If you’ve decided that wearing a t-shirt outside is not quite enough lately, you’ve probably come to the conclusion that winter is sneaking up on us. It’s one thing to get ourselves mentally and physically prepared for it – it’s another to make sure our homes are ready. For you “seasoned” professionals – those who have bore the brunt of winter for most of your life, the following information may not be new news. But for people relatively new to a Minnesota winter, new homeowners, or those that just plain need a reminder, here we go.
Start from the top down
There’s a lot to keep track of with a home, especially when impending weather conditions (like winter), can raise havoc with a number of things. Things that if not monitored can result in costly repairs. So let’s start this discussion with a dialog about water and the nasty things it can do to a dwelling once the temperature drops. Thinking back on high school science class, water comes in 3 states: liquid, solid and gas/vapor.
With regard to winter, (aka freezing temperatures), water damage may not be discovered until the ice or snow melts, which will occur on and off again throughout the winter. Before the weather gets too cold and the snow begins to fly, it’s a good idea to check your roof – or hire someone to do it. There are many areas on the roof that are susceptible to leaks such as flashing around chimneys, roof valleys and skylights; cracked, raised and/or broken shingles; and locations where antennas, etc are mounted. Worn shingles may not leak this year but the less granules, the greater propensity for cracking and breaking.
As long as you are up on the roof, take a look at gutters. Make sure they are free of leaves and other debris. If water accumulates in the gutters, then freezes, there is a greater opportunity for ice damming on the edges of your roof. And, clogged gutters result in water running over the edge and potentially creating issues in the basement. If you don’t have gutter shields, you may want to consider them to avoid dealing with clogged gutters on a regular basis, especially in the Fall when they will fill up with your neighbors’ leaves.
Ice is a constant factor to contend with in the winter. It can pose real issues for a house through the constant melt-freeze periods throughout the winter. If water melts into a crevice during the day and then freezes and expands at night, it can apply a great deal of pressure to the adjacent surface areas. This pressure will ultimately enlarge the opening and damage (crack, buckle) the area around it. That is why it is important to caulk cracks around windows and door trim, brick and mortar surfaces and even sidewalks and driveways. Get a head start while the weather is still reasonably warm during the day.
When vapor cools, it condenses into a liquid state. This is an important consideration regarding bathroom vents. If the backdraft flapper on a bath fan is not working correctly, cold air will drop into the exhaust duct, cooling the areas around it. Over time, as the warm vapor from the bathroom comes in contact with the cold surfaces, moisture will result with the likelihood of mold forming on the ceiling and upper walls.
One approach to alleviating this issue is to insulate your exhaust fan in the attic. Basically, using foam insulation board, build a box around your fan enclosure and seal the connecting surfaces and joints with caulk. Then, cover the box with attic insulation.
Another consideration regarding your roof is attic insulation. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, it is recommended that attics have an R-38 to R-49 (thermal resistance factor), or about 12”-15” of fiberglass or cellulose insulation. Having adequate attic insulation can make a real impact to your monthly heating bill. One method of checking to see if heat is escaping through your roof is to look for “hot spots”. If you see a bare spot on your shingles through the frost or snow, this is due to a lack of insulation in the attic beneath that area.
Outside of the House
Stepping down off the roof, there are a number of outside areas to investigate. One important action is to unscrew the hoses off of the outside faucets. Your house may have “freezeproof faucets” which don’t allow ice to work its way in and ultimately crack the faucet and/or water pipe inside the home. Regardless of the faucet type, it is a good idea to remove the hoses, drain and store them for the winter. If your home has a “shut-off” valve (typically located near the outside wall inside the home), close it and then turn on the faucet from the outside to drain the residual water.
Lawns, especially during a dry summer, need some extra attention before the ground freezes and the snow flies. It’s a good idea to water your lawn sufficiently before the ground freezes. If you apply seed, use “cold weather” seed. Potash fertilizers are also available to help stimulate turf growth. This should be applied in the Fall to create a healthier turf before it goes dormant.
As mentioned earlier, inspect your sidewalk and driveway for cracks. Fill them in with the appropriate filler (sidewalk caulk and/or driveway filler) to help avoid water from freezing and expanding, thus enlarging the damaged area.
Finally, you may want to put a cover over the air conditioning unit. Totally encapsulating the unit will likely attract mice as a protected spot for the winter. Covering the top of the unit is adequate to keep snow, ice and debris from getting inside.
Inside the House
Drafts are pretty common, especially in older homes. Houses settle, door and window seals dry out and shrink, and wear and tear is simply a reality. If drafts aren’t evident by walking past a closed window or door, you can test the seal by closing the door or window on a piece of paper. If the paper pulls out easily, this is a sign that the seal needs attention. Another way is to hold a candle or lighter near the closed window or door and see if the flame is affected.
Many homes built up through the 1960’s have single pane glass. That is, one glass thickness with typically a storm (or outer) window attached. These windows can be terribly inefficient especially when considering the age of the seals attached to the windows. For many, especially new homeowners, replacing these windows is not an affordable option. However, shrink wrap film for windows could be. This relatively inexpensive approach will help alleviate drafts by basically “sealing” the window shut for the duration of the winter. By applying heat via a hair dryer, the plastic will shrink to the point where it is virtually invisible. Be mindful not to hold the hairdryer in one place too long – it will melt a hole in the plastic.
Your heating system is a vital, if not the most important component to the prewinter checklist. Whether it be a forced air, boiler, heat pump or wood burning system, cleaning and testing the system before the cold weather strikes could save you a lot of headaches. You don’t want to wait for a failure to occur when the weather is below freezing. And not surprising, furnace repair people tend to get very busy in the winter months due to heating systems that have not been checked or cleaned for some time.
Another heating consideration is to keep your temperature settings within a range. If you plan to go out of town, don’t turn down your furnace thinking you’ll be saving fuel while you are gone. By the time you return and set the thermostat back up, your heating system will have run continuously in order to reach the desired temperature.
Lastly, if the outside temperature drops significantly, it may be wise to open the kitchen sink cabinet door (if located on an outside wall) to allow heat from the room to circulate around the sink water pipes. Running your faucet slightly will also help avoid frozen pipes.
Winter can be a challenging time in the north country. Understanding and reacting to its effects on a house is vital. But even the best intentions/actions are not always successful. In the Spring, take a walk around your house and do an inspection. Check the windows, siding and roof for potentially troublesome areas. If anything draws your attention, contact an exterior housing specialist like All Craft Exteriors. Their trained staff can identify the issues and most importantly, what caused them. Early detection and correction will save you a lot in the long run.