It’s time to turn our attention to furnaces, gutters, drains and more
Our relationship with winter isn’t what it used to be. Cutting cords of firewood, sealing gaps between the logs of cabin walls, and other tasks to fortify the homestead against the bleakest season are the stuff of our pioneering ancestors. Life in high-efficiency homes has let us leave that all behind.
Or has it? Winter itself hasn’t really changed. It may be a tad warmer these days, but it’s still plenty bleak. It can also be destructive, which means that the modern home still needs attention if it’s going to survive the season. Furnaces might fail, pipes can freeze and frost might form in places it shouldn’t, leaving the unprepared homeowner in the cold.
We asked Mechanical Engineering Technology instructor and licensed home inspector Derek Walker (Mechanical Engineering Technology ’93) what to do to prevent such mishaps and more. Happily, none of it requires an axe – just attention to detail and a good DIY attitude.
1. Disconnect the sump pump hose. Most newer houses have systems to move water away from the foundation, and they may involve a hose running from an exterior wall. When snowed under, that hose will fill with ice, causing the sump pump to run in vain and burn out, which could lead to a flooded basement. Replace the hose with a plastic pipe about eight feet long, and raise it to drain above the snow.
“It has to be sloped enough that water can drain out before it freezes,” says Walker. “That’s the trick."
2. Clean the gutters. Snow can melt off a roof on a mild winter day. “If you’ve got water that can’t get out of the gutter because leaves are blocking it, it’ll freeze,” says Walker. “Gutters aren’t designed to have 100 pounds of ice in them.” He’s seen them ripped off the sides of houses.
To prevent that, a blower inserted at the end of the downspout should send leaves back out the top. That’s the easy part. After that, Walker recommends manually removing debris by hand. Avoid spraying with water, as it could lead to clogs in those freshly cleared downspouts. If your gutters are too high to reach, call a professional. Walker says a cleaning will run about $200 for the average home.
3. Trim overhanging branches. This will help keep those leaves from getting into the gutters in the first place, or boughs from dumping an extra load of snow onto the roof. Cut them back about a foot from the house.
4. Drain the garden hose and shut off the valves. Disconnect the garden hose and let the water run out. If the tap isn’t part of a frost-proof hose bib, go inside and turn off the valve that feeds its, then go back out and open the tap to drain. Miss this step and “it can easily freeze all the way back inside of the house and split the pipe,” says Walker.
5. Secure handrails and stair treads. “In the winter, you’re much more likely to grab a handrail,” says Walker. Make sure they’re stable. To deal with slippery exterior steps, he installed rubber treads, attaching them to the stairs with screws.
6. Seal drafts. If you can see daylight around the exterior door, “That’s obviously an air gap.” Fix it with weather stripping.
Other gaps might be invisible, such as those around attic hatches (use weather stripping here, too) and electrical receptacles. For the latter, remove the plate and install a foam gasket behind it. Caulking between the box and drywall will also block drafts. “It makes the house a bit more efficient, a bit more comfortable.”
7. Inspect the fireplace. Walker knows that wood-burning stoves are less common in modern homes. Anyone still using them, however, should have them inspected. Also, consider burning dry birch or pine, he says, rather than poplar, which can speed the build up of creosote, the cause of chimney fires. In any case, get it cleaned every autumn.
Burn dry birch or pine rather than poplar, which can speed the build up of creosote.
8. Inspect the furnace. If you have a high-efficiency unit, open the panel and inspect for rust or water. Either indicates the need for a pro, since the furnace should be capable of draining the moisture that it collects from the heat exchanger on the exhaust. If the interior is dry, vacuum out any dust. Change the filter, which Walker recommends doing monthly.
9. Adjust the humidifier. If you turned it off for the summer, it’s time to turn it on again – but not too much. “The best you can hope for is maybe 30% humidity [in the winter],” says Walker. Above that, you risk frost on the windows that can turn into water on the walls, and that can lead to mold. Make sure the water panel evaporator (that wire-mesh piece inside) is free of calcium residue left by hard water.
“The best you can hope for is maybe 30% humidity [in the winter].”
10. Test the detectors. With the furnace firing up regularly, fall is the time to check the status of detectors for smoke and carbon monoxide, a poisonous byproduct of gas-burning appliances that is normally exhausted outdoors. “It kills people,” says Walker. “It’s not some trivial thing.”
If these detectors aren't wired into your electrical system, change the batteries and test the alarms. Replace them before they’re 10 years old. Then rest through those cold winter nights with peace of mind – and start looking forward to spring.