What to Do to Prepare Your House or Apartment for the Cold Winter Months

What to Do to Prepare Your House or Apartment for the Cold Winter Months

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DIY Network host Jason Cameron shares how you can get your home ready for the winter.

Winter. It’s here in full force—hey, snow; nice to see you—and we’re buttoning up our coats to protect us from the frigid temperatures when we’re outside. But did you know it’s important to button up your home, too? Jason Cameron, a licensed home improvement contractor based in New Jersey, and host of three DIY Network shows—Man Caves, Desperate Landscapes, and Sledgehammer—shares his must-dos to prepare your home for the winter months and ensure your family is safe.

While it’s good to get a start on this checklist before the season arrives, there are things you can do now to prevent potential catastrophes from happening—like the furnace breaking down unexpectedly or water seeping into your home—or to improve your heating efficiency.
     

Do a visual check of your house.  

“I always tell people to walk around your house on the outside and on the inside, and just think about the things that you need to look at before winter,” Cameron says. “When you’re thinking about [preparing for winter], you might see something you might have missed before.”
    

Take a look at the trees in your yard.

Tree maintenance is really important, Cameron says, because big, mature trees—especially evergreen trees—help insulate the house by blocking wind. So when you’re taking a look at the exterior of your house, check on the trees to, especially if you’ve recently had construction done on your house. “What happens is, a lot of times during construction you get what’s called tilt. Heavy machinery comes in actually tilts the tree, and unfortunately tilts the tree in the direction of the house. Once you’ve made that tree unstable, there’s more of a chance of it to come down,” Cameron says.

If you are concerned about any of the trees in the yard, have an arborist or landscaping processional come out to assess the tree and take it down if necessary. While the specialist is there, have them prune any trees that need it to keep the trees healthy.
    

Check for air infiltration issues. 

“Air leakage and infiltration is probably one of the biggest problems people have, so do the things you need to do to take care of the simple maintenance,” Cameron advises. The main areas to check for problems include:

Windows: A lot of homes and apartment buildings in our area have old windows that are not energy efficient—meaning they don’t insulate the home well. An easy way to minimize air infiltration from older windows (without replacing them all completely) is to use window insulation film, which is applied using double-sided tape and a hair dryer.

“You might also want to look at whether or not they’ve been installed and sealed properly because a lot of the time that air infiltration comes in from the side,” Cameron adds. “It might be as simple as opening up the drywall and trying to reinsulate inside there...I actually use a FLIR thermal imager, so I do recommend that if people know someone that has a thermal imaging device [ask to borrow it]. It’s a really quick way to look at the walls to see if you have any missing insulation or where the air infiltration is coming from.”

Doors: Check to make sure doors that lead outside are sealed properly. Sometimes the gasket on the door will deteriorate, so it might be as simple a fix as replacing that gasket.

Fireplaces: If your home has a fireplace that remains unused year-round, block off the flue, Cameron advises. “That’s the biggest culprit of air infiltration,” he says. “That’s usually where you loose most of your energy.” To prevent that energy loss, Cameron recommends purchasing and installing an inflatable fireplace stopper—a bag that, when inflated, seals off the flue completely—which is available at most home improvement stores.  
    

Make sure the fireplace is ready to go. 

If you have a working fireplace, you’re likely going to use it more often in the winter. Whether you light a wood fire for a cozy atmosphere or when the power goes out during a snowstorm, creosote will build up in the chimney. Creosote is the residue inside the chimney that results from wood fires, and when it builds up in large quantities, it can cause a chimney fire. Homeowners can reduce this risk by making sure the chimney is clean either by hiring someone to come clean it—especially if this has never been done before—and burning a creosote-preventing product, such as Pine Mountain’s Creosote Buster, once a season.
    

Perform an annual maintenance check on the furnace, water heater, and HVAC.

To ensure that the furnace, water heater, and HVAC system are all in working order, Cameron recommends having them inspected by a professional. “Most people can’t look at their furnace and say, ‘oh it’s fine.’ Have somebody look at it. It might cost you the trip that it is for them to come out, but it is worth the money to spend on the maintenance ahead of time than to have something happen that’s catastrophic and you loose your heat...and you don’t want your water heater to go and you have a big mess in your house in the colder months,” he says.

While you’re at it, Cameron also suggests homeowners have their HVAC system and heating vents cleaned to ensure good air and heating quality, as well as change the filter on the furnace to keep it working efficiently.
    

Check for water infiltration issues.

Basements are notorious for being damp because concrete inevitably wicks moisture. To check whether your basement is susceptible to water infiltration issues, Cameron suggests doing a moisture test. “Take maybe a two-by-two [foot] piece of plastic and tape it to the concrete floor with duct tape all the way around and tape it to the concrete block wall all the way around…then leave it there for a couple of days,” Cameron instructs.

If there is moisture on the side of the plastic that’s against the concrete, your home is susceptible to water infiltration issues. To fix this, homeowners can either install drainage tile or apply a concrete sealer that can be sprayed or rolled on to block moisture, Cameron advises.
    

Stock up for snowstorms.

Whether it’s the beginning of the season or the snow has already made an appearance (or two or 10), it’s never too late to stock up on (or restock) necessary supplies beyond food and water—just save yourself the headache of rushing out to stock up the day before the snowstorm when everyone else is trying to do the same! Here's what Cameron suggests you have on hand:

  • An ergonomic snow shovel: A good shovel is necessary of digging out of the snow, but an “ergonomically designed [shovel] makes it easier on you. You can stand up and not hunch over,” Cameron says.
        
  • Rock salt or a rock salt alternative: This will really help break up the ice that forms on sidewalks and driveways, but a lot of people are hesitant to use it. So find a pet-friendly rock salt alternative that will do the same job without the health risks for pets. “And if it’s pet-friendly, it’s kid-friendly,” Cameron adds.
        
  • Sand: Sprinkling sand on the driveway and sidewalks after shoveling will help with traction—especially if you’re having trouble getting the car out.
        
  • Alternative light sources: Flashlights, candles, and battery-operated lanterns are all viable sources of light if the power goes out.
        
  • Fire-starting supplies: If you have a fireplace, it’s great for heat, light, and cooking when the power goes out (or even for a fun back-to-basics night in), so make sure you have kindling, matches, and dry wood readily available. Alternatively, Pine Mountain offers easier solutions to lighting fires, so if you’re not confident about your fire-starting skills, pick up a box of ExtremeStart firestarters to use with dry wood or grab a few firelogs to have on hand (we're currently loving the American Home™ by Yankee Fresh Candle Balsam Fir and Java-Log, which make your home smell like pine trees and coffee, respectively).
        
  • A roof rake: When snow melts, runs down the roof, and refreezes and clogs the gutters on a house, it creates an ice dam. And as this continues to happen, the buildup can cause damage to the house. One way to avoid this, Cameron says, is to remove some the snow from the roof after a snowfall by using a roof rake with an extendable pole so that you stay on the safety of the ground. 

        

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