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How to prep your home for winter - and save money on energy bills and repairs

After an unusually long and hot summer, the leaves are finally turning, the days are darkening and it looks like winter may just arrive on schedule. If you live in an area that is prone to harsh weather, experts say that now (early fall) is the time to take measures to prep your home for winter. We’ve compiled a list of their tips and broken them into two categories: What to do indoors, and what to do outdoors. If you’re up for getting your hands dirty (and good with a ladder) this weekend, you should be able to DIY all of these tasks.

What To Do Indoors

Replace smoke detector batteries

More structural fires (or fires in buildings) occur during freezing weather than in the heat of summer. This is surge is largely owed to malfunctioning heating equipment (FEMA found that 35,100 fires that occurred in residential spaces between 2007 and 2016 were caused by heating). Fortunately there’s been a 27 percent decrease in residential heating fires over this time period. Still, Ben Rutt, director of marketing for Keystone Custom Homes, reminds us that we should all replace the batteries in our smoke detectors now, even if they aren’t beeping like crazy.

Same goes for carbon monoxide detectors

“About one-third of annual carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning cases occur between December and February,” says Sharon Cooksey, fire safety expert, marketing & communications manager at Kidde. “CO can be created from any fuel-burning appliance, such as furnaces, natural gas ranges, fireplaces, gas logs and even generators when used during a power outage. One of the main concerns in winter is symptoms of CO poisoning often mimic the flu, a mistake that can prove deadly.”

Cooksey adds to make sure your fire extinguisher is functional. “Since they have a shelf life of 10-12 years, it’s extremely important to check the gauges and dates on your extinguishers to ensure they’re in working order.”Rela

Check the fireplace for air leaks (and use it sparingly)

“Roaring fires are part of the charm of winter, but homeowners should know that they’re by far the least efficient way to heat a home, so save them for special occasions,” Dan DiClerico, home expert with HomeAdvisor. “Ahead of winter, check the fireplace hearth for air leaks and plug them with caulk or expandable foam sealant. Also check that the seal on the fireplace damper to make sure it’s tight. And remember to keep the damper closed unless a fire is burning. An open damper is also equivalent to an open window. And it’s an invitation for squirrels, birds and rodents. Paying a pro to remove these unwelcome critters costs about $300 on average.”

Reverse your ceiling fans

"When fans move counter-clockwise, they are able to circulate air in a downward direction, cooling things off which is best for the warmer months, but in the winter you’ll want to set them to their winter setting," says Doug Keller, community manager at Payless Power. "This will cause fans to run clockwise,which will actually push warm air down while pulling the cooler air upward, promoting a more comfortable environment."

Winterize windows: A multi-step process

Windows can take a beating during the blustery months, so you should make sure they’re in tip-top shape before winter. Here are pointers from Lyle Kvarnlov, product services manager at Marvin Windows and Doors on how to do this:

  • First you want to clean windows by "soaking and scrubbing with a mild cleanser, and drying with soy-based newspaper. You'll have a crystal-clear view for winter and get an up-close look at any potential window deterioration."
  • "Check all frames for drafts and gaps: Guide a lighted candle around windows and doors and see where the flame flickers.”
  • "Don’t be thrown off by condensation or frost: Contrary to what you might think, condensation is a sign that your windows are working and maintaining the temperature inside your home. To prevent sitting water, ensure your home maintains airflow and avoid blocking windows with heavy curtains, indoor plants or décor.
  • Consider energy efficiency: "The presence of old or inefficient windows could have the same effect on your heating bill as leaving a window open all winter long," says Kvarnlov. "If chilly single-pane glass is driving up your heat bill, consider investing in energy-efficient options from a trusted manufacturer."

Check for wall and ceiling leaks with an incense stick

"Light weather damage and time can cause leaks in our homes," adds Keller. "Part of preparing for winter involves locating leaks around your house and sealing them up to ensure you are able to maintain ideal temperatures."

As with windows, you can use a lighted candle to check for leaks on walls and ceilings, but if you can't reach that high, use an incense stick.

"If the smoke blows sideways, that’s a pretty good air leak," notes DiClerico. “Sealing leaks with a combination of weatherstripping, caulk and expandable foam sealant is a great DIY weekend project that could lower heating bills by one hundred dollars or more.”

Wrap your pipes

"Cold weather can negatively impact our pipes as the temperature can cause water to expand and prompt pipes to burst," Keller says. "To prevent this, wrap pipes with fiberglass insulation or rubber sleeves."

Change furnace filters

“Homeowners with forced-air heating should do this task at the start of the heating season, then one or two more times over the course of the winter,” says DiClerico. “Clean filters not only keep the furnace running at optimal efficiency, they help rid the air in the home of harmful pollutants. For good measure, we recommend homeowners also have their heating systems serviced by a professional before the start of the heating season. The service costs between $80 and $150, according to HomeAdvisor’s True Cost Guide. That’s a small price to pay, compared with the $4,256 that the average homeowner spends on new furnace.”

What to do outdoors

Clean the gutters

"When it seems that the leaves have stopped falling, pull out the ladder and clean out the gutters," says Keller. "Gutters carry water from our homes away to safe spots for drainage, so allowing them to fill without cleaning them out could cause them to overflow, which could result in damage to the roof, the basement and [the] yard."

Check ‘flashings’

“A flashing is a barrier found anywhere there is a roof opening or roof plane change, such as around a chimney or where the garage meets the house,” says Kathleen Kuhn, CEO and president of HouseMaster. “Flashings are prone to wear and leaking. Keeping your flashing watertight will eliminate a lot of water penetration headaches. You're not going to want to deal with that in the dead of winter.”

Prep the lawn by fertilizing and trimming appropriately

“Before the first freeze, give your lawn a thorough fertilizing to replace all nutrients that can be lost from the soil during the hot summer months,” says Brad Wardle, director of marketing at Orbit, a manufacturer and supplier of irrigation and home improvement products. “For the last cutting of the season, your lawn should be about 2 ½ inches in length. You don't want your lawn any higher than 3” as it may compress under snowfall.

You should also aerate your lawn in early fall, “when the grass can heal and fill in any open areas after soil plugs are removed,” Wardle says.

Plan for snow

Take a walk around your property and survey areas where snow is most likely to pile up or blow against.“Consider if those areas can handle the snow and eventual melting/water,” says Matthew C. Breyer, president & lead designer of Breyer Construction & Landscape. “Skylights and decorative roof features should be carefully inspected to ensure proper maintenance has been done, and that they are in good condition.”

Check the wood on the garage door for soft spots

Breyer points out the importance of checking the trim and flashing around the garage door for any soft or rotted wood. “Make sure there is a seal/weather-stripping along the bottom of the door, and that there is no way for water to pool up around it. This way, it won’t get frozen and stuck when you go to open it later.”

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