What happens when your home’s defenses are lacking? Here’s how you can keep out the cold and remain comfortable this winter.
As the last leaves fall off the trees and the geese head south, the crisp, bone-chilling cold of winter rolls in. When the weather grows cold, pests like mice, rats, moths and spiders may seek warmth in your home.
They’re not the only invaders.
Old Man Winter’s chill has a way of getting into any home that’s unprotected. While jackets, sweaters and scarves can help you stay warm outside, they’re a poor substitute inside. Ensuring that your home is warm and energy-efficient is crucial, and now is the time to prepare.
Retain Heat with Proper Insulation
One of the best defenses against outside critters and chilly drafts is insulation. Since heat rises, the attic can be a substantial source of heat loss and energy inefficiency in a home.
In fact, according to Energy Star, up to 60% of drafts in a home can be sealed by working in an attic, says Michael Callahan, owner of Comfort 1st Insulation, 612 Harrison Ave., in Rockford.
“People don’t realize their homes are not tight like a submarine,” he adds. “Even your walls breathe – down to your baseboard, your outlets, around the window trim. It all breathes up to your attic. So, when we’re up there, we use spray foam and other techniques to make the home much tighter.”
There are several signs that let homeowners know their attic insulation is inadequate. One significant indicator is when rooms located directly beneath the attic become too warm in the winter or accumulate extra dust. Another is high gas and electric bills, which could indicate the furnace is running more than necessary. You may even notice air leaks and chilly drafts in certain areas of the home.
When insulating an attic, Callahan and his certified experts first spray a foam insulation to seal and close gaps and cracks. Spray foam not only has a higher R-value (thermal resistance) than typical fiberglass insulation, but it also fits into those tighter, hard-to-reach places and adheres to irregular surfaces. Next, the Comfort 1st team ventilates the attic by either adding vents or cleaning blocked vents. This helps to prevent moisture buildup and condensation that, if left untreated, can result in mold, structural damage and more.
Depending on what’s already in a person’s attic, the Comfort 1st team can either add spray foam on top of existing insulation, says Callahan, or they can remove and replace everything.
Some homeowners find themselves reluctant to put their money in areas that aren’t seen, but Callahan says it’s important to know that this investment pays off over time.
“Customers can save up to 50% of their bill immediately. It’s one of the few products you install that starts paying for itself,” he says. “Next year, there are going to be a lot of great incentives and it’s never been a better time to insulate, especially with how high utility bills are.”
Much like the veins and arteries inside your body, an efficient home has ducts that circulate air to and from your furnace or air conditioner.
Also like your veins and arteries, over time your ducts can develop problems. When they become loose, leaky or clogged up, the HVAC system works harder. Not only can it noticeably reduce performance but it could also overwork your system and shorten its lifespan.
If you have a two-story home that’s warmer upstairs than downstairs, that’s not necessarily because of simple physics, says Mark Buckner, owner of Rockford Heating & Air, 1618 Magnolia St., in Rockford. He believes this effect is at times due to poor ductwork, an effect he says is particularly noticeable in homes built around the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Such homes went up so quickly that quality and design of the home’s ductwork was more of an afterthought.
“So, we solve a lot of issues after the fact,” Buckner says.
When a home has an adequate number of return air vents, air circulates efficiently between rooms. One way to improve airflow is to add extra ventilation under the floor or behind the wall – but that’s easier said than done, unless you’re already planning to rip out drywall.
Where heavier remodeling isn’t realistic, a ductless split system offers a good in between. These systems have an outdoor unit and an indoor unit that are connected by a narrow tube and some electrical wiring. The indoor unit is often mounted on a wall, delivering heated or cooled air directly into the room. There’s no ductwork and only a small hole for installation. However, the unit’s main disadvantage is that it controls only one room.
“They only do the area they’re in, kind of like space heaters, but they’re highly efficient,” Buckner says. “Some of the ductless split systems can get heat from an outside temperature of down to -4F.”
Out with the Old
Sometimes, it pays to upgrade. When it comes to windows, replacing old, single-pane units with better-insulated windows will pay off almost instantly – and the same can be said for broken double-pane windows.
“First and foremost, replace them with an energy-efficient window,” says Kathy Daub, office manager at Advanced Window Systems, 5401 E. State St., in Rockford. “If you want more energy efficiency and soundproofing, go with a triple pane. It will block out not only more cold, but more noise.”
Newer double- and triple-pane windows have insulating argon gas between the panes that helps to block any cold air that might naturally penetrate the glass. These new systems also have the advantage of being made mostly of vinyl, which allows for additional insulating properties.
An all-vinyl frame has hollow pockets filled with foam insulation that traps heat and protects against outside weather. Vinyl frames are, overall, more airtight than wood windows, as they lose an average of 1.125 gallons of air per minute, compared to the 1.725 gallons that escape through a wood frame, according to window manufacturers.
Furthermore, vinyl windows are rust-resistant and won’t chip or peel. Wood windows, on the other hand, often need to be re-painted or re-stained every few years depending on how much direct exposure they have to the elements. They may also be vulnerable to insect damage.
When replacing old windows, it’s important to keep in mind that part of the glass will be lost.
“They still have the same size frame, but a little less glass,” Daub says. “With replacements, that’s standard. The vinyl frame is wider around the window than a typical wood window because that’s where all the insulation is. The pro is having that better-insulated window.”
Updating your windows can happen most any time of year, even during the cold winter months, but if you’re eyeing energy efficiency, it’s better to stay ahead of the calendar, says Daub.
“Replace your old windows with energy-efficient windows any time of the year,” Daub adds. “Our installers work year-round. It is best to place your order well in advance of the winter months to receive the benefit of the energy savings. Since COVID, as with all material, it is taking longer to receive our orders, so it’s best to plan ahead.”
Keep Up on the Little Things
The experts are always ready to help, but there’s plenty a homeowner can do to stay proactive and get the most out of their present windows, doors, insulation and HVAC units.
For starters, Buckner recommends keeping the HVAC system’s fan running continuously. This can help to mix warm air throughout the house and solve cold and hot spots.
“I have a lot of customers who run their fans 24 hours a day,” he says. “A lot of the newer furnaces run fans on a really low speed. You can’t even hear it, hardly.”
Regular maintenance will also help to extend the life of your furnace. If it has permanent, reusable filters, take the time to regularly clean them. Buildups in the filter will force the system to work harder and may also explain inadequate airflow, Buckner says. A simple rinse in some water will wash away dust and debris.
Speaking of which, homeowners should ensure that the air registers on the floor or wall remain uncovered and unblocked by such things as curtains, nightstands or dressers, Buckner adds. This will help to ensure the furnace gets enough air and doesn’t overheat.
Like air filters, registers can also accumulate dirt, so the occasional cleaning can go a long way, says Buckner.
On a cold day, it’s more efficient and helpful to keep a furnace fan running longer. This will help achieve a desired, balanced temperature throughout a home.
“Heat rises, so there’s always that imbalance,” Buckner says. “But if you run the fan, you can fix a lot of that. It’s a small, easy thing – you just flip the switch on your thermostat.”
Windows can benefit from the occasional checkup, as well. Periodically, it’s helpful to assess and replace the caulking where windows meet the flashing and siding. Old, dried-out caulk cracks apart, thus leaving tiny gaps where air can sneak in.
“Definitely, if you’re not going to replace them, make sure your caulk is good,” says Daub. “Not only make sure windows are caulked on the outside exterior, but if you have storm windows, make sure those are caulked too.”
Preparing your home for the icy embrace of winter is quintessential to a comfortable season. No matter how you defend against an icy Midwestern winter, small steps now will lead to big improvements over time. Your home and wallet will thank you later, Callahan says.
“There are a lot of little DIY things you can do to hack your home’s comfort and also save energy,” he says. “But it’s not just the savings that make it worthwhile. It’s the comfort payback.”