Six projects to get your home winter-ready

Tony Moton

Jack Frost is licking his chops - or whatever he does - to commence his favorite time of year. But is your house prepared for his blustery arrival?

If not, you could feel more than chills running up and down your spine once the weather turns nasty.

According to general contractor Larry Taff, past president of the local chapter of the National Association of the Remolding Industry in Madison, Wis., homes that are ill-prepared to cope with the winter months could cost their owners plenty of dollars in repair bills - and a whole lot more.

"Frozen pipes, if they aren't properly insulated, can burst and cost tens of thousands of dollars," Taff says. "Furnaces that aren't working properly can release CO2 (carbon dioxide) and kill people. I don't want to be an extremist, but it has happened."

Fall might be the right time for you to fix minor issues before they turn into larger problems.

[Need a home contractor? Click here to find one in your area.]

But how do you prepare before Mr. Frost starts nipping at your nose? Consider tackling the following list of fall home projects either on your own or with professional help.

Project #1: Update Insulation

Not only could a poorly insulated home lower your thermostat, it could also lower your disposable income. Think about updating your home's insulation as a smart investment.

"Insulation helps you minimize utility bills and maximize the comfort level inside of the home," Taff says. "A lot depends on the condition of the house, but it can be as simple as replacing weather-stripping around the door."

Weather-stripping, according to a U.S. Energy Department article on the subject, is designed to "seal air leaks around movable building components, such as doors or operable windows." On top of that, it's a relatively inexpensive way to reduce drafts and a common DIY project for homeowners.

Once you locate leaks around your house, there are numerous types of weather-stripping from which to choose. The Energy Department article reports that depending on a home's needs, weather-stripping materials include self-stick plastic and plain felt.

But insulation projects can range from the very simple - like weather-stripping - to the highly complex, which might require a pro's touch.

[Does your home need a little extra stuffing this winter? Click here to find a qualified contractor today.]

In its article "Types of Insulation," the Energy Department reports that depending on your home's characteristics, you could use insulation products such as blankets (batt and roll), foam board (layered plastic foam), loose-fill (cellulose, fiberglass, or mineral materials), and sprayed foam to insulate the following spaces:

  • Crawlspaces
  • Attics
  • Floors
  • Walls
  • Ductwork of heating and air-conditioning systems
  • Over garages

You can check these spots to determine how much insulation you might need, or you can call upon a qualified energy auditor, your local utility company, or state energy office for recommendations on improvements.

Project #2: Clean and Reseal Outdoor Deck

The winter months can be hard (and heavy) on your outdoor deck, so don't ignore it. While the temperatures are still relatively warm, you can help save decks from deterioration, says Taff.

"With wood decks, mold can get in there and they can rot away," Taff says. "Water can penetrate concrete decks, and the freezing and thawing can pop the surface off."

Whichever deck type you have, Taff suggests cleaning and resealing it once every one or two years. Cleaning can be accomplished simply by renting (or buying) a pressure washer and giving it a once over with a cleaning compound.

Once you have washed and cleaned your deck, it might be wise to reseal it to help prevent future damage caused by inclement weather. The website for the Weather Channel, the around-the-clock cable network devoted to climate, offers the following tips for sealing:

  • When choosing a sealant, consider one that contains a water-repellant, a UV blocker, and, perhaps, an insecticide to keep wood-eating bugs at bay.
  • Apply stains and sealants with a brush, paint roller, or paint sprayer, which is the fastest method.
  • If using the spray method, be careful not to damage plants with any over-spray.

Project #3: Insulate Exposed Plumbing

During the coldest months of the year, plumbing pipes are a nightmare waiting to happen, so you might want to take advantage of the fall season to keep your "pipe dreams" happy.

"If you are gone for a vacation or an extended period during cold weather, [pipes] can freeze," Taff says.

To help keep your home's cold water pipes from succumbing to frigid temps and potentially exploding, the Energy Department recommends figuring out if you have any pipes located in "bad places" or colder parts of your home. According to Taff, a bad place for a pipe would be on the outside of a home.

If you have any of these delinquent pipes, consider insulating them yourself or hiring a professional to do the work. The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), a federal nonprofit agency and part of the U.S. Department of Energy based in the Pacific Northwest, offers these suggestions for DIYers:

  • Before installing pipe insulation, clean dirt and rust from pipe.
  • Apply pipe-insulating sleeves according to the manufacturer's directions, if you decide to use them.
  • Apply batt insulation, which are pre-cut panels made of fiberglass or wool, by wrapping the pipes in a spiral fashion, overlapping each successive layer by half.
  • Wrap the insulation as loose as you can, as compressing it can reduce the R-value (a rating for thermal resistance and insulating effectiveness).
  • Attach insulation with wire or plastic ties, or with tape.

Taff adds that you also should insulate around the holes where plumbing pipes go into the walls and enter the attic.

"If you don't seal those, you will get what's called a chimney effect," he says. "The air will come into the basement and go alongside the pipes. Most of the warm air will go right out through the roof."

Project #4: Repair Your Roof

Speaking of the roof, your expenses could go right through it if it's not properly maintained and ready to withstand the icy hands of winter. Take action during the fall, either on your own or with a roofing contractor, to keep it in good shape.

"If [roofs] aren't sufficiently built to handle heavy snow loads, they can collapse," Taff says. "Newer homes have more stringent requirements of construction, but you have some homes built even thirty years ago that can have multiple problems."

Taff says one such problem caused by a faulty roof is called "ice damming," where snow melts on warmer parts of a roof and creates an ice dam on lower parts.

"Melted snow can go under shingles and create mold and water damage on the inside of the house," Taff says. "Unless somebody is trained, there is no way to easily recognize that."

To nip winter-related roofing problems in their frosty buds, Taff recommends hiring a roofing contractor to inspect for trouble spots, which might include poor insulation of an attic, improper roofing materials, and incorrectly sized vents on the roof and soffit (the underside portion of an overhang).

[Does your roof need an update before the winter? Click here to find the right contractor for the job.]

For people who want to perform DIY roof repairs, the Weather Channel's article "Winterize Your Roof" suggests you perform interior and exterior roof repairs on a seasonal basis to avoid needing professional help later. Projects include the following:

  • Trim any overgrown vegetation.
  • Clean debris off the roof and inside the gutters before hosing them down.
  • Remove crinkled caulking and roofing cement and reapply where needed.
  • Check flashing (metal areas) for warps and holes and secure with roofing cement.
  • Apply roofing cement under loose asphalt shingles.
  • Check and clear vents of obstructions.
  • Install attic insulation to help prevent icing.

Project #5: Replace Old Doors

When winter comes calling on your home, doors are a favorite point of entry. Even if they appear closed, cold air can travel through them with the greatest of ease when they're outdated or in bad shape.

Before the cold winds start trying to sneak inside your home, Taff says to inspect doors and make sure they are in good working order.

"A front door, aesthetically and for security purposes, is one of the most important aspects of your home," Taff says. "But if it's not kept up, the door's bottom seal can rot away."

What can go wrong with doors? Faulty seals, improper insulation, and aging are among the major causes of air leakage. One easy remedy is to apply weather-stripping, but for more protection, the U.S. Department of Energy recommends the following solutions:

  • Select and install new interior doors, which often fit and insulate better than older doors and can save heating costs.
  • Replace or buy swinging "patio" doors because they offer a much tighter seal than sliding types.
  • Replace weather-stripping on sliding glass doors.
  • Think about adding storm doors if your existing door is old but in good condition.
  • Use insulated drapes for cold winter nights to help combat air leaks.

Project #6: Replace Old Windows

Windows are also potential passageways for air leaks - and human intruders, too - when they have missing or cracked panes and broken latches. "A window that won't latch in today's society is asking for trouble," Taff says.

That said, consider using the fall as an opportunity to shore up windows in advance of cooler climes.

[Are your windows letting in more than just light? Find a contractor to replace them today.]

To help windows combat nature's troubles - and, in some cases, society's troubles - you might want to take a cue from the Energy Department, which has these suggestions:

  • Improve the efficiency of windows by adding caulking, weather-stripping, or window treatments, such as blinds or draperies.
  • Reduce heat loss by adding interior or exterior window shutters.
  • Lower heating (and cooling) costs by replacing old windows with double-glazed windows.
  • Add storm windows or storm panels as a cost-efficient alternative to replacing old windows.

The Bottom Line

No matter which winterizing project you choose to tackle during the fall, Taff emphasizes it will be worth the investment once the temperatures really start dipping.

"A lot of times people don't want to spend the money until they realize they could have prevented more losses by doing a few things to protect their house for a long time," Taff says. "You can only put off things for so long."