Homeowner's Pre-Winter Checklist

Tips by Real-Estate-Agents.com

As the weather grows colder, homeowners should look ahead to the stormy winter months. There are many things we can and should do to protect our families and homes from the ravages of winter. Good planning can also help to reduce maintenance and utility costs.

This guide is organized into two parts. First is a checklist to help you get organized. Following is a list of answers to common questions consumers ask this time of year.

By taking inventory of all your home maintenance and improvement projects, you'll get a handle on the big picture. This will help you budget and plan for maximum value and enjoyment.

Some tips:

  • Complete activities requiring a ladder all at once on a day when the weather is nice and the ground is dry.
  • If you have a technician out to check your heating system, have him check related equipment like air cleaners, humidifiers, and heat exchanging ventilators.
  • If you have a professional out to deal with windows, siding or roofing, have them check your entire exterior for additional problems.

If you would like assistance finding reliable service firms that service your neighborhood, contact ServiceMagic.

Heating/Insulation/Ventilation

Central heating

  • Make sure all air vents are free of obstructions.
  • Adjust your vents by opening those near the floor and closing those near the ceiling for better air circulation during the winter months.
  • Test your furnace before the weather gets very cold.
  • Consider having your heating system checked by a professional.
  • Have your humidifier cleaned and checked.
  • If your heating system is older than 15 years, consider replacing it with a modern, efficient unit.
  • Replace or clean your furnace air filters.

Window or through-wall air conditioners: Install a winter cover over the unit or remove it for the winter and seal the opening.

Insulation

  • Make sure attic insulation is at least R30.
  • Make sure crawl space is insulated.
  • Consider insulating your basement walls. Besides saving you heating dollars, it can reduce common moisture problems caused by condensation.
  • If at all possible, make sure walls are insulated to R11.
  • Insulate any pipes and heating ducts that run through cold unheated crawl spaces or attics.
  • If your house was built before 1950, it may be an excellent candidate for cost-saving blown-in wall insulation.

Attic ventilation

  • Make sure attic insulation doesn't cover ventilation vents in the eaves (also called soffits or overhangs). This helps prevent winter ice dams.
  • Make sure ridge vent and vents at eaves are free of plants and debris.
  • Make sure bird and rodent screens for attic vents are in good shape.

Cleaning

  • Vacuum under and behind freezer and fridge. Can greatly improve efficiency of unit.
  • Have chimney cleaned and checked by a chimney sweep.
  • Have drapes cleaned.
  • Have carpets cleaned.
  • Have upholstery cleaned.
  • Have windows washed.
  • Have deck power washed and resealed.

Windows & Doors

  • If you have the older type removable wooden storm windows, make arrangements to have them re-installed.
  • Replace or repair any broken window locks or latches.
  • Caulk around frames.
  • Check the condition of the putty around the window panes. If chunks are falling off, it's time to have fresh putty installed. This is most commonly handled by painters. If the windows are single pane or in pretty bad shape, it will probably be more cost effective to replace the entire window with a modern, energy efficient window.
  • Repair any cracked or broken window panes, or damaged screens.
  • Make sure all windows open and shut properly. This is very important in case of fire.

Exterior Walls

  • Check the condition of the mortar joints. Repair cracks and crumbling mortar before more extensive damage occurs.
  • Check condition of exterior paint. It is best to repaint before the very first sign of cracking and peeling. If paint is in bad shape, this is a good time to have maintenance free vinyl siding installed. If you have siding installed, ask your contractor about ways to increase the insulation in exterior walls at the same time.
  • Check for rotted wood.
  • Check for mud trails, sawdust, and other signs of termite infestation.
  • Make sure no firewood piles are leaning up against the side of the house.
  • Check for gaps around pipes and wires that go through exterior walls. Caulk so that now air can leak in or out.
  • Remove, drain and coil all garden hoses.
  • Turn off the interior cut-off valve for each outdoor faucet and then open the outdoor faucet so that no water can freeze in the pipe that connects the two.

Rainwater Protection

  • Make sure the ground around the foundation drops 1/2 inch for every foot as you move away from the foundation. The drop should be greater if water flows are heavy in that area.
  • Make sure all concrete patios, walks, and driveways slope away from foundation.
  • Keep gutters clean at all times. During the fall it is better to clean them several times rather than waiting until the end of the leaf season.
  • When it is raining, go outside and using binoculars or opera glasses, inspect your roof and gutters.
  • Make sure the water is not coming down behind the gutters and that the gutters are properly sloped toward the downspouts. Also check that all support brackets and nails are securely in place. Downspouts should discharge water well away from the foundation.
  • If your gutters are rusty, it is time to replace them with new aluminum or vinyl gutters.
  • If there are any signs of a leak or damaged shingles or flashing, have the roof checked. Generally, if the roof is leaking and is more than 15 years old (with regular shingles), it may be more cost effective to have a new roof put on.
  • Make sure all stairwell drains are clear of debris. Consider building a permanent roof over exterior stairwell to prevent debris and rain from getting into the stairwell.
  • Make sure the rims of your window wells are high enough to prevent ground water from flowing into them. Install covers over any window wells exposed to the rain.
  • Test your basement sump pump.
  • If you have a wet basement, consider having it looked at by an inspector that specializes in water problems.
  • Make sure all culverts and exterior drains are free of debris.

Safety

  • Make sure all smoke detectors are working with fresh batteries.
  • Install a carbon monoxide alarm near the furnace and any fireplaces that get used.
  • Make sure your house number is well lit and clearly readable from the street.
  • Check all hand rails inside and out to make sure they are strong enough to prevent a fall and extend far enough to provide ample support.
  • Make sure all entrances are lit by lights connected to motion and light detectors.
  • Test your security alarm.

Yard & Garden

  • Make sure all fence posts are sound.
  • Make sure all gates open and close properly.
  • Make arrangements for any lawn renovation work.
  • Prune shrubs and trees.
  • Make arrangements for fall leaf raking.
  • Make arrangements for winter snow removal.
  • Make sure snow and ice removal tools and supplies are on hand.

Improvements to Consider

  • Thermal replacement windows
  • New energy efficient front door
  • Basement remodeling/finishing
  • Kitchen remodeling
  • Bathroom remodeling
  • Skylights
  • Siding installed with wall insulation
  • Interior painting and decorating

Common Questions & Answers

Do I need to have my heating system checked out by a professional each fall?

Check the literature that came with your furnace. If you don't have the literature, you can usually find out from the manufacturer. Write down the manuafacturer's name and the model name and number from labels on the equipment. Call 800 information (1-800-555-1212) to get the manufacturer's toll free phone number and then call the manufacturer and ask what's recommednd for your model. Most manuafacturers do not specifiy that annual check-ups are necessary, but many consumers elect to have the check-ups anyway.

For many, there is some peace of mind that comes from having the system checked. In some cases, a minor problem can be discovered and fixed before it becomes major. Routine matters like filter changes and humidifier maintenance can be done at the same time. Should you later have a break down during a cold spell, your status as a regular customer will probably move you to the front of the line for repairs. In conclusion, on most systems an annual check-up isn't necessary but does offer certain advantages. The choice is yours.

Do I need to have my ducts cleaned?

Duct cleaning is promoted as solving several problems. It is supposed to make your furnace more efficient, reduce household dust, and provide relief to family members with respiratory problems. Dirty ducts have to be extraordinarily dirty to have any effect on the efficiency of your furnace, so this reason only applies if you can see a large build-up of dust or mold in your ducts. Most dirt and dust in ducts settles into place and does not have any significant effect on household dust levels. Studies have shown that the most effective part of duct cleaning is the use of antimicrobial sprays after the cleaning. These sprays greatly reduce the biological irritants that aggravate many respiratory problems. However, the effect of the sprays is temporary and they can have the undesired effect of shortening the life of the duct work by promoting corrosion.

Studies have failed to show any long term benefit from duct cleaning for most homeonwers. Despite the lack of scientific proof, many people with respiratory problems report that duct cleaning substantially improves their ease of breathing. It makes sense to try duct cleaning as part of a plan to ease the suffering of someone with a respiratory disorder.

How often should I have my gutters cleaned?

Gutter cleaning is both one of the least expensive home maintenance chores and one of the most important. Neglected gutters can lead to wood-rot problems, pest infestations, wet basements and many other expensive complications. This is one area where cutting corners can really cost you.

Do these heavily promoted gutter covering systems work?

There are several new products on the market that are supposed to keep leaves and other debris out of the gutter while still capturing and channeling the water. Most of these products do extend the time that it takes for your gutters to get clogged with debris. How long they work depends on the type of gutter cover as well as the type and volumn of debris.

Unfortunately, the more effective the cover, the more likely you are to have a large amount of overflow during downpours -- arguably when gutters are most critical. All the latest designs try to get around that paradox, but overall, there remains a pretty clear trade-off. More protection means more spillage. Another criticism is that many of these products make the gutters difficult to clean. If they reduce by half the number of times you have to clean your gutters, but make gutter cleaning three times more difficult, you may not be coming out ahead.

Do I have to have my chimney cleaned every year?

While it may not be neccessary to have the chimney cleaned every year, it is a good idea to get it inspected. Start by having it checked yearly. If you find that after one year, the inspector says the chimney is still pretty clean, you can think about safely going to two year intervals. Cleaning requirements vary from house to house, so start out with yearly inspections and adjust the interval until you find the right rythm for your home.

Do I need to turn-off inside valves that control water flow to outdoor faucets?

Many people forget to close the cut-off valves to their outdoor faucets and suffer no ill effects. The water that remains in the pipe probably does freeze, but the pipe doen't always split. However, each successive freeze weakens the pipe so the odds of a break go up over time. So skipping this simple chore is a bit like playing Russian Roulette. Sooner or later you will likely have a burst pipe. Ask someone who has experienced burst pipes and they'll tell you it can be one huge mess. So don't risk it, turn off the indoor cut-off valve and leave the outdoor faucet open so there is no standing water that can freeze.

Do I need a humidifier?

If you have a forced-air heating system as opposed to a heat pump or radiators, you may want to consider a humidifier. These types of systems take nearly all the moisture out of the air. The resulting, extremely low humidity can be irritating and unhealthy. The wetness in your mouth and throat is part of your body's defense against germs. When your mouth and throat get too dry, you become more susceptible to a variety of ailments. For this reason, many people add moisture back into their home's air to raise the humidity to safer and more comfortable levels. This can be accomplished with room humidifiers or central humidifiers. While a central unit is more convenient, it is important that it be maintained according to the manufacturer's instructions. Failure to maintain the unit invites mechanical failure and corrosion of your heating ducts. Worse yet, poorly maintained systems can provide an ideal environment for the growth of bacteria and mold.

Do the new hi-tech furnace filters really work?

In general, the new filters do trap much more dust and other contaminants. However, you have to be on the look out for "cycling." Cycling is the phenomenum where your forced-air furnace (usually gas or oil) is constantly turning itself on and off. This can be hard on the furnace and substantially shorten its life. What happens is that the thermostat calls for heat and the system turns on. The system is designed for a certain amount of air flow. These new filters reduce the air flow. If the reduction is too great, the furnace overheats and a safety switch turns the system off until it cools down a bit. As soon as the safety switch allows it, the thermostat resumes control and turns the system on again. On and off, on and off, the system can cycle indefinitely. Besides being vulnerable to an early demise, a cycling furnace will struggle to keep the house warm on really cold days. If your system cycles with the new filters and takes two filters, you might try replacing just one of the filters.

Thermal replacement windows are very expensive. Are they worth all the cost?

Thermal replacement windows are unquestionably expensive. They can easily run $500 per window installed. However, windows are often the single biggest variable in our heating costs. Many people cut their utility bills in half by replacing the windows. Those savings are permanent. Replacing windows is like buying an annuity. Besides the energy savings, there can be huge savings in maintenance costs. If you choose the no-maintenance vinyl windows, you'll never have to have them painted inside or out again. Windows are the most expensive part of any painting project so your painting bills will go way down. Most modern windows are also much easier to clean. They tilt inwards so that anyone can clean them safely.

Some people try to cut costs by installing the windows themselves or getting a handyman to do it. This can be a risky strategy. If the windows aren't installed exactly square and plumb, most of their thermal effectiveness will be defeated.

For most homeonwers, thermal replacement windows are a worthwhile investment. Because the windows yield substantial savings over time, a replacement project is an excellent candidate for financing. As you pay off the loan, much of the payments will be offset with lower utility and maintencance costs.

by David Hollies, reprinted courtesy of Service Magic

Getting Your Home Ready For Winter

Homeowner's Spring Maintenance

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