Winterizing Your Home
Preparing Your Home for Winter
The fall Equinox is a good time of year to start thinking about preparing your home for winter, because as temperatures begin to dip, your home will require maintenance to keep it in tip-top shape through the winter. This is known as winterizing your home.
Autumn is invariably a prelude to falling winter temperatures, regardless of where you live. It might rain or snow or, as David Letterman says, "Fall is my favorite season in Los Angeles, watching the birds change color and fall from the trees." Did you know there is only one state in the United States where the temperatures are never below zero? Give up? It's Hawaii. But it gets close to zero at Mauna Kea.
Here are ten tips to help you prepare your home for winter:
1) Furnace Inspection
- Call an HVAC professional to inspect your furnace and clean ducts.
- Stock up on furnace filters and change them monthly.
- Consider switching out your thermostat for a programmable thermostat.
- If your home is heated by a hot-water radiator, bleed the valves by opening them slightly and when water appears, close them.
- Remove all flammable material from the area surrounding your furnace.
2) Get the Fireplace Ready
- Cap or screen the top of the chimney to keep out rodents and birds.
- If the chimney hasn't been cleaned for a while, call a chimney sweep to remove soot and creosote.
- Buy firewood or chop wood. Store it in a dry place away from the exterior of your home.
- Inspect the fireplace damper for proper opening and closing.
- Check the mortar between bricks and tuckpoint, if necessary.
3) Check the Exterior, Doors and Windows
- Inspect exterior for crevice cracks and exposed entry points around pipes; seal them.
- Use weatherstripping around doors to prevent cold air from entering the home and caulk windows.
- Replace cracked glass in windows and, if you end up replacing the entire window, prime and paint exposed wood.
- If your home has a basement, consider protecting its window wells by covering them with plastic shields.
- Switch out summer screens with glass replacements from storage. If you have storm windows, install them.
4) Inspect Roof, Gutters & Downspouts
- If your weather temperature will fall below 32 degrees in the winter, adding extra insulation to the attic will prevent warm air from creeping to your roof and causing ice dams.
- Check flashing to ensure water cannot enter the home.
- Replace worn roof shingles or tiles.
- Clean out the gutters and use a hose to spray water down the downspouts to clear away debris.
- Consider installing leaf guards on the gutters or extensions on the downspouts to direct water away from the home.
5) Service Weather-Specific Equipment
- Drain gas from lawnmowers.
- Service or tune-up snow blowers.
- Replace worn rakes and snow shovels.
- Clean, dry and store summer gardening equipment.
- Sharpen ice choppers and buy bags of ice-melt / sand.
6) Check Foundations
- Rake away all debris and edible vegetation from the foundation.
- Seal up entry points to keep small animals from crawling under the house.
- Tuckpoint or seal foundation cracks. Mice can slip through space as thin as a dime.
- Inspect sill plates for dry rot or pest infestation.
- Secure crawlspace entrances.
7) Install Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Detectors
- Some cities require a smoke detector in every room.
- Buy extra smoke detector batteries and change them when daylight savings ends.
- Install a carbon monoxide detector near your furnace and / or water heater.
- Test smoke and carbon monoxide detectors to make sure they work.
- Buy a fire extinguisher or replace an extinguisher older than 10 years.
8) Prevent Plumbing Freezes
- Locate your water main in the event you need to shut it off in an emergency.
- Drain all garden hoses.
- Insulate exposed plumbing pipes.
- Drain air conditioner pipes and, if your AC has a water shut-off valve, turn it off.
- If you go on vacation, leave the heat on, set to at least 55 degrees.
9) Prepare Landscaping & Outdoor Surfaces
- Trim trees if branches hang too close to the house or electrical wires.
- Ask a gardener when your trees should be pruned to prevent winter injury.
- Plant spring flower bulbs and lift bulbs that cannot winter over such as dahlias in areas where the ground freezes.
- Seal driveways, brick patios and wood decks.
- Don't automatically remove dead vegetation from gardens as some provide attractive scenery in an otherwise dreary, snow-drenched yard.
- Move sensitive potted plants indoors or to a sheltered area.
10) Prepare an Emergency Kit
- Buy indoor candles and matches / lighter for use during a power shortage.
- Find the phone numbers for your utility companies and tape them near your phone or inside the phone book.
- Buy a battery back-up to protect your computer and sensitive electronic equipment.
- Store extra bottled water and non-perishable food supplies (including pet food, if you have a pet), blankets and a first-aid kit in a dry and easy-to-access location.
- Prepare an evacuation plan in the event of an emergency.
Winterizing a Vacant Home
If you or a client has a vacant home or summer vacation property on the market this winter, careful decisions need to be made to prevent expensive repairs from frozen plumbing. Last spring we inspected an unusually high number of homes with damaged plumbing (or worse) due to lack of, or improper winterization. One client spent well over $3,000 on plumbing repairs, and then more to repair the walls, ceiling, and flooring that were damaged by water and the process of replacing the pipes. To Winterize, or Not To Winterize?
The simplest solution and least risky alternative to winterizing is to leave the heating system running at a minimum setting (with the water turned off of course). Though it might seem like a waste of money or energy at first glance, a minimal heating bill will be less expensive than the cost of potential repairs if everything were to freeze up. Also, the rigors of extreme winter temperatures and low humidity in a winterized home stress the interior of the house and the appliances. Wood trim and furniture dry out, and seals in appliances can dry and crack.
As a side note, it is always prudent to turn off the main water supply or well pump whenever you will be gone from the home for even a day or two. On properties with a well, a major leak can cause the well pump to simply run itself to death in your absence, also causing significant water damage.
Also consider that if the house is on the market, a cold house will not show well. When a buyer does come along, it will also need to be de-winterized before a home inspection can be performed (we know that you will of course want to have the house inspected by us!). Extra cost, more delays. On the other hand, exposed plumbing in some crawlspaces, or plumbing in homes with no central heating may be at risk. Some vacation homes were just not built for winter. In the case of older homes that are poorly insulated and/or unevenly heated (or just poorly constructed homes), then winterization may be the safest bet. Who Should Do the Winterization?
It is true that many homes are winterized every year without problem, usually by the owner or a convenient handyman. However, big repairs bills may result if it is done only half way, or improperly. If a house is to be winterized, we suggest that it done by a professional plumber.
Basic Steps Needed to Properly Winterize a Home.
- Turn Off Water. The first step is usually easy; locate and turn off the main water shut off valve, preferably one that is outside. If the property is supplied by a well, then also turn off the breaker to the pump system.
- Water Heater. After the water is off, turn off and drain the water heater. There are a couple of different procedures that could be followed to accomplish this step. Temperature controls on gas water heaters should be set to the Off position, as well as closing the gas valve. Electric water heaters should be shut off at the breaker. A faucet or spigot will need to be opened to allow air to flow in as water is drained out.
- Drain Supply Lines. Water then should be drained from the entire water supply system, faucets and fixture shut off valves left open. If the house is on a well, the pressure tank should also be drained.
- Blow Out the Water Supply Lines. Though gravity may be sufficient to drain the plumbing in many homes, standing water will remain in some pipes. Though the water is not longer under pressure, this remaining water will freeze and may strain some fittings. CPVC (plastic, not PEX) would be prone to cracking. We recommend that water be blown out of the water supply lines with an air compressor. Many do-it-yourselfers skip this step, and most get lucky. If the house is to be winterized by a handy man or plumber, verify their level of thoroughness by asking if they blow out the water lines.
- Using special fittings to connect a compressor to the house plumbing, the water supply lines would be cleared of water by systematically closing and opening faucets and valves starting with plumbing fixtures most distant from the compressor and working backward.
- Other Items to Drain. Water softeners, filters, and water treatment systems also need to be drained (the brine tank in a water softener can usually be ignored).
- Anti-Freeze. Once all the water supply lines are completely empty, flush the toilets until they are empty, then winterize toilets and other drain traps by filling them with a special non-toxic RV type antifreeze solution (pink in color).
- Other Appliances. Keep in mind that water also runs through many appliances such as the washing machine and dishwasher, as well as the water supply line to the ice-maker in refrigerators. Each one of these will also need to be drained and/or disconnected. Some professionals also recommend anti-freeze be poured into the bottom of the dishwasher and washing machine.
- Turn Off Electrical. Turn off all electrical breakers to appliances as well as any other unnecessary breakers, and post a reminder note at the panel to make sure the electric water heater and other appliances aren’t turned on before the water is turned on.
- Heating systems. You wouldn't think that a furnace would contain water, but some do. High-efficiency furnaces (also called condensing furnaces) generate a significant amount of condensation from the water vapor in the flue gases. These systems, as well as air conditioners, have a condensate drain line. Sometimes the condensate drains into a floor drain, but if there's no drain available the condensate drains into a small pump which pumps the fluid uphill into the plumbing drain. Though there is less chance of damage, these should also be looked at.
- Special Heating Systems. If the home has any sort of a more elaborate heating system such as a hot water boiler, heat pump, or radiant floor heat, then we recommend VERY strongly that it be handles by a HVAC professional familiar with these systems. These heating systems sometimes circulate water instead of a freeze-resistant fluid, or may interconnect with the plumbing system and/or hot water heater. It should not be assumed that these systems could simply be turned off without danger of damage from freezing. We inspected one house with an expensive hot water boiler system that was severely damaged, and radiators cracked after the house had been “professionally” winterized. That professional may have understood plumbing, but did not understand the heating system. Caused some problems on that sale.
- Warning. Last of all, post signs in conspicuous locations (“Winterized - Do Not use Plumbing”) just in case there are unexpected visitors.
De-Winterization is just as important.
When returning to occupy the house, the entire process must be carefully reversed (de-winterized), such as turning off faucets and fixture shut off valves before turning the water supply or well pump (otherwise you can be in for a rude surprise).