Home & Garden

Make Your Home Cozy This Winter

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Is your home ready for the snow and those dreaded subzero temperatures? Local experts offer advice on how to protect your home from the ravages of another cold, Midwestern winter.

There are plenty of things you can do to keep warm this winter. One is to use a gas fireplace like this one, which can be found at Benson Stone Co., in Rockford. More people are making the switch to gas fireplaces in recent years because of their easier use and maintenance.

There are plenty of things you can do to keep warm this winter. One is to use a gas fireplace like this one, which can be found at Benson Stone Co., in Rockford. More people are making the switch to gas fireplaces in recent years because of their easier use and maintenance.

Getting yourself ready for wintry weather is one thing. If you have a hat, gloves and a jacket, you’re good to go. But, preparing your home for the cold is another story.

Wintry weather is good at creating problems you didn’t know you had, like that frigid air blowing through your room from a drafty window. Many homeowners forget basic, yet easy maintenance steps this time of year, which may end up costing them more in repairs in the long run.

As we bid farewell to the warmth, now is the time to look around your home, determine the problem spots and take the necessary steps to fix them before the cold comes calling. Proven experts right here in our region have the tips and supplies you need to stay cozy this winter.

Put That Fireplace to Use

One thing that can put warmth and comfort in your home this winter is a fireplace.

Throughout the past 10 years, homeowners have been ditching the hassle that’s associated with wood and making the switch to a gas fireplace.

“People haven’t been burning wood as much because it’s a lot of work,” says Kevin Obee, of Benson Stone Co., 1100 11th St., Rockford. “When I get home at night, I’m tired and the last thing I want to do is get wood and tend to it when I can get the same effect in a gas fire.”

For about a decade, customers have been converting their existing wood fireplaces over to gas.

“Sometime in there, it switched from roughly 80 percent wood to roughly 80 percent gas,” Obee says.

Another reason for the switch was the invention of the direct-vent gas fireplace.

“That completely changed the way the fireplace industry went,” Obee says. “Open-faced, wood-burning fireplaces can now be converted into a sealed gas direct-vent fireplace.”

Obee finds that using a gas fireplace is more efficient and less stressful. Unlike wood fires, gas fires turn on and off with the flip of a switch or remote. Depending on the model, options like flame intensity, heat output and electric ambiance lighting can be adjusted by remote control.

“People have come in here and told me they haven’t used their fireplace in five years because they don’t have the time to babysit a wood-burning fireplace and you have to clean it out,” Obee says. “To burn a wood fire, you need four or five hours at the fireplace to enjoy and maintain the fire.”

Even though gas fireplaces have advantages, not everyone likes them.

“We still have people who love wood fires,” Obee says. “They love the beauty of the flames and the scent of burning wood.”

No matter your preference, Benson Stone can accommodate your fireplace needs. “We have pretty much anything you’d want in the fireplace industry or anything to do with that,” Obee says.

Along with selling and servicing fireplaces, Advanced Chimney Systems, 3486 Lonergan Dr., Rockford, sells freestanding stoves and other alternative gas- and wood-burning heating methods.

“At this time of year, the most popular selling items are wood and gas fireplace inserts, which are made to go into an existing fireplace,” says Brad Vander Heyden, owner of Advanced Chimney Systems. “Most people have fireplaces that are inefficient and all the heat goes right up the chimney. With a fireplace insert, we’re able to keep most of the heat in the room while still having a full view of a beautiful fire.”

The most popular inserts have attractive, cast iron fronts. Heavy construction means they’re made to last. With one lever, you can also control the burn rate.

“You can throw four or five logs in there and the heat will last for six to eight hours,” Vander Heyden says. “It’s convenient to not have to be adding wood every hour into your fireplace. We’re able to convert your fireplace into an attractive heating appliance. It could either heat a portion or your whole house.”

Vander Heyden finds it’s an advantage to zone heat your house to be a more comfortable temperature where you spend most of your time. You can warm only the living areas of your home and save money on your heating bill.

“If someone has a room or area that’s cooler than the other portions of the home, you can use a heating unit and have zone heating in the area,” he says. “Many times, the basement or lower levels of a home may not get warm enough and some people may decide to put a fireplace or a stove in the lower level of their homes.”

To Repair Or Replace Old, Drafty Windows

Scott Williamson, owner and operator of Window World of Rockford, 6010 Forest Hills Road, says there are things homeowners can do to reduce the cold drafts that seep through windows. He suggests buying a good quality aluminum storm window.

“Storm windows can do a good job of reducing the amount of air infiltration coming into your home, which will reduce your utility bills,” Williamson says. “You may also want to get a price on replacement windows because you might be surprised that they may not cost much more.”

Williamson says winterizing your windows with plastic is an inexpensive way to stop heat loss and lower your gas bills this winter, too.

“Plastic, if applied correctly, is a good alternative for reducing air infiltration,” he says. “The key is to apply one continuous piece of plastic and don’t use staples to secure. Instead, use a continuous strip of tape to secure the plastic on all four sides.”

Spray foam is another option, but not just any spray foam will do the trick.

“Be sure to buy spray foam designed for replacement windows,” Williamson says. “This limits the amount of expansion and it will not damage or distort the frames or sashes of the windows.”

The spray foam can also be effective in hard-to-reach places.

“Another good secret is to remove the inside ranch casing. Most of the time, there’s a void between the window frame and drywall,” Williamson says. “This is a huge source of air infiltration. Replacement window spray foam in this area is very beneficial.”

If all else fails, another option is to seal the window shut.

“The best alternative and cheapest is to caulk and paint your old windows shut,” he says. “This works well, but obviously you can no longer open your windows.”

If your windows are old, chipping or have fogging between the panes, it may be time for replacement windows.

“You may think it’s not in your budget, but replacement windows will help you save the money you are losing through your old windows and increase the value of your home,” Williamson says.

Maintaining Your Furnace

Bomar technicians cover everything from heating/cooling equipment installation and servicing to fireplace repair, air filtration systems, humidifiers, air duct cleaning, generator hookups and seasonal safety inspections.

Although Bomar specializes in Trane and Amana equipment, it services every model of furnace and air conditioner. It also works on many hot water and steam boiler systems in the area.

“The industry standard is to do a job the fast, easy way and get out of there,” says General Manager Jason Rowland. “But doing the right thing means showing up and sticking around.

“Even with larger companies, you see that, and you scratch your head about how they do things. We try to slow it down and do it right.”

It’s not uncommon for Bomar technicians to correct mistakes made by other installers and service technicians, especially after hours, when customers can’t reach those installers.

“We have a lot of customers who call us and say, ‘You didn’t put our equipment in, but can you take care of our service? We’re unhappy with the other guys,’” says Rowland.

Bomar guarantees its products well beyond out-of-the-box warranties. However, customers rarely need to invoke this 100-percent satisfaction guarantee.

“On the installation side of the business, if we can’t make a customer happy, we’ll take out what we put in and pay the customer back,” Rowland says. “We’ve never done that, and the reason is that we haven’t had to. We took care of any problems, so it never got to that.”

In over 43 years of business, Bomar has lost very few customers, says Rowland. He points to neighborhoods where entire blocks of residents, and their extended families, are Bomar customers.

“We try to maintain long-term relationships, and over the years, it’s been interesting to see how we’ve done work for extended families,” Rowland says.

Your home’s furnace is the heartbeat of a comfortable winter. In order to keep that heart pounding, you should have your furnace checked at least annually, says Mike Buckner, a residential salesman at Rockford Heating and Air Conditioning (HVAC), 1618 Magnolia St., Rockford.

“Having your furnace cleaned and checked annually is definitely a good idea,” he says. “By checking and cleaning your furnace, you may avoid costly repairs and emergency calls.”

If homeowners take care of their furnaces and get them checked regularly, they’ll stay warm during the bitter cold while extending the life of their heating equipment.

“If you take care of your furnace and take care of the equipment, there’s no reason it can’t last 20 years,” Buckner says.

During home visits, Rockford HVAC looks at your furnace to make sure the motors are working correctly. It also cleans the sensors, among other things.

“We’ll check everything overall and make sure nothing has failed and, if it has, we’ll make the proper recommendations,” Buckner says.

If a furnace needs replacing, high-efficiency furnaces can save you money in the long haul, depending on the product you buy and the size of your home.

“You can save approximately $20 monthly in a small home with a 95-percent, high efficiency furnace and possibly more in a larger home,” Buckner says.

While having a working furnace in the home can make things toasty, it can also make the air dryer, Buckner says. He suggests using a humidifier to bring healthy levels of moisture to the air, which will make your house feel warmer. With the added moisture, a 65-degree room feels
more like a 68-degree room.

“Putting a humidifier in your home keeps you from having dry skin, a scratchy throat and a stuffy nose,” Buckner says.

Ice Dam Removal

If snow and ice isn’t cleared from your roof, you could struggle with leaks, ice dams and cold air. Lask Roofing & Siding, 1101 22nd St., Rockford, offers assistance and advice on roofing and gutter needs year-round.

Toby Lask, executive vice president, says there are simple things homeowners can do on their own to remove snow and ice dams from their roof. These form when water freezes in the eaves of your gutter, forming a dam that prevents drainage.

Water backed up from an ice dam can leak into your house through the windows or ceiling. Cleared gutters will allow rainwater and melting snow to drain properly.

One thing customers can do is to pull snow off the roof themselves, if they can do it safely.

“After snowfall, try to use a roof rake to pull down snow along gutter edges to help water flow and help prevent ice damming,” Lask says. “Also, chop or chisel thicker ice dams to create drain trenches along valley bottoms and gutter edges.”

Ice dams can also be removed by spreading roof-friendly salt along the ice dams, Lask says. But not every bag of salt will work without causing damage.

“Lots of ice melt salts on the market today are not roof-friendly,” he says. “Be sure to check prior to applying the salt.”

Lask also has advice for people who have a buildup of ice or snow on other parts of their roof.

“Have a professional roofing contractor install a high-grade, self-regulating heat cable along sections of your home to help rid buildups of ice and snow,” Lask says. “A roofing contractor can also install a gutter protection system, that can also help prevent the buildup of ice and icicles.”

Homeowners should also remove leaves, sticks and other debris out of valleys, gutters and downspouts before the first snowfall.

Keeping Your Ducts in a Row

Before you fire up the furnace, it may be a good idea to get the air ducts in your home cleaned.

“When switching over from air conditioning to heat, all of those things in your duct work, like dust, pet dander or pet hair, will move around in the system and trigger your allergies to make it harder to breathe in your home,” says James Wells, owner of Air Quality Management (AQM). “The heat from the furnace will help activate all of that and if stuff in there is burning, it will create a smell or odor. The pet dander and other debris builds up and some of it gets redistributed throughout the home.”

If you’re coughing and sneezing in your home and get relief outside, or if your air filter gets dirty quickly or if you constantly have to dust, it may be a good time to clean your ducts.

Wells says he suggests homeowners clean their ducts every five to seven years, depending on the severity of allergies and the amount of people and pets living in the home.

“This type of cleaning is more popular at this time of year, but our service is offered year round,” he says.

The crew at AQM use a 20-horsepower vacuum to pull debris out the home.

“It’s powerful enough to pick up a 16-pound bowling ball,” Wells says. “We also use a 200 foot of hose that we use to get through all of the ductwork in your home.”

AQM also professionally cleans dryer vents.

“Cleaning your dryer vents is important because a plugged dryer vent is a fire hazard,” he says. “When a dryer hose is plugged, it takes a lot longer to dry clothes and energy costs increase.”

AQM services ducts in residential, commercial and industrial structures.

Don’t get left in the cold this winter. There’s still time to prepare your home before the mercury drops. There are plenty of professionals right here in our region ready to assist you. With a little effort and preparation, you can bundle up your home and live comfortably this winter.

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