Tips for Winterizing a House

worker applying caulk around window frame
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Caulking around window frames can help reduce heat loss.

Just as you would not wear the same clothes during the winter that you would in summer, your home requires some seasonal changes n your house to prepare for the cold weather. The tips below do not take the place of full-scale home weatherization that includes air sealing and installing the right amount of insulation, but these additional winterizing techniques will cut energy costs and save you money, will help make the house more comfortable, and prevent costly damage to the house.

Stop Window and Door Drafts

Windows and doors can be prime spots for energy loss during cold weather. Even if you have energy-efficient windows and doors, the areas around them may be letting in cold air or providing heated air a way to escape to the outside.

Determine where you might have a problem by checking the exterior of the windows and doors, if possible. If you see gaps between the window frame the house siding, caulk the openings using a good quality exterior caulk. Check for drafts inside by using an incense stick. Move the lighted stick around the window, and look for places where the smoke is blown to the side or is sucked into the window, indicating air leaks.

You can caulk around the window or door frame, but most windows leak around their moving parts. Weather stripping can help seal out drafts. For double-hung windows (the kind that slide up and down) V-channel weather stripping works well. Follow manufacturer's directions to install it in the tracks of the sashes and on the top of the upper sash and the bottom of the lower sash, as well as where the two sashes meet in the middle. For other types of windows, install thin felt weatherstripping against the part of the window that stops the sash when you close it.

Energy Efficiency Hispanic Woman Applies Weather Stripping Vertical
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Weather stripping reduces drafts and helps make the area around windows more comfortable.

The area around the bottom of an exterior door is often drafty. You can install a door sweep along the bottom of the door. The sweep holds a piece of rubber tight to the flooring material when the door is closed, eliminating drafts.

Insulate Windows

You can take your window winterizing a step further by installing plastic sheeting over the window opening. The kits contain two-sided tape that you apply to the interior of the window frame. Once you stick the plastic to the tape and secure it around the window, you then shrink the plastic sheet taut with a hand-held hair dryer. The plastic stops drafts and provides an insulating air space.

Tune Up the Heating System

Depending on the type system you have, a professional HVAC contractor can clean the system, replace filters, lubricate the moving parts, and make sure the electrical connections are solid. He can also test the efficiency of the system and alert you to potential problems, such as venting issues.

Change Furnace Filters

If you don't have a contractor check out the system, make sure to at least replace the filter on a forced-air system at the start of the heating season, and check it once a month over the winter. A dirty filter can reduce the efficiency of your heating unit by blocking the free flow of air.. While you are at it, make sure that furniture and drapes are not blocking heating vents.

Seal Ducts

Ductwork can leak if the joints between duct sections are not sealed properly. Leaky ducts can reduce efficiency by as much as 20 percent. There is a paint-on duct mastic as well as special tape designed for ductwork. Don't use the all-purpose fabric material that is sometimes called "duct tape," as it is not well suited for this purpose.

Insulate Water Pipes

Any exposed runs of hot water pipes should be insulated. You can find sections of foam insulation that are sized to fit standard water pipes. They usually have a slit cut into one side so that you can simply slip the insulation over the pipe, then close the slit with tape. Both hot and cold water carrying pipes should be insulated if they run through an unheated space.

Reverse Your Ceiling Fans

In summer, ceiling fans run in a counterclockwise direction to push cool air down into the room, but in winter you can reverse the direction of the blades so that they go in a clockwise direction to aid in cold weather comfort. When rotating clockwise, the blades pull air up from the room, which forces the warm air that collects near the ceiling to fall down along the walls and back into the room. There is usually a switch to let you change the blade's direction. Just remember that ceiling fans help warm and cool people by air circulation—they don't change the temperature of the room. So remember to turn them off when the room is empty. When used to circulate warm air back down into a room, make sure to run the fan at the slowest speed.

Ceiling fan looking up in model home.
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Ceiling fan blades that turn in a clockwise direction help move heated air near the ceiling down toward the floor. Run the fan at its slowest speed.

Turn Off Outdoor Faucets

After you store your garden hose away for the winter, shut off the water to the outdoor faucets from an indoor shutoff valve location. Then go outside and open the faucet to allow any remaining water to flow out. Close the faucet again. If your shutoff valve has a bleeder cap on it, unscrew it to drain remaining water from the valve. If it doesn't, it is a good idea to leave the faucet open to protect the pipe should there be remaining water that freezes. A better solution is to have a frost-free outdoor faucet installed.

Protect Your Sprinkler System

While you are getting your yard ready for winter, don't forget about in-ground sprinkler systems. The best course is to have the water lines blown out with compressed air. Figuring the right air pressure can be tricky because too much air can damage the sprinkler heads. A sprinkler contractor can handle this chore for you.

Clean Your Gutters

Clean or have your gutters cleaned once the leaves have fallen. Clogged gutters can contribute to the damage caused by ice dams—the phenomenon in which snow melts on the roof, then flows down and refreezes along the eave lines, where it can back up under roof shingles.

The man cleans the gutters on the roof
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Remove leaves and other debris from roof gutters to keep them clear.

Closing a Vacation House

Houses in cold climates that will be vacant most of the winter require special attention. You will still need to clean the gutters and protect outdoor faucets. But most people who leave for the winter turn the heat down to 50 degrees or lower. The idea is to provide enough heat to keep the pipes from freezing. Of course, that won't help much during a prolonged power outage. A better idea is to shut off the water at the main shutoff valve and then open the faucet to drain the system. You should also drain andy water heaters that have storage tanks. A plumber can use compressed air to blow out the water pipes to be doubly safe. Some other chores include:

  • Stopping mail and newspaper deliveries
  • Cleaning out the refrigerator and pantry
  • Unplugging all appliances
  • Letting your neighbors know you are leaving

Fran J. Donegan

Fran Donegan is a writer and editor who specializes in covering remodeling, construction and other home-related topics. In addition to his articles and blogs appearing in numerous print and digital media outlets, he is the former executive editor of the consumer magazine Today's Homeowner and the managing editor of Creative Homeowner Press, a book publisher. Fran is the author of two books: Paint Your Home (Reader's Digest) and Pools and Spas (Creative Homeowner Press).