Late fall maintenance critical to prepare houses for winter
by Rick Moon, House and Home
If you think winter is hard on people, think about your house.
Day after day, it’s exposed to the elements. There’s no protection. No hiding. No way to escape the season’s harsh icy touch.
Snow piles on the roof and along its sides. Sub-freezing temperatures assault its skin. Cold air seeks every crevice to sneak inside.
In human terms, winter is months of unending stress for a house. Being unprepared is like planning to wear open-toe shoes in February.
Common sense dictates taking certain steps to ready one’s home for the often unyielding season ahead. Given the unpredictable weather patterns in 2012, shortcuts are not advised.
“I think this year you could see a lot of neglect because people were spoiled last year,” said Jeff Kurz of JK Contractors, Milwaukee. “This is Wisconsin — anything can happen.”
The best advice, to borrow a line from a famous youth organization, is to be prepared.
Water is a root cause of many home problems. In its frozen form — ice — water can be especially destructive to pipes, gutters or anything left undrained.
Cleaning gutters is a must-do in late fall. Gutters clogged with leaves, seeds and other debris trap water, which freezes and splits gutter seams. When temperatures warm, water can leak from a broken seam directly onto a foundation — the worst possible place.
“If your gutters are overflowing, you’re putting pressure on both your roofline and your foundation,” said Bob Quigley of Brillo Home Improvements, Milwaukee.
Water unable to drain through a clogged gutter can build up into an ice dam. These mini-glaciers push under shingles and wreak havoc on interior ceilings and walls.
“Gutters that don’t flow are probably the biggest reason for ice backups on roofs,” Kurz said.
Sprinkling calcium chloride into gutters will safely melt ice, Kurz said. For hard-to-reach areas, nylon stockings filled with calcium chloride can be put in place to avoid needed repeat visits.
Rock salt should not be used to melt ice, Kurz said. While cheaper than calcium chloride, the substance damages shingles, gutters and siding.
Higher on the roof, Kurz recommended checking chimneys for cracked or broken mortar. Water freezing in chimney joints can break apart tuck pointing, potentially leading to an expensive rebuild. If the chimney is inaccessible, a professional inspection is smart.
Up and down, inside and out
Ice is an obvious enemy to houses, yet its origin is often encouraged from within. Insufficient attic insulation is a key villain. Heat escaping through an attic melts rooftop snow, which refreezes as an ice dam further down.
Adding attic insulation can not only prevent roof issues, but save significantly on energy costs. An “R” value of 38 is recommended. The actual amount of insulation varies on its type, whether it’s blown-in or old-fashioned fiberglass batting.
“People don’t realize the savings they’d have if they insulated the attic,” Kurz said. “We see a lot of attics with three inches of insulation from 30 years ago and no ‘R’ value.”
Venting attics is also critical for preventing ice dams. Bringing outdoor air into the space equalizes its temperature, reducing rooftop snow melt. A 40-foot-long soffit should have at least four vents, Kurz said.
“You can never have too many,” he said. “More is far better than not enough.”
Raking snow off roofs is another way to minimize ice dams. A roof rake — essentially a metal blade with extender poles to reach high spots — is a sound investment for most homeowners in cold climates. Buy early, though — stores are often cleaned out by mid-winter, especially in snowier years.
The roof area is not the only danger spot for ice. At a lower altitude, outdoor water spigots should be turned off to prevent burst pipes. The main step is shutting off the inside valve of the supply line. The spigot should be opened to drain any remaining water afterward, and closed.
Caulking openings in exterior walls — such as around a water spigot — can eliminate small air leaks that cause uncomfortable drafts inside. Other trouble spots are light fixtures, window frames and the area around basement windows. Mice can sneak through tiny openings, so sealing off ground-level gaps prevents uninvited guests.
The sill box area in basements — the space between the top of a concrete foundation and the first floor — is an oft-neglected source of significant heat loss. A quick answer is to fill the area between joists with fiberglass insulation. However, Quigley warned that moisture buildup can result.
A more thorough, and labor-intensive, solution is to cut and install rigid foam insulation, filling in around the edges with caulk or expanding foam. Closed-cell insulation provides the greatest seal, Quigley said, but requires professional installation.
Some answers to keeping cold out — and heat in — seem obvious. Yet, they sometimes are overlooked.
“I’m amazed when I drive around and see storm windows open in the middle of winter,” Quigley said. “You’re leaving just one pane of glass between the cold and the inside of your house.”
Yes, storm windows should be checked to ensure they are closed. Swapping out screen inserts in doors for their glass counterparts is wise, too. Adding weather stripping around doors and windows reduces air leakage.
Preparing a house for winter is often less about skill than diligence. The simplest tasks are the most critical. Just completing them, though, makes the winter easier for all concerned — both humans and houses alike.