- Deal with dead tree limbs. The No. 1 thing most homeowners fail to do before winter sets in is eliminate dead tree branches, says Nick Gromicko, founder of the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors. Falling limbs — or trees — can harm roofs, siding, gutters, porch railings, decks, and cars, not to mention unsuspecting passersby.
- “Clear out any overhanging limbs that could fall on homes and cars,” he says. “In late summer or early fall go around and take off any branches that are hanging over the corner of your house.”
- Be proactive about plumbing.If you live in colder climates, make sure that your plumbing isn’t vulnerable to the cycles of freezing and thawing that can cause pipes to burst — a disaster that can result in water damage or the growth of mold.
To weatherproof your plumbing, shut off the supply of water to outdoor spigots, swamp coolers, and sprinkler systems, then drain them. (Depending on your irrigation system, you may also need a contractor to blow out any excess moisture with compressed air.) Also cover the outdoor components of your air conditioner or swamp cooler to protect them from the elements.
- Seal leaks and save money. Check your roof for loose or missing shingles and gaps around your chimney, flues, and other openings and do the same for your home’s exterior. Be especially watchful of the areas around windows, doors, and your foundation. Once you identify areas where water might intrude or ice could form, address these problems. Caulk cracks or install weather stripping where appropriate. Shoring up any leaks will provide a more comfortable and trouble-free winter. Ask a professional to handle repairs that are outside your comfort zone and be sure to request project estimates up front.
- Check out your chimney. If you plan to use your fireplace this winter, make sure your chimney is clean and no critters have made themselves at home there. The last thing you need when cozying up to your hearth is a disaster waiting to happen in the chimney. Call a chimney sweep to inspect your chimney and clean out soot and other hazardous debris.
- Invest in a home energy audit. “The best thing to do is get an energy audit, which provides an assessment that can help you save money,” explains Robert DeSoto, branch chief with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program. A home energy audit helps you make your home more comfortable and energy efficient. An audit will tell you where you’re losing energy and provide recommendations on ways you can improve. This can involve anything from installing additional insulation to replacing poorly performing appliances. Some homeowners perform their own energy audits. But professional home energy auditors use specialized equipment, which can give you information about potential trouble spots. To find an energy auditor, contact your state government energy office or local utility company.
- Research rebates and tax credits. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 is putting billions of dollars into helping homeowners make their homes more energy efficient. If you have an old furnace or boiler or suspect that an energy audit might reveal ways you can save, now might be a good time to see if you qualify for any government perks.
Many states and utility districts also offer rebate programs and other incentives to help you conserve. To start your research, visit the website for your state energy office and local utility company.
- Breathe easy all winter long. Like a living organism, a house needs balance. A home riddled with leaks makes for a cold and expensive winter. But a house that’s too tight can lead to problems with indoor air quality. “Sealing up a house keeps everything inside,” DeSoto explains. “People think they get drowsy after Thanksgiving because of the turkey, but all the carbon monoxide from using a gas range is going to stay in the house if it’s not vented (to the outside).”
- Conduct a radon test. Radon is an invisible, odorless gas that’s considered to be the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S., behind cigarettes. You can purchase your own test kit at your local hardware or home improvement store. You can also hire a qualified contractor to conduct a test for you. If your home proves to have elevated radon levels, you will need to work with a qualified contractor to reduce your levels.
- Curb the CO. Before winter hits, make sure your carbon monoxide detectors are working properly and replace old batteries. If you cook on a gas range, use the fan on your stove hood, if it’s vented to the outside, to reduce your carbon monoxide exposure. Adjust your burners so you get a nice blue flame; a yellow-tipped flame produces more emissions. Has your furnace been inspected lately? Make sure to get an annual furnace inspection to ensure the safety and efficiency of your home heating system.
- Mind the mold. Mold can worsen allergies, trigger asthma attacks, and cause problems for people with compromised immune systems. The good news is that mold needs water in order to flourish. When showering, use your bathroom fan, if vented to the outside, and make sure any moisture-producing appliance (like your clothes dryer) is exhausted outside. By securing your home against leaks for winter, you’re helping to keep mold at bay.