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Protect your home from winter's chill

By J. Scott Wilson, Staff writer
Published On: Oct 09 2012 11:30:28 AM CDT
Updated On: Jan 03 2013 07:43:11 AM CST
small house in winter, home, snow

iStock/akaplummer

Unless you live in Florida or the Southwest, it's a safe bet you are facing a stiff dose of winter temperatures. However, those cold spells can be short, and followed by warmups that can occasionally make you think that maybe winter isn't really going to show up to play this year.

Make no mistake, though: Global warming or not, Old Man Winter will get his pound of frozen flesh out of you. The long, cold nights are here, and little things you do now around your house will increase your comfort and safety and help reduce your energy bills. With heating oil and natural gas prices set to skyrocket the next time a refinery worker sneezes, you'll need all the help you can get.

Even if you live in an apartment, some of these tips will apply for you. You can have the one apartment in your drafty old building that's warm and toasty no matter how low the temperature goes!

Clean that flue
A chimney fire is one of the single most destructive fires a home can experience. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, heating fires account for 36 percent of all home fires in rural areas every year, and a great percentage of them are caused by a buildup of creosote and other deposits in poorly maintained chimney flues.

Depending on what area of the country you live in, a chimney sweep will cost from $100 to $400 for a yearly cleaning and inspection. Even if you only use your fireplace occasionally, yearly cleaning is vital. If you are a heavy user, burning a fire almost every night during the cold months, you might need a supplemental cleaning mid-season. Your chimney sweep can advise you whether that's necessary.

And, of course, never, EVER burn anything other than seasoned hardwoods in your fireplace. Pine, treated wood and other wood products will increase the deposits in your chimney and may give off toxic gases as they burn.

Check the heat
The heating fires mentioned in the previous section also include those caused by space heaters and central heat systems. If you're lucky enough to have central heat, have a professional check it for proper functioning and safety, clean or replace the filters and handle all the other routine maintenance.

Be sure that the heat exchanger is on the list of things to be checked. A cracked heat exchanger can allow carbon monoxide to build up in your home, and we all know how much fun that can be.

Seal it up
Years ago, National Geographic ran a feature on the hot new thermal imaging technology that could be used to spot heat sources. One of the pictures I vividly remember was of a suburban street after dark in the winter. Each car had a pool of heat under it cause by the still-cooling engines, and any people walking by had white heat-emission signatures obscuring their faces.

What I remember most clearly, though, was the houses. There were four houses in the picture, and in each one the windows were emitting so much heat they threatened to blind the imaging camera. There were similar blazes of white around the edges of the front doors and even at the rooftop vents of a couple that obviously lacked insulation in the attics.

If you can't afford the latest in hermetically-sealed, super energy-efficient windows, or if your front door is a '70s leftover that lets in almost as much air closed as open, you're not out of luck. There are simple steps you can take that will save you big bucks and help hold the heat in very nicely.

First, caulk your windows properly. Check the inside and outside and apply caulk wherever you find a crack or crevice that could allow warm air to seep out. Also, check around anywhere pipes or conduits enter your home, especially around garden hose connections and dryer vents.

If you don't mind a bit of tackiness in return for increased comfort, there's a product available at most hardware or home improvement stores that will act as an extra layer of insulation and help even the draftiest window function better. It's a roll of plastic wide enough and long enough to cover a number of windows, along with a roll of double-sided tape to secure the plastic to the interior window frame. Once properly installed, the plastic will form an additional barrier to drafts and create a great insulating layer of sealed air between you and the great, cold outdoors.

Spend some time trimming the plastic properly and smoothing out any ripples with a hair dryer and it won't even be visible to a casual glance. Besides, if your winter guests are warm and comfy, they won't mind a bit of plastic on the windows.

Around the doors, new weatherstripping will do a world of good to seal up the top and sides. It's easy to install, but be sure you trim it to fit properly or you'll find yourself replacing it once a week.

Along the base of the door, you'll want to deploy a draft dodger. No, I don't mean you need to drag some aging hippie back from Canada … this draft dodger is a fabric tube filled with anything from beans to sand that can be punted into place along the bottom of the door and seals it quite nicely. You can make one yourself from a few old tube socks sewn together, or folks in colder climes will be sure to find more attractive ones at local craft fairs in the late fall and winter.

Wrap 'em up
While we're talking about insulating things, don't forget to attend to your plumbing. The two major areas to look at are your water heater and your pipes. For the first, buy a "blanket" kit that consists of a wraparound sleeve and a top piece with cutouts for the pipes and control access.

According to the U.S. Dept. of Energy, if your water heater feels warm to the touch, it needs additional insulation. The average insulation kit will reduce your standby heat losses by 25 to 45 percent, saving you up to 9 percent on water heating costs.

While insulating your water heater will save you money, insulating your pipes will save your house. Pipes in crawl spaces and attics, especially anywhere they extend above your insulation, need attention just as much as any hose bibs or other pipes actually outside the home. There are numerous pipe insulation wraps and sleeves on the market, and all of them do essentially the same job. Pick the one that works best for you.

There are thrifty folks who like to insulate their pipes with newspaper wrapped with duct tape. I'm as penny-pinching as anyone, but I buy my pipe insulation pre-made. Given the potential downside to having a pipe burst in my attic and flood my house, it's worth the investment to me.

Finishing touches
You're almost ready to retreat indoors and not poke your nose out again until May. First, though, take a walk around your house. Are your gutters clean? Clogged gutters can fill with rainwater which can then freeze and split gutters and downspouts, giving water access to parts of your home where it shouldn't be.

Have you attended to the winter needs of your plants and lawn? It will be hard to enjoy your warm fire inside if you know that your beloved dahlia bulbs are freezing to death in their beds outside.

If you have an outdoor dog, check his accommodations as well. Be sure he's got a doghouse with plenty of warm bedding and a heated water bowl to ensure he doesn't go thirsty. Of course, if the temperatures plummet too far, you'll want to bring Fido inside, or at least into a nominally heated garage.

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