Protect your home from winter temperatures
© January 11, 2010
Old man winter's making his presence known early and heartily in Hampton Roads, blowing in 2010 with bone-chilling temperatures.
Thank goodness for the haven of a warm house.
Yet each year homeowners face costly - if not dangerous - issues related to winter weather's impact on their houses' major systems.
Fortunately, most can be prevented. Local experts shared their timely know-how for safely and efficiently buttoning up the house again teeth-chattering cold.
A heated issue
The easiest way to wear down a forced-air heating system is to neglect its filters, said Tim Lewis of Chesapeake, president of Ivan's Heating and Cooling, Inc.
"Every central system has at least one," whether located within the furnace or behind the grill of a wall or ceiling return, Lewis said. As filters get dirtier, they significantly reduce the system's efficiency and can cause damage to the unit - both at a cost to the homeowner.
Lewis recommends monthly replacement of pleated filters.
"When your power bill arrives, change your air filter," he recommended. "It's a visual reminder every month," and the savings is usually reflected in the bill.
Air flow to outdoor heat pump units should also remain unobstructed by vegetation, snow, garbage cans, debris and other items.
Filters for hydronic (hot water) heating systems, using radiators or baseboards, should be changed as necessary upon inspection by professionals. Have oil-fueled systems inspected annually and all other systems inspected at least every two years.
The air apparent
Tend to indoor air quality while hunkered down for winter, too, advised Ray Walsh, managing partner at Virginia Home Performance in Virginia Beach.
"If systems located inside the boundaries of the house aren't functioning properly, they can spill the by-products of combustion - such as carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and water vapor - into the living space," he said.
Some older systems are not "direct-vented, or sealed-combustion, and that's when they can leak," Walsh added.
A professional inspection might find issues such as a cracked heat exchanger, poor drafting, blocks or misalignments. Bad air from an attached garage can seep into the house through floorboards and spaces. Any home with a gas or oil furnace, non-electric stand-alone heater or attached garage should also be equipped with carbon monoxide detectors, Walsh said.
Have your chimney inspected and cleaned before using a wood-burning fireplace. Cracks inside can lead to a house fire, while build-up of contaminants can be hazardous.
Walsh doesn't recommend wood-burning fireplaces or stoves, because most people don't open windows for safe and proper ventilation, he said.
Never let anyone fall asleep near a fire, he warned.
Keep warm air in and pests out. Insulate attics and walls, replace inefficient weather stripping on doors and windows, caulk drafty spaces, fill unintended holes in the exterior and spray expandable foam to seal around plumbing and dryer vents, Walsh added.
Water, water, everywhere
To prevent plumbing pipes from freezing, fix all drips and leaks from indoor and outdoor sources, including toilets and faucets, experts say. A small drip can become a solid ice plug, forc ing pipes to crack.
Disconnect garden hoses and shut down sprinkler systems. Sprinkler systems should be "blown out" to remove water, which could freeze and crack underground pipes.
"Most of the time, it's not the temperature" that causes plumbing freezes, "it's the wind blowing directly on exposed pipes," said Richard Wilson, president of E.B. & Ray Wilson Inc., a Norfolk plumbing and mechanical company.
Keep foundation vents closed during winter, Wilson said. Wind can open automatic vent dampers, so seal them from the outside.
Water pipes exposed to wind or extreme temperatures - beneath the house, outside or in the garage, for instance - can be insulated with preformed foam tubes or heat tape, Wilson said.
He warned, however, that he has seen plastic water lines melted by malfunctioning heat tape.
In extreme settings, double-insulate. Shield exterior water spigots by wrapping them with towel and/or affixing a foam cover.
Don't let your home's interior temperature drop below 60 degrees, Wilson advised, especially if you have a hot water heating system.
Also, be sure your home's exterior wall cavities are insulated where pipes exist. Open cabinet doors leading to plumbing located behind exterior walls and let your home's heat warm those spaces.
Before going away for extended periods, consider cutting off water at the main shutoff valve if you don't have a heating system that requires water. If you do shut off the water, cut off electrical power to your water heater or dial down a gas water heater to vacation mode, Wilson said.
Tankless units mounted outdoors should also be shut off and drained if left unattended.
Know where your home's master water shutoff valve is located and how to use it. If a pipe should burst, shutting down the source will prevent further damage.
Sometimes older valves can snap due to fatigue, Wilson said. Consider having a professional install a new main cutoff line that's easy to access, or buy a water key from a hardware store to cut off flow at the meter near the street.
Homes and their systems vary. For more information about any of these details, consult a reputable professional. Then don your slippers, prop your feet and sip cocoa until the birds come home.