Home Preparations to Make Before Winter Arrives

by Al Heavens | The Home Remodeling Podcast

Al Heavens is a Haddonfield, N.J.- based, nationally syndicated, home-improvement writer and author whose newspaper columns, magazine articles and books have been the first word on remodeling for 50 million readers for more than three decades. He is the author of What No One Ever Tells You About Renovating Your Home and Remodeling On The Money: Fifteen Innovative Projects Designed to Add Value to Your Home, and was “The Gadgeteer” on Discovery Channel’s Home Matters program.

We had the first taste of fall in the last couple of weeks, and while the temperatures have since recovered to normal, this is no guarantee that winter might be late this year.

Now, I realize that a lot has happened since last winter, but if memory serves me correctly, the National Weather Service recorded just 0.03 inches of snow during meteorological winter – Dec. 1 to March 1. We had some cold days, but no endless frigid periods. There also were no major winter rain, wind or ice storms, at least in the Middle Atlantic region.

Looking back on nearly seven months of a world turned upside down, which would you prefer: A bad or, at best, normal winter or a pandemic?

Where did I leave that snow shovel?

The worst-case scenario, of course, is both, so the clock is running on getting your house ready for winter with the limits being placed on movement by COVID-19.

When it comes to winter preparation, I am not breaking new ground. My male readers would beg me to delay writing the annual story until after they were sure that the Eagles would not be making the playoffs. My female readers would use the opportunity to cajole their dozing spouses off the couch and up to the gutters on Sunday afternoons.

One of my friends did not even have to read the newspaper to know when the article appeared. His mother would call him after Sunday Mass and read him the list.

Why is being prepared for winter so important? If there is a major problem that is not corrected before the cold weather has us in its grip, there is a better-than-average chance that the professional you will need to fix it will not be available.

In addition, winter damage can delay and add to the costs of improvements to your home on which you should be focusing. These kinds of improvements are designed to enhance quality of life or make your home more enticing at sale time.

For example, ice dams on the roof, which are often aggravated by poor home maintenance, including gutters that are filled with leaves and debris, so melting snow and ice cannot flow freely.

They also form near eaves or gutters as the result of interior heat escaping into the attic and through a roof’s decking. The heat melts snow and ice on the upper areas of the roof, resulting in meltwater. The water runs to colder lower areas and re-freezes, forming ice dams.

Leaks can occur when water backs up behind the ice dam and finds its way under shingles, or behind fascia or cornices. While most homeowners’ insurance policies will pay for ice-dam damage, why not just avoid the problem?

The number of homeowners affected by this problem, especially after a heavy snowfall and an extended spell of below-freezing weather, is huge if email and phone calls are an adequate measure of volume. Many roofers will not risk climbing ladders on icy roofs to chip away at ice dams, because dams are likely to re-form at night when the temperature falls below freezing.

What you need to do now is you should have a roofer inspect your gutters and downspouts, as well as your roof, for any damage. Missing or damaged shingles mean potential leaks, as do pinholes in the gutters, or gaps where they meet the downspouts.

If the roof and gutters pass inspection, then the problem might lie with heat escaping through the roof from the attic. The three solutions: properly insulating the attic to prevent heat from escaping through the roof decking; improving attic ventilation – at least one square foot of vent for every 300 square feet of the attic floor — so there will be a regular exchange of warm and cold air, and, finally, installing one or two feet of waterproof underlayment up from the eaves overhang and under the shingles (annual snowfall, roof slope, overhang and other factors determine how much).

This is, of course, not a do-it-yourself project. Nor is inspecting or cleaning your chimney. The mortar in the joints should not be loose or missing. When water gets into joints with loose mortar, the action of freezing and thawing will turn the mortar to powder.

If you have a wood-burning fireplace, the firebox should be cleaned, and the creosote removed.

In a previous blog post, I talked about the whole-house approach to energy-efficiency, that is, replacing old windows but doing nothing about insulating the walls surrounding them.

Still, windows and doors are two of the biggest sources of heat loss, so you might just want to bite the bullet and have them replaced with new and efficient ones.

Just taking out the old window and slapping in a new one is not the solution. While the home centers provide step by step instructions on do-it-yourself replacement, nothing beats installation by professionals, whose work is quick, efficient and typically guaranteed.

The same goes for door replacement, which is usually much more involved than window work.

What about the furnace? Well, there is nothing worse than having the furnace die of old age in the middle of a blizzard and no one can reach your house to replace it.

Of the 43 million furnaces in the United States, one in four is 20 years old and older, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Although annual furnace inspections are highly recommended, many homeowners fail to do so – especially those with brand-new models – before the start of the cold-weather season.

As I have mentioned before, I once owned a house with the original coal furnace that had been converted to oil, and I would clean it myself on the third weekend in October every year. We had no alternative heat source, so my work was critical.

My present house has a condensing furnace that is probably 50 percent more efficient than the old coal furnace, yet it had issues with a computer board and a blower when it was brand new, and in the second week of February.

Unlike the old house, however, the new one has an alternative heat source – a 44,000 BTU gas fireplace – as well as energy-efficient windows and doors and sealed and insulated walls and pipes.

Even after shutting down the fireplace at bedtime – safety issues, of course — the house remained in the mid-60s overnight, which is the temperature at which we feel the most comfortable.

Speaking of the mid-60s, that is the temperature at which the house should be kept so that the pipes do not freeze – especially those pipes that run along cold exterior walls. By insulating the hot-water pipes, there is a better-than-average chance that when the water pours into the bathtub or shower from the heater, it may still be, well, at least warm.

Some of my regular pre-winter chores involve cutting tree limbs and branches away from the house so they will not cause damage if they come down under the weight of ice and snow. I also shut off the water to the outdoor spigots, even the freeze-proof ones, and disconnect the hoses from them.

I also try to clear leaves and other debris from the foundation, since that is where unwelcome visitors can nest. I also inspect the foundation for cracks and fill any I find with masonry caulk, even though I know that if mice want to come in, they will always find a way.

Finally, there is the carbon-monoxide detector. If the furnace malfunctions or the gas appliances become faulty, carbon-monoxide poisoning can result.  If you have one, test it to make sure it works, just like the smoke detector.

If you do not have one, get one. The pandemic is keeping us at home and indoors more than ever before. It would be tragic to successfully ride out COVID-19 only to be felled by carbon monoxide.