Home Improvement

Ask the Remodeler: Tips for winterizing your home to save on heating bills

And to avoid costly repairs.

Christmas composition. Frame made of snowflakes on gray background. Christmas, winter, new year concept. Flat lay, top view
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With autumn here and winter not far behind, it is time to start thinking about tightening up your homes against the cold. Heating bills are expected to rise dramatically this year. Anything we can do to make our homes a little tighter is not only good for the environment, but good for our pocketbooks, too. Take these steps to winterize your home:

Energy audit

Without question, the most powerful tool you have is a professional energy audit of your home. There are state agencies that offer free ones, but they may not be as comprehensive as professional audits, which are actually quite affordable given the potential payback.

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A professional audit will include a blower door test that will depressurize the house and record each room using an infrared camera. The camera will literally show where cold air is coming in around windows, doors, and baseboards, as well as areas in walls and ceilings that are missing insulation. It is effectively an X-ray of your house. A good energy audit will also inspect attic and basement spaces, ductwork for signs of air escaping, and hydronic systems for leaks. The audit will produce a very detailed written report on how to address the problems uncovered.

Analysts are forecasting a 15% increase in natural gas prices this winter and a rate jump as high as 24% for National Grid electric customers. As of Oct. 10, the average retail price for home heating oil this winter is projected to be $4.91 a gallon. Last year it was $3.22.

Sources: Energy Information Administration and Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources

Mechanical inspections

  • You should have your mechanicals inspected at least once a year. Fall is the best time because we are heading into the heating season. If you have a forced-hot air system, you would call an HVAC company. Forced hot water or steam that is fueled by gas requires a call to your plumbing and heating contractor. If you have an oil-fired system, call your oil company.
  • Any exposed heating pipes or heating ducts should be insulated where possible.
  • Something any homeowner can do with forced-hot air systems is to change the filters in the return duct. These can be purchased locally or online. The size you need is written on the side of the existing filter. Be sure the filter is oriented correctly, with the arrows pointing in the direction of the airflow into the furnace.
  • Regardless of the type of fuel oil you use, a chimney inspection is a smart move. You want to make sure the flue gases are free to escape the house as intended. A lot of homes now have indirect-fired appliances, and the air intake and flue are run out through the side walls in PVC pipes. These should ideally be 6 feet off the ground and clearly marked with a yellow sign. If they are lower, be sure nothing blocks them, particularly when it snows. These need to be free and clear 24/7.

Routine fixes and checks

Check your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. You should change the batteries twice a year. Building codes require smoke and CO detectors, but many homes still have only smoke detectors. You can purchase CO detectors at any building supply store or online. Simply plug them into a receptacle. You can also buy smoke/CO detector combos. Either way, as we close up the house and turn on heating appliances, it is critical to have both working smoke and CO detectors on each floor. (While you are at it, make sure you have flashlights/lamps with fresh batteries for power outages during winter storms.)

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Windows

  • Air can come in at the window or around it. Energy audits typically find that caulking around either the interior or exterior trim (or often both) will cut down on drafts.
  • If you are not committed to window restoration or replacement, there are clear plastic films that stretch over the interior of a window, and when heated with a blow dryer, they will stretch and tighten, creating a clear thermal break to the outside. These have been around for years. They are cheap and surprisingly effective.

Doors

  • Doors cannot be sealed with plastic, of course, so adding a new sweep at the bottom to prevent drafts is key. These wear out fairly often from daily use, but no one ever notices because it is almost impossible to see.
  • Now is the time to install jamb weather stripping, which is done from the outside. The best ones are a wooden strip with a vinyl bulb that presses against the door. Close the door and gently press the vinyl bulb against the door, and nail the weather stripping in place.

Roofing and gutters

  • A professional roofing company should make repairs because they have the proper equipment. There are a lot of slate roofs in the Boston area, and they often need a slate or two replaced. More conventional roofs may need basic work — from damaged shingles to flashing repairs. You don’t need a roofer to inspect the roof per se; a visual inspection with binoculars should determine whether you need to call someone.
  • You should definitely have your gutters and downspouts cleaned at least once a year, especially in the fall after all the leaves have dropped. Make sure to hose out your downspouts. A lot of backed-up gutters start with a clogged downspout. Gutters should have extensions that pull water away from the foundation. This is very important when the snow melts.

General exterior

  • Be sure to clean out the window wells around your foundation. We often find years’ worth of debris, bark mulch, and other buildup here. When you add snow into the equation, your basement windows may start to leak. The same applies to basement doors if they are not in a bulkhead.
  • Be sure to shut off and drain your exterior hose spigots. They make frost-free spigots, but it may not be worth the expense to swap them out.

Sump pumps

Some basements in areas with a high water table can leak from below during spring melts. Be sure your pump’s discharge lines are clear and that nothing has fallen into the sump to prevent the float from working properly.

Mark Philben is the project development manager at Charlie Allen Renovations in Cambridge. Send your questions to [email protected]. Questions are subject to editing.

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