Home Improvement: Now’s the Time to Seal Up Leaks

Before the inevitable snowfall and winter chill arrive, it’s important to protect your home for what’s ahead. These tips from local pros offer a good starting point.

As the warmth of summer wanes and cold winds blow, taking the necessary steps to get your house ready for winter can save you money and help keep you and your family safe and warm.

It’s best to start at the top, says Mike Callahan, President of Comfort 1st Insulation, 612 Harrison Ave., in Rockford.

“You can save a lot of money and prevent headaches by checking the attic for adequate ventilation and insulation,” he says. “Ninety percent of homes are under-insulated and not well ventilated, which can cause energy loss and pipes to freeze.”

Comfort 1st Insulation is a group of home and energy performance contractors who specialize in residential and commercial projects in the region. Their goal is to increase their clients’ comfort and decrease energy and utility bills through the services they offer, including insulation installation/removal, home energy assessments, attic restoration, ice dam control and fresh air ventilation systems. They have several types of insulation for specific purposes and diagnostic tests to determine heat loss through walls and duct work as well as mold buildup due to poor ventilation.

“The biggest misconception is that a low energy bill means adequate insulation, and that’s not always true,” says Callahan. “Homeowners most likely see their furnace and air conditioner have a longer life and fewer repairs with good insulation.”

Proper insulation and ventilation can also help allergy sufferers and make a home more soundproof by reducing noises from the outside and inside, he adds.

This is a good time of year to have the roof checked for loose and missing shingles so that melting snow doesn’t leak into the home. Vent stacks and chimneys should be well-sealed. Gutters full of leaves can cause damage to the roof, siding and wood trim. When water gets backed up, it freezes into ice dams that can destroy the roof and much more. Extensions to downspouts can help further, as they help water to run at least 3 to 4 feet away from the home’s foundation.

Many homeowners have a woodburning stove or fireplace as a second heat source, and those units need regular inspection and cleaning to remove the buildup of creosote and anything else that shouldn’t be in a chimney, says Brad Vander Heyden, president of Advanced Chimney Systems, 3486 Lonergan Dr., Rockford.

An inspector will not only look for creosote buildup but also animal nests or any other debris that can block a chimney. All parts are checked, including the condition of the liner, damper, bricks, and the cap and spark screen, to ensure they’re in place and in good condition.

Creosote builds up on chimney liner walls when gas, smoke, unburned wood bits and water vapor exit the chimney, cooling on the way up and causing condensation.

“A creosote buildup is dangerous because it could lead to a chimney fire or, in rare cases, cause a house to catch on fire,” Vander Heyden says.

Most chimneys need to be cleaned after the burning of one to two full cords of wood, he says, which for some homeowners may take one to two years or up to five years, depending on how often the fireplace is used.

Homeowners can perform a simple test on their own by opening the fireplace damper and looking up the chimney. Vander Heyden says they should see if there’s light at the top, and check that the screen is intact, not rusted out or moved by an animal.

There are other ways to prevent big problems in the home, when temperatures reach their lowest lows, says Paul Nicholson of Nicholson Hardware, 1131 2nd Ave., in Rockford.

An inexpensive way to keep out the cold is with weather stripping for doors and plastic for windows. These products help to save on energy costs, he says.

“You can usually hear or feel air leaks in windows, and a plastic cover over windows from the inside is very effective, especially in older homes, where windows may not be the most energy efficient,” Nicholson says. “It just creates an extra barrier, keeping out drafts and the feeling of cold coming off the glass.

“Doors are very important because they are constantly being opened and closed,” he adds. “Most people can tell if weather stripping is worn and needs to be replaced or if the rubber seal is cracked and gaps are evident.”

There will be fewer chances of problems inside a home if certain kinds of work are done on the outside.

Turn off exterior faucets and insulate spigots with a Styrofoam faucet cover. Disconnect garden hoses, drain them of any water and store them in the garage or basement until spring. Once you turn off the downstairs or inside valve to the spigot, go back outside and turn the handle to the “on” position to make sure no water is left in the line. Hoses and water lines with water in them can freeze and burst in the coldest weather, Nicholson cautions.

The mechanics of a frost-free faucet eliminate the need for a cover and turning off the faucet from the inside, he says, because a long valve stem reaches inside the home where it remains warm and prevents water from collecting in the faucet where it can freeze.

Outdoor irrigation systems need to be drained to keep water from freezing up the lines, causing them to leak or break. Homeowners can do this themselves or call a professional to clear the lines with an air compressor that forces water out of the lines.

It’s a good idea, too, to periodically check the sump pump to make sure it’s still working, especially after long dry periods like we’ve experienced this summer. Pour several gallons of water into the pit to make sure the pump kicks on and the switch is working properly, Nicholson says.

Dave Hipp, of Hipp’s Home Improvements in Rockford, is an electrical engineer turned handyman. He says it pays to be prepared for winter by making sure all essential equipment is available and in good working order before the snow falls.

Start up the snowblower, inspect shovels for damage, and have plenty of rock salt or Ice Melt on hand before it’s needed. There are many kinds of snow shovels to choose from, but Hipp says some of the most helpful shovel designs move the snow from one location to another so the user doesn’t have to do as much lifting.

When mowing the lawn for the last time, it’s a good idea to pass over the remaining dry leaves on the ground. The mulched leaves shouldn’t cover the grass completely but be sparse enough to fall between the blades. They’ll decompose and nourish the grass. Afterward, drain out the remaining gasoline or run the lawnmower until it’s empty.

Now is also a good time to change the lawnmower oil, if it hasn’t been done all summer. Remove the spark plug, put a couple drops of oil in the cylinder and turn over the engine a couple of times. Remember to reinstall the spark plug. Gasoline stabilizer works and can be added to the tank, but then run the mower so it works its way through the entire system.

“A lot of times when lawnmowers don’t start up in the spring, it’s because the consistency of the fuel has changed over the months, has become ‘gummy’ and clogs up the carburetor,” Hipp says.

Fall is also a good time to aerate and dethatch lawns to help loosen the soil and create a better environment for growing grass in the spring. Both procedures should be done before overseeding to get the seed in better contact with the soil.

Elsewhere in the home, caulking is one of the easiest ways to reduce heating bills and prevent water and air leaks. Look for openings in the caulk and places where it’s pulling away. Remove the old caulk and peeling paint, and clean away dirt with a brush. Apply a good exterior-grade caulk in a continuous bead around the outside borders of the window or door.

Most ceiling fans have a switch to change the direction of the blades when the fan is on. During the winter, it’s OK to run the blades clockwise, so the air is pulled up and forces warmer air downward.

When Daylight Saving Time ends this year on Nov. 1, it’s a good time to test smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and replace the batteries.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, lighters, candles or matches are the heat source for an average of 25,900 home fires per year.

Prune most plants in the late winter, just before spring growth appears. For plants specific to an area, get in touch with a Master Gardener, a local nursery or the state university’s extension department.

The University of Illinois Extension Office has a checklist of tips to keep the cold out and the heat in during the winter months.

Remove dead parts of trees or limbs hanging close to the home or near power lines to avoid them breaking off in heavy winds or under the weight of heavy snow in a winter storm.

Hipp’s handyman service handles many repairs, maintenance projects and minor renovations. He can be reached at (815) 362-6099.

The largest winter expense in the home is heating, and it’s a good idea to make sure everything is in working order before the coldest days arrive. A qualified furnace technician can do a seasonal inspection to ensure the pilot light and thermostat are working and there are no leaks, cracks or concerns about the efficiency of the furnace.

Unplug appliances when away from home for a week or more to save energy. Items like the coffee pot, toaster, television and other appliances don’t need to be plugged in when you are away from home. A power strip can help you manage what stays on while other electronics can be turned off with the flick of a switch.

The Centers for Disease Control also has tips on preparing for cold winter weather and storms, with preventative measures at the top of the list. They suggest listening to weather forecasts regularly and checking emergency supplies, including food and water. Place an easy-to-read thermometer in a highly visible place, especially for older adults. The ability to feel a change in temperature decreases with age and seniors are more susceptible to health problems caused by cold. Bring pets indoors or provide adequate shelter to keep them warm and make sure they have access to unfrozen water.