Updated on 11.02.08

A Guide to Winterizing Your House

Trent Hamm

Winter House by PhotoBobil on Flickr!Winter is approaching and in much of the United States, that means very cold temperatures, snow, and ice. Here in the upper Midwest, it gets particularly nasty: we had some amount of ice or snow on our driveway nonstop from October to April last winter.

As a homeowner, this change in the season means one thing: what do I need to do to protect my enormous investment in this house from the brutal change in the weather and keep money in my pocket?

One big first step is to minimize your winter heating bills. I wrote a lengthy post covering twelve tactics for doing this – here they are in a concise list:

Air seal your home.
Make sure the attic is well-insulated.
Dress warmly inside and keep the temperature low.
Get a programmable thermostat.
Minimize or eliminate use of vent fans.
Turn off the heat in unused rooms.
Use space heaters.
Make sure you have a fresh furnace filter.
Use an insulation blanket on your hot water heater (if it needs one).
Keep blinds and curtains open on the sunny side of the house and closed on the other side.
Cook at home using the oven.
Microwave a hot water bottle before bed each night, then dip the temperature.

What else? Here are twelve additional useful steps for preventive maintenance for your home. These steps will help minimize the wear and tear of the changing of the seasons of your home, putting off potential major repairs for many years.

Call an HVAC professional to inspect your furnace and your ductwork. You should always do this before the first winter you spend in a house, as well as every few winters thereafter. It’s essential that your furnace remain in good working order with clean ductwork that’s in good repair, and a professional can properly evaluate things for you quite well.

Prepare your fireplace (if you have one). Make sure the chimney’s swept and that the damper opens and closes. Also, if your chimney is made of brick, examine the brick and mortar to make sure it’s in good repair. Have plenty of firewood cut and on hand for use. You may also want to install a screen on top of the chimney to keep pests out.

Check your roof shingles and do any minor repairs you can. Ice and snow buildup on a roof can wreak havoc, so make sure that your shingles are in good shape. At the very least, do a careful ground inspection of your roof, but it might be better to just go up there on a ladder and look around for yourself. Replace any worn out tiles you find.

Clean out your gutters. Similarly, when the temperature hovers around freezing and you’re facing a lot of melting and freezing water, clogging in your gutters can create a huge logjam of ice on your roof. Prevent most of this by cleaning out your gutters in advance of the winter season, removing leaves and bird nests.

Prepare your lawn-care and garden equipment for winter. Drain the oil and gas from your mower, tiller, and weed eater. Put into careful storage any lawn and garden equipment. Drain all of your hoses and put them into storage as well, as sitting water freezing and re-freezing inside a hose can really damage it.

Service your winter equipment. Make sure your snowblower starts up after you’ve properly tuned it and put gas and oil in it (as per the directions). You don’t want to go out there and fire up your snowblower for the first time and discover that it needs oil or new spark plugs.

Pull all vegetation away from your foundation. Vegetation near your foundation can continue to grow near the warmth of your home, possibly causing the roots to grow towards your foundation. Pull any vegetation near your foundation away from it to keep your foundation in good shape.

Check (or install) your carbon monoxide detector and smoke detectors. You should have a carbon monoxide detector near your furnace and a smoke detector in all rooms in the house. Check them all to make sure they’re in proper working order.

Trim any nearby trees. If you have tree limbs near your house, particularly ones anywhere near windows, trim them back. When they get weighted down with snow and ice, they’ll bend and perhaps break – and that can spell disaster for your windows or your roof.

Seal your driveway and deck. The constant freezing and thawing of a winter season can wreak havoc on unprotected outdoor surfaces. Spend some time in the next few weeks sealing your driveway and your deck to keep the freezing water from damaging your property.

Move in your potted plants. As the weather gets colder, your plants will be affected by the temperatures more and more. Move them inside for the winter and place them in an area with adequate lighting to ensure that they live through the cold season.

Prepare an emergency kit. Major winter storms can sometimes result in multi-day power outages. Have an emergency kit with plenty of flashlights, an emergency radio (that’s powered by batteries or hand crank), plenty of blankets, and some food and water on hand in an easily-available place.

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  1. Meg says:

    One caveat–if your windows are poorly installed and let in draughts, close the shades and curtains–you’ll stay warmer that way. I lived in a sunny but bitterly cold dorm room one year because the windows were so bad. I ended up pinning quilts over my windows for an additional layer of insulation.

  2. CM says:

    I read a lot about doing things to make a home more energy efficient, but what about an apartment? I want to make my home more eco friendly, but I can’t go around installing thermostats and changing windows. And I live in an apartment owned by a major university so it’s not like I can go talk to my landlord about making a change. We always turn out lights when we not using them and try to be frugal with the heat (we live in WI so there’s no air conditioner to worry about). We also make sure that small appliances get unplugged when they are not in use. But is this the best we can do? Can you come up with 10 tips for apartment dwellers?

  3. KC says:

    I live in a very mild winter climate, but we do get some windy, cold days. I buy some of those insulated window/door sealers (look like a long tubes filled with insulated beads) and put them in the window sills where I can’t find the wind leakages. I’ve inspected several of my windows and can’t figure out where the wind is coming in, so I just use those things and they work great.

    I also wrap my hot water heater in a blanket. It only costs a few bucks and reduces the energy it takes to warm up the water throughout the day.

    I also shut some of the vents in my home where it is too hot. My upstairs has a plethora of vents and of course hot air rises so it gets much hotter upstairs then down. I shut about half the upstairs vents and it helps some. But mostly I just put a sweat shirt and warm slippers at the top of the stairs to put on when I go down.

  4. John says:

    Great ideas for lowering the heating bill costs. I did, however, have question for you. I’m a medical student in the midwest who bought a home because the MD/PhD program I am will take 7-8 years for me to complete the requirements for both degrees. Thus, I figured that buying an affordable house was a better investment than throwing money away on rent for seven years. I spend almost all of my day studying in my office, where I employ a space heater to keep the room comfortable while keeping the rest of the house at a crisp 57 degrees. The question is, is it possible to have the house set at too low of a temperature? I don’t want to damage any of the applicances/electronics in my home…

  5. kristine says:

    As a renter, a lot of this is not within my purview. But’s it’s a great list. Reminds me to go drain my hose today!

    If you have a small window that no one sees- you can seal it with bubble wrap.

    One thing- you lose 30 percent of your body heat through the top of your head. Remember Ebeneezer Scrooge, and that long flannel nightcap? Well, it really does keep you super-warm at night! You can make one easily with 2 flannel triangles, or get an elf or very thin Santa hat from the party store after Christmas.

  6. steve says:

    @kc–the leaks are probably coming in through cracks in the sills (on the outside of the house). That’s where caulking the exterior seams comes into play.

  7. steve says:

    @john: the only danger in keeping the temperature set low would be if you froze a pipe, which would cause water damage if it cracks the pipe (water expands when it freezes). However, I have had no problems with this and I keep most of my house (which is too big) at 52 F.

    That temperature will not harm electronics. Think about your car stereo–it regularly encounters temperatures much lower than 57F yet continues to work. (mine is 16 years old and sits through -10F temperatures in winter).

  8. steve says:

    2nd @ john:

    check you home insurance and see if they require a minimum temperature to pay water damage claims. That would be something else to be aware of. I know some rental contracts, for example, require the tenants to keep the thermostat at 55F, to ensure against the possibility of pipes freezing. Me, I go lower and haven’t had any problems. But I would keep an eye on it if your insurance won’t cover a water damage from a burst pipe and you keep the temperature lower than they specify, and you care whether the insurance covers such things (i don’t, really).

  9. KJC says:

    Good list. One other thing I’d add: if you have garden hoses connected to outside spigots, by all means remove them. The risk of the spigot freezing and splitting internally is MUCH higher with the hose attached. As Trent suggests, it’s best to drain the hoses and bring them inside, but at a minimum, unhook them from the spigots.

  10. A. Dawn says:

    I live in a condo and not allowed to do any additional weatherization than what’s already been done by management. I noticed that a condo is usually a lot warmer(in the winter) and a lot cooler(in the summer when central ac is on) than a house.
    A Dawn Journal

  11. Mary says:

    If you use a wood stove or fireplace, it’s also a good time to start putting together newspaper logs (I found some directions here: http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/69357/making_newspaper_logs.html?cat=24 ), especially if you don’t have a good source of free firewood.
    Oh, and save the colored comics pages to use as gift wrap for the impending holiday season.

  12. Lisa says:

    I just changed out the screens for glass on two doors this weekend. This allows us to have the full benefit of a breeze during the summer, a bit more sunshine heating the house during the fall, and another barrier during the winter.

    We also made sure all the windows were tightly closed with the storms all the way down.

  13. Mule Skinner says:

    @kc — I am told that a candle flame is very sensitive to window drafts.

  14. Mule Skinner says:

    A multi-day power outage might result in the indoor temperature dropping enough to freeze your pipes. In my case, the furnace is electrically controlled, and beyond that, the heat is distributed by hot water which depends on electrically driven pumps. Power down means it won’t work even though the gas is available. One solution for me would be to fire up one of my (smoky) fireplaces, which I don’t like to use. Other solutions for me would be to put in an airtight wood stove, or a gas heater that will work without electrical controls. I haven’t done either, alas.

  15. Howard says:

    Nicely written. I definitely agree about trimming back branches near the house. I live in the northeast, and a few years ago, we had enough snow that one of our trees actually bowed enough to push against our living room window and crack it. (That was a cold night.)

    I also agree about regular gutter cleaning. A couple of years ago, I didn’t bother, and the gutters got clogged during the fall (which I didn’t notice, of course). When the spring came, all the snow melted, but didn’t have anywhere to go, so I got water damage in my attic. For those of you who hate cleaning gutters, too, I recommend installing gutter covers. I haven’t had a clog in the 18 months they’ve been on my house, and I never have to clean them out. If you’re interested, this is the brand I use: http://www.gutterhelmet.com

  16. goldenme says:

    FYI – Carbon monoxide detectors should NEVER be installed near the furnace. First of all, being too close to the source could result in false readings, plus you might not hear the alarm if it goes off. CM detectors should be installed in living and sleeping areas, just like smoke alarms.

  17. Brooklyn says:

    We have a BIG OLD two story. If you’ve got a fireplace I recommend investing in a fireplace insert. You can post fans to push the hot air into the next room and another to push cold air into the hotter ( insert ) room. Ceiling fans reversed also circulate air.

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