The Top 5 Things to winterize your home

Worse than useless air filter

Freezing temperatures are setting in around much of the country, so now what do you do? While each house is unique, there are some things to remember to avoid unpleasant surprises and expensive repairs later one.

#1: Winterize your outdoor water pipes

We all know, when pipes freeze, they often burst due to the extreme pressures exerted by the ice as it forms. If you have hoses outside, disconnect them from the faucet, drain the water that might be trapped in them, and store them for the winter.

If you have a pool or pond that needs winterization, make sure all exposed plumbing is drained. Some systems need to be filled with anti-freeze. Remember, any exposed pipes and even buried pipes, are likely to burst if there’s water in them over the winter.

Most homes have outdoor faucets for hoses. Modern faucets are “no-freeze” design, because they put the valve inside the house where the freeze hazard is lower. However, there are still millions of homes with older fixtures that get destroyed if not drained during the winter. Check your faucets for a shut-off valve inside the house and ensure that they’re drained properly.

#2: Service your furnace or boiler

Many homes are heated with furnaces (hot air) or a boiler (hot water) that are fired using gas, propane or oil. All of these should be checked at least yearly to ensure safe operation. Oil burning systems are particularly prone to getting dirty, clogging, and running inefficiently or even dangerously. If you have oil system, it’s particularly important that you have it checked before every heating season.

#3: Change your air filter if you have a forced air heating system

If your home is heated with hot air, make sure you start the season with a clean filter. Some of the problems you can have with a dirty filter include:

  • Reduced air flow – the dirty filter blocks the air flow, this has many effects
  • Overheating – low air flow can cause a furnace to overheat. This can be a fire hazard.
  • Poor heat distribution – without enough air flow, hot air won’t get to all the rooms of the house properly, leading to cold spots.
  • Inefficient operation – furnaces are designed to operate with enough air flowing. With a clogged filter, you lose system efficiency.
Note – if you have a system that looks like the photo at the top of this post, fire your heating contractor! Seriously. A filter that is installed like this is less than useless because the open filter port allows the system suck in bad air from the attic or basement, bypassing the filter. I’ve measured systems like this that can cost you 30% in system efficiency – for some homes, that means $1000 in utility costs plus bad air quality and poor comfort. When I see things like this, I literally go crazy because it’s such bad practice.

#4: Winterize your windows and doors

Windows and doors are among the least energy efficient parts of your home. If you have storm windows, make sure that they’re all closed tightly. This alone can reduce your energy bills and increase your comfort.

If you have drafty windows, you should consider installing shrink-wrap plastic over them. You’ve seen this stuff – you tape it to the inside window frame and use a hair dryer to get rid of the wrinkles. This single layer of plastic, if installed air-tight, can be among the most effective things you can do to improve your energy efficiency.

Another item that really helps with windows are “window quilts.” They aren’t for everyone due to aesthetics, but a window quilt can quadruple the R-value of your windows and make your home much more comfortable.

Doors are harder to fix. But worth it. Old weatherstrip can be worse than useless, as it can cause bigger gaps to let cold air in. And almost every door I see has a bad threshold where you can see daylight. If your doors are leaky and cold, consider installing a high quality exterior storm door. Otherwise, hire a restoration expert to redo the weatherstrips and other door components so that you’ll have a air-tight doors.

#5: Get an energy audit

I admit, I’m biased because I used to do these every day. But there are few investments you can make that can pay back better than an energy audit done by a qualified professional with an infrared camera and blower door. They’ll check your home from basement to attic and give you a comprehensive report, detailing how to make you home comfortable, efficient and safe.

A word of warning – the last few years has brought out a lot of unqualified contractors calling themselves energy auditors. Here are a few things to check:

  • History – how long have they been doing audits? How many have they done? Who trained them?
  • References – get references and copies of reports they’ve done for others. Check their references.
  • Equipment – Blower door and infrared camera are a minimum. Most qualified auditors will have moisture meters, combustion testers and many other pieces of equipment.

You’ve seen my list, what would you add?


6 thoughts on “The Top 5 Things to winterize your home

  1. The easiest way to make your home more energy efficient is to seal any air leaks, and one that is often overlooked is the bathroom ventilation fan and exhaust vent. The back-draft flap these units come with do a very poor job of stopping leaks. To address this issue, I use a replacement insert fan from the Larson Fan Company (online). Their fans has a true damper built in, that does a great job in keeping warm air in during the winter and hot, humid air out in the summer. This product has reduced my annual energy bills by over ten percent. It saves the most when air conditioning is being used.

    • Steve – thanks for sharing. I hadn’t heard about your replacement fan inserts before but they look intelligently designed to fit into existing fan housings. Those cheap flappers in normal fans are definitely a weak spot in their design.
      It would be nice to see some more detailed photos of the fan and some comparative ratings (watts/cfm) and sound levels. Maybe some links to independent reviews. You might also want to replace the CAD drawings with real photos since people often equate CAD drawings to “the product doesn’t yet exist”.

  2. Most of the leaves have fallen now, so it’s a good time to check your gutters and downspouts one more time to be sure they are clear. This will help deter ice and snow buildup in the gutters which could bring those gutters crashing down.

  3. #7a – Close the fireplace damper if you’re not using the fireplace

    This was sent in by my friend Craig Arbaugh of Residential Energy Solutions in Chester County, PA. What great advice! If you leave your damper open, you’re just letting the hot air escape your house. This also draws in cold air from outside to replace the air that’s going up the chimney.

    You might think this is insignificant, but if you’ve ever gone up on a roof and put your hands over the chimney, you’ll think a fan is blowing! The natural “stack effect” that makes a chimney work is quite powerful. How powerful? You could be raising your home heating bills 5%-10% just by leaving the fireplace damper open!

  4. #7 – Check your chimney

    Chimney fires are nasty business. If you use your fireplace often, chances are you’ve got a coating of creosote in your flue. You might have bird nests and other junk that came in over the winter. It’s worth at least peering up your chimney with a flashlight to ensure that there’s nothing blocking it. But best is to have it cleaned out before you start your winter fires.

  5. #6 – Remove window air conditioners!

    If you’ve got window air conditioners and you leave the installed over winter, you may as well just leave the windows open and drop dollar bills in the shredder.

    I know it’s inconvenient to do, but they’re air conditioners! Take em out and you’ll be much more comfortable and your utility bills will be lower.

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