Don’t get caught, er, out in the cold, this winter. Here are some helpful tips from the pros on how you can safeguard your home against the ravages of another cold, Midwestern winter.
Ah, the drafty old home, where residents are bundled up in parkas and Old Man Winter blows his icy breath through windows, doorways and every other crevice.
Before the Midwest digs in for another long, cold winter, take a lesson from the squirrels. Think ahead, and prepare your home. Is your snow blower tuned up? Do you need to replace any windows, fix the roof, seal the driveway or fire up the furnace for a check-up?
We asked some local experts how to best prepare for everything winter will throw at us in just a few months.
Avoid Emergency Repairs
The middle of a cold snap is the worst time for your furnace to die. A simple pre-season check-up can keep a furnace running smoothly all season, and lengthen its lifespan.
Make sure registers are clean, air vents are open and equipment works. Air flow is essential; dirty air filters, leaky ducts and misplaced furniture disrupt the movement of warm air. Move beds away from vents and be mindful of where the drapes hang.
Mark Buckner, co-owner, Rockford Heating and Air Conditioning, 1618 Magnolia St., Rockford, encourages customers to be proactive rather than reactive.
“We send our customers reminder cards, saying it’s time to check your unit,” he says. “If they want us to do that service, they can just call. A lot of people do that on a very regular basis. Those pieces of equipment tend to last longer.”
During a pre-season tune-up, technicians check for carbon monoxide leaks, damaged safety features and broken equipment. They also educate homeowners on proper maintenance. For instance, many folks forget the value of changing filters. Dirty filters reduce a system’s efficiency, forcing it to work harder to pull air through a clogged filter. Depending on the household traffic and filter type, it’ll need to be replaced every month or two.
Today’s high-efficiency units do a good job of heating homes, but small humidifiers can play a supporting role.
“In the winter, if you add humidity to your home, it feels a little warmer,” Buckner says. “You can run your thermostat a little lower, just because it feels warmer.”
Jason Rowland, general manager of Bomar Heating and Cooling, 420 Meadows Dr., Freeport, says humidifiers also help to maintain musical instrument quality and reduce indoor allergens.
He recommends cleaning air ducts every three to four years. “Having the ducts cleaned is huge, for two reasons,” Rowland says. “First, it protects equipment, so you don’t get dust into the unit, making the filter dirty. Second, from a health standpoint, there are a lot of allergens in the ductwork just laying there waiting to be stirred up. It’s amazing what comes out of there.”
Rowland sees plenty of customers who don’t think ahead when it comes to seasonal tune-ups.
“With the economy, you see more often that people don’t want to spend the few bucks to get their system checked up,” he says. “But when it goes out in the middle of the night or on a weekend, they’re paying more to have it repaired. The other thing is that they should be smart about upgrading equipment, and not wait until the system’s on its last leg, or it fails on Christmas Day.”
Many furnace dealers offer special payment options and additional discounts during the fall, such as Rockford Heating and Air Conditioning, which offers discounted furnace check-ups.
Bomar offers a Comfort Club incentive program to those who get seasonal check-ups. “It entitles homeowners to an annual maintenance plan, or customers can pay for a monthly plan,” Rowland says. “They also get discounts off service calls or other services we have here. And they get priority service, too. If they’re a member, we’ll try to get to them quicker than other customers.”
The Driveway: Protect and Clear
Effectively removing snow improves the lifespan of your driveway, whether it’s made of asphalt or concrete.
Joe Perkins, general supervisor at William Charles Construction, 5290 Nimtz Road, Loves Park, Ill., sees many driveway cracks and dips that could have been prevented. Problems usually start with piles of snow along the edge of the driveway, especially near the home and street.
“That moisture gets down there and raises up the pavement,” he says. “So customers call us and say, ‘We’ve got this huge joint that lifted up by the garage floor.’ There’s usually a downspout nearby. The ice melts during the day, and the water has nowhere else to go, so it seeps under the pavement. It freezes at night, and up she comes.”
The easiest solution, he says, is to clear snow with a snow blower rather than having your driveway plowed by a truck. Perkins uses one at his home and clears snow to about a foot outside the driveway’s edge. He dislikes big snowpiles, especially those left behind by plows. They’re a prime trouble spot.
“A snow blower scatters that snow everywhere,” he says. “I don’t want to offend snowplow guys, but the piles they create are tough on driveways.”
So, too, is road salt. Don’t put salt on a concrete driveway, says Chris Gallagher, co-owner of Stampworks by Design, 1210 Buchanan St., Rockford.
“There’s calcium in ice-melt salts,” he says. “Calcium is what makes concrete spall, or chip.”
Play sand is much safer for a driveway, says Gallagher. It adds traction without causing damage, and it’s cheap. Concrete sealer adds further protection. Every few years, Gallagher says, concrete driveways and garage floors should be protected from the elements.
“It’s like wax on a car,” he says. “The more protectant you have to save it from chemicals, UV rays and road salt, the more protected the concrete is.”
If the concrete pavement is less than a month old, Gallagher applies a cure-and-seal that soaks in as the concrete cures. Older drives require a different sealer.
While concrete sealer is a safeguard, asphalt sealcoat is mostly cosmetic, Perkins says. A new drive won’t need sealer for its first two years, because that’s how long it takes the asphalt oils to fully cure. For homeowners who desire a good sealcoat, Perkins suggests applying a light coat every few years in the spring.
“We tear out a lot of driveways that make me feel sorry for the homeowner,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with the driveway, but the sealcoat gets so thick that it starts to spider web. It’s not the asphalt that’s cracking – it’s the sealcoat, because it has layers and layers. You want it to wear off, because it’s cosmetic.”
Whether choosing asphalt or concrete for new projects, beware the calendar. Concrete experts like Gallagher won’t pour when the temperature is below 40 degrees, and asphalt experts like Perkins prefer laying driveways in the spring, when there’s time to prepare a good stone base.
Blow the Snow
When protecting the drive, don’t forget the snow blower. Fall tune-ups are important, and so are spring check-ups.
“Run all the fuel out in April,” says Jeff Thomas, manager at Lincoln Rent-All, 3110 Auburn St., Rockford. “If you’ve done that, and you have a two-cycle blower, just check your scraper and paddles, fill the machine with fresh two-cycle fuel, change the spark plug and that’s your tune-up.”
Many dealers happily offer a full inspection. But their job is more difficult if homeowners forget to empty the fuel tank.
“With all of the additives that they put in fuel these days, it’s really only good for about 60 days or so,” says Jerry Eckel, co-owner of Whitehouse Equipment, 13075 N. 2nd St., Roscoe. “If fuel sits around long enough, it turns into a varnish and it plugs up the carburetor.”
Eckel sees some homeowners improperly tune up their own equipment. When belts don’t fit right or springs aren’t properly tensioned, equipment wears out sooner, he says. Overall, blowers should last around 10 years. When it’s time to buy a new snow blower, there are three options: Single stage gas or electric blowers or, to handle larger areas and deeper snowfalls, two-stage gas blowers. More money equals more power, says Thomas. “It sounds silly, but the more you spend, the faster your blower will move snow.”
In our region, a single-stage blower is adequate for snowfalls of 4 inches or less, but will only clear a swath of about 11 to 18 inches versus 28 to 30 inches with a two-stage model. “If you have a cobblestone driveway, use a single-stage blower,” he says. “Because of the undulations of the blower on the pavers, it’s possible that you could strike a paver or shear the drive pin.”
Melt, Melt, Dammed Ice
When it comes to roofs, ice damming is public enemy No. 1.
“Snow slides down your roof and gets stuck in the gutters,” says Toby Lask, vice president, Lask Roofing & Siding, Inc., 1101 22nd St., Rockford. “As the snow melts, the ice dam holds the water back and keeps it on the roof.”
When ice dams sit too long, water damage is likely. When water stains and leaks occur inside, it’s already too late.
To fix an ice dam, Lask says, remove the backed-up ice and snow. Simple tools, like a roof rake, get the job done quickly. Wider downspouts may help to move water, and a simple heat tape, available at hardware stores and applied to roofs, melts ice piles along gutters and roof edges. A more dedicated solution is the Gutter Helmet, a permeable cover placed inside the gutter that won’t allow snow to collect as it cascades down the roof.
“The Gutter Helmet protects your gutter from leaves and debris, and it’ll just shoot all the snow away, so it can’t clog your gutters,” Lask says. “But it also moves a lot of rain, and can take about 10 times the heaviest rainfall ever recorded.”
Some homeowners are tempted to break the ice with heavy equipment, but they may jeopardize their shingles in the process.
“When you relieve ice dams yourself, you risk ruining the roof,” Lask says. “I’ve crawled up on roofs and seen holes everywhere. I could tell the homeowner had been up there chipping away at the ice with a shovel or something, and had chopped into the shingles.”
The same contractors who install roofs are often available to fix ice dams and winter damage. Because they’re trained in roof safety, they’re better equipped to fix the problem.
While ice dams are obnoxious, they’re largely preventable. Pay special attention to insulation and ventilation, says Matt Spanton, president, Mastercraft Exteriors, 330 E. Main St., Rockton, Ill.
“The best way to prevent an ice dam is to make sure your attic is staying cold in the wintertime,” Spanton says. “You want to make sure you’ve got proper insulation and ventilation. If you’ve got those, you’ll never get an ice dam.”
Through the natural process of convection, air enters the attic through the soffit, and escapes through ridge vents along the top of the roof. When that process is obscured, Spanton says, the roof warms unevenly, creating the perfect conditions for ice dams.
“The inside attic temperature should always be the same as the outside temperature, or as close to it as possible,” Spanton says. “So in the wintertime, you want that attic temperature to be as cold as possible, because you don’t want heat coming up to melt the snow and cause ice dams.”
Poor insulation, inappropriate attic fans and snow-covered vents contribute to ice dams. Roofing companies are happy to make fall inspections, from late summer until the first snowfall.
“Especially after the storms we had this summer, make sure your shingles are sealed properly,” Spanton says. “We’ve had tons of roofs that looked OK from the ground, but all the shingles were broken from the high winds that we’ve had. If the roof is damaged, water can get backed up into your home a lot easier.”
Watch Those Windows
Windows are perhaps the most vulnerable part of the home. Drafts seep around the window, while heat transfers through it. In fact, according to Seattle City Light, a public utility, about 12 times more heat escapes through a single-pane window than through a typical wall.
You don’t have to watch your money go out the window, so to speak. Double-check the weather sealing and protective cladding around the windows. Also, pay attention to the area where the window and siding meet.
“Check the caulking around windows, to be sure that it’s intact,” says Matt Nelson, sales manager for Pella Windows, local showroom at 6710 Broadcast Pkwy., Loves Park, Ill. “Every year, check the exterior seal. That alone goes a long way. Many people think caulk is just aesthetic, but it’s actually the first barrier against water in your home.”
The second barrier is the space around a window, where air easily seeps inside. Nelson suggests spraying insulating foam to plug up those gaps, although many homeowners choose the less-invasive plastic window wrap. While it fixes the symptoms, it doesn’t fix the problem, says Joe Garvey, sales representative at Marling Homeworks, 1138 Highway 14, Janesville.
“The insulation kits that go over the interior of the windows seal a home from cold, outside air coming in,” he says. “But they’re generally an inexpensive way to weatherize windows that are drafty.”
Storm windows add extra insulation, but they offer less protection than a brand-new window.
“The one thing that I try to explain to all of my customers is that no matter what window you purchase, the most important part is the installation,” Garvey says. “You can spend as much or as little as you want on a window, but if it is not installed properly, it will not make a difference.”
Modern windows typically should last 10 to 20 years. Once they get too hard to operate, accumulate too many layers of paint, or retain fog between double panes, it may be time to consider replacements. Pella offers several lines of super-efficient windows and exterior doors.
Windows with low-E (emissivity) coating reflect heat into a room, and keep sunlight from fading furniture. Windows with low U-values and low solar heat gain coefficient (SHGC) are especially capable of saving energy. Look for the Energy Star rating on new windows, because their purchase may provide you with a tax credit.
Nelson appreciates the difference a new product makes.
“My home’s not that old, so I have energy-efficient technologies,” he says. “It’s definitely not as drafty. I grew up in a 100-plus-year-old home with drafts, and I know I don’t have drafts.”
Save Some Green
In many cases, new windows, doors, roofs and furnaces can earn homeowners cash back. For the past few years, a slew of federal tax credits have been available for new, energy-efficient products. Double-check with the dealer to find out which products qualify. Local utilities may offer additional incentives.
Don’t get left in the cold this winter. There’s still time to prepare. With a little effort, you can bundle up your home, and save a bundle of energy, too. ❚