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House & Home

Prepare your home for winter

Posted November 15, 2010

With the temperatures dropping, now is the perfect time to start preparing your home for the winter. Actually, the perfect time would have been before the temperatures start dropping, but let’s face it, we are all busy people – and there’s nothing like that first frost to get your attention.

What you need to do to get winter-ready with your home will depend on many factors; the age of the building, the condition it is in, what kind of heating equipment you have, the state of your insulation. But in general, you can boil the preparations down to a few basic principles:

  • Make sure that cold air is not getting in.
  • Make sure warm air is not getting out.
  • Make sure all equipment is operating as it should.
  • Make sure that you and your family are agreed on how and when to heat the home.

So let’s look at each of these principles in order.

Stopping cold air infiltration

If you added up all the holes and leaks in your average building envelope, you would have the equivalent of a window being left wide open 24 hours a day. That is not a good thing at the best of times, but in the depth of winter it will cost you dearly.

So make sure you check the draft proofing around doors and windows is adequate, and that they are sealing properly when they close – look for gaps visually, and also test for cold air with the back of your hand when the temperature is low outside. You can also check for gaps around HVAC registers, vents, and electrical sockets or plumbing. A simple tub of mastic or a caulk gun can do wonders to tighten up your building envelope.

If you are in an older, or unusually leaky, home, you may want to consider getting an energy audit. Using thermal imaging, blower door tests, and other cutting edge equipment – energy audits can help gauge exactly where air is entering and exiting the building, and usually the contractor will also be able to quote on repairs and maintenance to fix the problems identified.

A larger expense, but worth considering in many homes, is sealing the attic and crawlspace. Not only will this create a semi-conditioned space above and below the house, reducing cold air infiltration and making your HVAC work less hard, it will also lower your bills, improve air quality and reduce moisture issues.

Keeping warm air In

Just as you would not go out in the snow without a hat and coat, it just does not make economic, environmental or practical sense to keep heating a home that is poorly insulated. While building codes in N.C. now stipulate a minimum of R38 insulation in the attic, many homes that are only a decade or two old will only have R19 or even less.

In many cases this can be upgraded relatively inexpensively, and may even be a DIY job - although investing in the latest sprayfoam insulation technology will often pay dividends in the long run. Even simply visually inspecting your attic and crawlspace insulation, and fixing any areas where it is ripped, missing, or hanging down, will make a big difference to your bills.

For homeowners considering upgrading their insulation, there is an extra incentive to act immediately. The Federal government currently offers major energy efficiency tax incentives for insulation and efficient HVAC, but these are set to expire on Dec. 31.

Ensuring equipment is performing as it should

Just as changing the oil in your car is essential for proper performance, so too ensuring regular check-ups for your furnace and other heating equipment is the best way to protect your investment and ensure lower energy bills. In general, we recommend a spring and winter tune-up, with engineers checking everything from duct work to electrical connections to the state of your filters.

Talk to your contractor about a long-term maintenance plan to make sure you keep up with your intended maintenance schedule. 

In some cases, it may be worth replacing an older heating unit – even if it is still operational. This is especially true this winter, given the Federal tax credits mentioned above. Just make sure you talk with a reputable contractor that understands your house as a complete system – you could put the most efficient heating system available on an inadequately insulated home, and the end result would still be high energy bills.

It is also worth taking some time to purchase air filters and to replace them regularly. (As often as once a month can be a good idea in winter when your system is running constantly.) Some contractors offer a filter replacement and reminder service along with their maintenance packages, providing you with a case of filters, and sending a reminder when it is time to switch them out.

Talk to your family about heating the home

The technical aspects of home maintenance and weatherization are important. But how you use the home is just as important – and given that most households include more than one person – that means having a conversation with your family or house mates.

Making sure doors and windows are not left open, using ceiling fans to redistribute heat (and turning them off when you leave the room), and simply turning down the thermostat a notch or two when you leave for work or school will all help ensure your bills don’t go through the roof.

By installing a programmable thermostat, you can even make sure the process is automated – as long as your kids don’t mess with the settings as soon as you turn your back.

If your family is anything like mine, different family members will have different preferences and priorities when it comes to home comfort. But talking about how you like the home heated, when people come home, and maybe suggesting that your loved ones put on a sweater before they crank up the heat, is all something worth considering.

Always remember, your home is a system

Each of the steps above will help to reduce your energy bills, and improve the comfort of your home. But it is important to remember that each individual step in isolation is nowhere near as powerful as if you approach home maintenance and performance from a strategic, big picture perspective.

Just as new tires on your car will do little if your steering is not aligned, you can spend an awful lot of money fixing one issue with your home, only to discover that it was something else entirely that was causing the problem.

If and when you choose to work with a professional contractor, make sure they are knowledgeable about home performance, and understand the idea of your home as a system. Make sure also that they are aware of the tax credits and incentives that are out there to help you green your home.

The less energy we use, the more we all win in the long run.

Bobby Ferrel is co-founder of Green Horizon (formerly Sustainable Building Solutions) – a Durham based company offering home owners and builders a one-stop shop for energy efficiency and green building. Services include energy audits, weatherization, insulation, HVAC installation and maintenance, rainwater harvesting and geothermal heating and cooling. 

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