Home & Garden

Is Your Home Ready for Winter?

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Is your home ready for that dreaded cold and those harsh temperatures? Keep your home nice and cozy this winter by following the advice of these local home improvement experts.

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Now that summer is in the rearview mirror, it’s hard not to turn our attention to the cooler weather and the snow that’s heading our way. But is your home ready for the harsh conditions?

Winter weather has a knack for creating problems you probably didn’t know you had, like a furnace that doesn’t produce heat or an attic with bad insulation. It’s easy to ignore basic and easy maintenance steps that can truly make a difference between an easy winter and costly repairs.

Keeping Your Home Toasty

Before you rush to create a fire in a fireplace that’s been idle all summer, make sure you’re doing some simple things to gear up for the season. It’s especially important if you have a gas fireplace.

“If you have a remote control, don’t forget to change the batteries in the remote and inside the fireplace,” says Kevin Obee, of Benson Stone Co., 1100 11th St., Rockford. “We’ve had about 50 phone calls from people saying their remote control isn’t working and their pilot is out.”

Part of the problem may have nothing to do with the remote, because there’s a transmitter hidden inside the fireplace.

“People will say they changed the remote, but they don’t change the transmitter battery. Remember, the gas log inside a masonry fireplace is not plugged in,” Obee says. “That’s a call that we get almost every day. We suggest people change their batteries every year to make sure everything is working properly.”

With a wood-burning fireplace, it’s important to keep things clean behind the scenes. Obee recommends having the chimney cleaned every three to five years.

“Creosol can build up in your chimney over time, and if it’s not cleaned regularly, it can ignite rapidly and destroy your chimney or your home,” Obee says. “You can have creosol build up in just a few weeks of using your fireplace, so it builds up pretty quickly. Get your chimney inspected, and have your chimney swept before you build a fire.”

At the same time, Obee recommends cleaning out the ashes left over after each fire. Dumping those old ashes keeps the grates in your fireplace looking new and it creates a healthier fire overall. Ashes built up under the grate can block air flow into the fire and decrease the
life of your grates.

“The hot coals above the old ashes can get to 1,000 degrees,” says Obee. “If those coals touch the steel grates, they’ll burn the grates, and eventually, all of that heat will cause the steel to start disintegrating.”

Other Ways to Heat Your Home

Gas and wood-burning fireplaces are the most common ways to warm up a room in winter, but they’re not the only ways to take the chill out of a room.

“Freestanding gas or wood-burning stoves are becoming a popular alternative,” says Brad Vander Heyden, owner of Advanced Chimney Systems, 3486 Lonergan Dr., Rockford.

These stoves often look like old-school potbelly stoves you see in storybooks, but these units are outfitted with more modern-looking, high-efficiency designs.

“The wood-burning option works similarly to a wood-burning insert that goes into an existing fireplace,” Vander Heyden says. “You can load three or four logs in at a time and they’ll burn six to eight hours, sometimes longer than that. Many homeowners enjoy the convenience of a long burning unit like these.”

Whether you have a gas or wood-burning insert, you can either use an existing fireplace chimney or you can vent it directly outside your home.

Like your traditional fireplace, these units should be inspected before they’re fired up this season.

“Make sure you have a cap on the top of your chimney to protect against animals that are nesting,” Vander Heyden says. “It’s also important to make sure your chimney is inspected regularly.”

Inside your home, it’s very important to take some additional safety precautions.

“Always make sure your home’s carbon monoxide detectors are operating properly and installed correctly,” Vander Heyden says. “Each year, we see avoidable trouble, and these are very simple fixes.”

Preventing Furnace Repairs

The holiday season inevitably brings a flurry of house cleaning, as summer clothes get stashed away and outdoor décor comes inside.

As you shift things around, be mindful of where you put everything. It could have an impact on your mechanical systems.

“People are pinching off the drain hoses that go from the humidifier or furnace to a drain in the basement,” says Mark Buckner, co-owner of Rockford Heating and Air Conditioning,1618 Magnolia St., Rockford. “It runs along the floor and inevitably, people store things right on those hoses. It puts kinks in the hose, and then, when the furnace comes on, the water backs up and spills out into the furnace and on the floor.”

If that overflow sits for an extended period of time, it can create mold and other hazards.

“That’s a big mistake that we’ve run into multiple times,” says Buckner.

Perhaps the most common mistake he sees, though, is a dirty furnace air filter.

“If you have a 1-inch filter, it should be changed at least once every month,” says Buckner. “If you have a 4-inch filter, that should be changed every four to six months.”

Believe it or not, those low-restriction fiberglass filters work best for air flow, Buckner says. The more-expensive filters might catch more dust and debris, he says, but they can limit the amount of airflow coming into your house, especially if they’re not sized correctly.
That means you’re getting less heat flowing through your home.

“Once the hole gets plugged by dust and debris, you’re not letting any air through,” he says. “With the cheap fiberglass filters, you’ll get more air flow, you’ll improve second-floor air flow and your home will be warmer because you’ll have better circulation in the house.”

It’s also important to let the air flow through all of the vents in your home – even in the rooms that are unused. By closing your vents, you’re putting additional pressure on your furnace, which could create some costly repairs down the road.

“Whenever you close off the registers, the furnace has a hard time blowing the proper amount of air through your home, and it could overheat and cause your furnace to lose efficiency,” Buckner says. “If those registers are closed off, your furnace could be put under a lot of stress. If you shut off one register you might be fine, but it’s not safe to close off all of the unused ones in your home.”

Buckner advises homeowners to plan for a seasonal furnace tune-up, not unlike the routine maintenance you get on your car.

Normal furnace maintenance includes checking the motors, cleaning the burners and pilot, checking ignition systems and testing the limit switches.

“We’ll eliminate any potential hazards or failures,” Buckner says. “We’ll go through the whole system to make sure everything is working properly. It’s best to do it now instead of a night where you have a bunch of people in your house or on Christmas Eve. You want to avoid those overtime repairs.”

Maintaining Proper Insulation

Unwanted drafts and low air quality can be the result of a poorly insulated roof. Updating the insulation now can set you up for a winter that’s much more comfortable – in more ways than one.

“Having proper insulation will improve energy consumption by cutting heating costs,” says Mike Mateika, general manager of EcoHome Expert Inc., which offers roofing and siding services through its Kanga Roof roofing division. “The insulation will eventually pay for itself in what you pay for your heating costs.”

Home insulation is measured in R-values, a factor that accounts for the thickness and effectiveness of an insulation product. The higher the R-value, the better the insulating quality.

Mateika suggests installing R-38 insulation, which is about 12 to 14 inches thick.

“Most people only have R-19 insulation in their attic,” he adds. “If your home was built 30 or 40 years ago, chances are it’s time for homeowners to update the insulation in their attics.”

Poor insulation isn’t just a problem for energy efficiency and indoors comfort. Insufficient attic insulation can also help to create ice damming on your roof, a condition that happens when snowmelt freezes on the eaves of a roof, right along the gutter. Ice dams prevent drainage and force the water into available spaces.

“Ice damming will tear up your roof and it’ll cause some serious problems,” Mateika says.

Leaks or stains in your ceiling are signs that there might be a problem with the roof, he adds. Certified roofers, like those at EcoHome Expert, can provide a thorough inspection of everything from roofing shingles to attic insulation. Now is as good a time as any, says Mateika, to get an inspection.

“The winter months are very hard on a roof, so it’s good to have it looked at and inspected before winter comes,” he says. “The extreme winter conditions will make things much worse.”

A Warm and Toasty Garage

Homeowners with a man cave or a workshop in their garage can find comfort in knowing there are ways to keep the garage warmer this winter. It begins with a well-insulated door.

Barcol Door Company, 5902 Material Ave., in Loves Park, Ill., carries a wide range of door brands that can keep a garage warmer than traditional product choices.

“A properly installed new garage door can provide added safety and security to your home,” says Brent Anderson, owner. “A poorly installed door with a high R-value can be as bad as a door left open.”

The Wayne Dalton 8300 Model collection provides an amped-up amount of insulation. Sandwiched between two layers of steel is a layer of foamed-in-place polyurethane insulation that helps to improve a home’s thermal efficiency and block street noise, in addition to operating silently.

“It’s the best money value for a good R-value secure garage door,” Anderson says.

The Haas 2000 series of garage doors is one of the most durable and energy-efficient models available, Anderson says.

They’re built with 2 inches of tough galvanized steel and feature a wood grain look on the outside that can transform a home’s exterior.

“This series of garage doors is thicker and has a higher R-value at a higher price point,” Anderson says.

Whether your garage doors are older or newer, it’s important to check the joints around the door, as well. If the seals are cracked or shrunken from old age, they’ll be less effective at blocking out cold air and other unwanted guests from your garage.

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