds are blowing!  Use an acrylic-silicone blend of caulking that rated for at least 25 years of exterior use. Life span ratings of caulking should be taken with a grain of salt, since every climate is different, and the rating assumes that paint is applied on top of the caulking, but generally the higher the number of years, the better the grade of caulking. Look for any places where air can infiltrate your home. One good place to start is around your windows. First check the inside of the window to see that it shuts all the way, and that dirt or other obstructions are not keeping it from shutting all the way. Also, make sure that the felt or weather stripping on the bottom and sides of the window are in good shape. (Tip, on a windy day, take a candle and hold it up to your windows and see if the flame flickers. If it does, try to find the point where air is getting in.) 

Next go to the outside of your home and inspect all your windows. While most windows in newer homes are sealed with butyl tape, applied to the window and the moisture barrier such as Tyvek, many contractors do not bother to caulk the trim. By caulking all cracks around the window trim, you help remove another pathway for cold air to enter the home. If you are going to caulk the trim boards around you windows, you must caulk them all the way around the window, and allow no points where water can run down behind them and become trapped. Some builders think that you should not bother caulking window and door trim boards all the way around, and leave a pathway for water to run out at the bottom. If you properly caulk all the way around, as you would a piece of exposed wood on the deck of a boat, you can avoid having water run down the backside of your trim boards, causing rot. Below is a window trim board that is beginning to rot because water is running down the backside of the board, because it was not caulked all the way around.  A phone cable was installed along the edge of the trim board, also making it harder to get a good caulking seal. The bottom of the cedar board is beginning to show signs of rot. Note that there are cement based trim boards, such as those made by James Hardie and Company and others, that do not rot.  The cedar trim boards on this window were removed and replaced with cement - fiber type trim that will not rot.

Window trim in need of replacement

If you home is covered in one of the new cement based siding products, such as Hardiplank, caulk each seam where the sheets of siding meet, then paint over the caulking. Also, look for places where pipes and wires enter the home and caulk around these.

Next Stop, The Roof And Attic

A good sailor would make sure that the deck of their boat was well sealed, so that they could stay comfy and dry down in the cabing below. To prepare your home for winter, make sure that your home's roof is in good condition. Start in your attic and look on the underside of your roof for signs of leaks. One good way to find leaks in metal roofs is to go into the attic on a sunny day and look for points of lights coming through the roof. If you have a shingle or tile roof, check for loose pieces and replace them. If your home contains an attic space that is insulated with fiberglass batt insulation, you may want to consider adding a few inches of cellulose insulation on top of it to help prevent cold air from coming down through the space between the batts and entering your home through places such as light fixtures. Cellulose insulation is relatively cheap, is fire and insect resistant, and is a green product since it is made from recycled phone books and newspapers.

Overall, the best choice for new construction is probably spray foam insulation, which can stop up to 99.9 percent of air infiltration through exterior walls and attics, and offer superior R value. With spray foam insulated homes, there is no such thing as a home that is "too tight". That "old way of thinking" still used by some builders leads to a lot of wasted energy in new homes. The object in a spray foam insulated home is to seal it up as tight as you can, and then use a fresh air intake system (with a heat exchanger) on your HVAC system to regulate the amount of fresh air that comes into your home. By regulating the quality of air that comes into your home, filtering the dust and pollen out of it, and pre-heating it with a heat exchanger, you can save lots of energy as well as keeping your home more dust - free.  For traditionally insulated homes, you will want to insulate your attic crawl space and keep the attic well ventilated to prevent winter moisture buildup. Then you can concentrate on sealing up the lower half of the home. Note that if you use any kind of unvented heater, you will need to crack a window. Unvented heaters are dangerous and should be avoided at all cost.  Clean your gutters so water can flow freely down them and out of the down-spouts. This will help prevent an ice-dam from forming and breaking off your gutters. Consider adding leaf guards to the top of your gutters to reduce the amount of cleaning you have to do. These covers will shed leaves but allow water to enter gutters. Also, check around roof penetrations such as vent pipes to see if the rubber boots are in good shape, or in need of repair.

Other Places To Look To Make Your Home Ship Shape For Winter

If you are not using your fireplace or wood stove, make sure the damper is closed. Thousands of dollars worth of heated or cooled  air escape up chimneys and flues each year when homeowners forget to close them. If you have a dog door, make sure that it closes properly. Dog door flaps should be replaced every couple years, since they can become brittle and no longer close properly.  Install foam gaskets around your electrical receptacles to stop any air that makes it past the siding and vapor barrier from getting into the home. Use the candle trick on a windy winter day to locate receptacles that are leaking air.

 Prepare your outside deck or patio for winter by scrubbing it down with a disinfectant solution. This will help prevent winter mold and moss from forming. For safety's sake, replace non skid strips on your stairs and walkways, so that you don't slip and fall when icy weather comes.

If you home has solar screens on the windows, you may want to remove them in the fall. Even though solar screens offer some insulating value, by taking them off in winter you can increase both the amount of light and solar heat that comes into your home, thus saving energy.

Check Your Furnace and Fireplace

Another very important part of preparing your home for winter weather is to have an annual inspection done on your furnace. Often you can find coupons in your local paper for low cost or even free furnace inspections.  Move all flammable objects away from your furnace and check that its filters are clean. Older furnace blower motors may require annual lubrication. Check the heat exchanger for cracks to prevent dangerous carbon dioxide from entering the home. A self check of your heater should only be done if you are very knowledgeable about it. Most people should call a qualified service technician to inspect it. All homes with heating systems should include a carbon monoxide detector (or several of them depending on the size of the home), in addition to smoke detectors. Carbon dioxide detectors have saved hundreds of lives since they came on the market a few years ago.  Have a chimney sweep come and clean your furnace's flue and your chimney if you have one. Fires caused by creosote buildup destroy hundreds of homes each year. A creosote fire in a chimney can burn at over 2100 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to destroy brick and mortar chimneys and even melt through steel. Depending of what type of wood that you burn, one year's worth of fireplace use may have deposited enough creosote to cause a tragic chimney fire. Chimney sweeps are inexpensive to hire compared to losing your home to fire. Most insurance companies recommend an annual chimney inspection and some cities even require it.

Insulate Pipes

To prepare your home for winter, insulate all exposed pipes and faucets. Cover exterior faucets with styrofoam covers and wrap all exposed pipes with foam sleeves. For severely cold climates, you may need heated pipe wrapping.

Batten Down The Hatches

As you prepare for your home's voyage through the winter, you may want to check the outside of the home for loose objects such as gutters, shutters, wires, etc. Also remove any tree branches that have grown close to the home and which will bang against it in strong winter winds. One final note: Consider hiring a certified energy rater to come and inspect your home before winter. They use specialized equipment such as thermal imaging to locate heat loss, and can attach a blower type device to your home that measures the amount of air infiltration. You can use the report your RESNET certified energy rater gives you to correct the problems yourself, or you can hire a handyman to come and address the issues. Bon Voyage!

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