Jumping Jack Frost – A Winter Tune Up Treatise
One of the great joys of living in Canada is the change of seasons. Autumn’s colors and crispness will soon be making way for winter’s exciting first snowfall. Of course, one of the great burdens of living in Canada is the extreme conditions we ask ourselves and our houses to live through.
That burden can be lighter for both you and your house with regular maintenance. As good cooking and great paint jobs can attest, success lies in the prep work. Now is the time to get moving to ready your house for a cold winter and a wet spring. Here are our suggestions for a simple pre-winter tune-up.
Tools You May Need
- Sharpened eyeball
The brunt of the weather abuse is borne by the roof and the exterior skin of the house.
Get a ladder, a pair of binoculars, or a trusted roofer, and check the roof. If you have a sloped roof, look for shingles that are cracked, curled, loose, damaged, or missing. Repair where needed. Pay attention to the junctions between the roof and chimneys, pipes, and walls, for example – the metal flashings often need re-securing or re-caulking. If you have a flat roof, clean off leaves and branches, and cut back overhanging tree limbs. On the roof membrane, look for bulges, worn spots, or split seams. Flashings are important here also.
While you are up there, you should have a look at the chimney, if there is one. Brick chimneys may have missing mortar or loose bricks, and should have a screen to keep animals out. Metal chimneys should be free from rust.
Eavestroughs and Downspouts
While at roof level, be sure to clean and re-secure the eavestroughs. We cannot overstate the importance of having free flowing and leak free gutters and downspouts on the overall health of the house, especially the basement. If your eavestroughs can’t control the rain or melting snow, the ground will get soaked. Soaked ground means much higher risk of a leaky basement. Keep your basement in mind while you are dangling from the edge of the roof!
Follow the downspouts to ground level to double check where they dump the water. Above ground spouts should be well connected at the elbow, and discharge at least six feet away from the nearest wall, or at a point where run-off will be carried away from the house. For any house older than about 40 years, downspouts draining below ground should be considered for disconnecting from the below grade pipe system, and extending to drain above ground. This is an easy and surprisingly effective basement leakage cure in many older houses.
Speaking of the basement again, take a tour around the house to check how the ground directs traffic. Any and all surfaces next to the walls should be sloped to shed water away. Bad grading is another common and preventable cause of basement leakage. This is exponentially more important on warm winter days – melting snow runs quickly across the surface of still frozen ground. If the grading is bad, it will flow right to the house, and possibly right into the basement. Now is the time to grab the shovel and re-slope the grass, or call a paving contractor or handy person to correct a negatively sloping driveway or walkway.
During the exterior walkabout, check the windows and doors for any wood in need of paint, and any joints that need re-caulking. Check also the caulking at pipes, vents, and other wall penetrations.
Inside the house, we are going to need heat. Lots of it.
The most important pre-winter activity can be done by anybody no matter what their skill level, for usually low cost, in about 2 minutes: pick-up the phone, and schedule a heating system maintenance call. Even a new unit needs this check. The technician will clean the burners and fan, lubricate the moving parts, change the filter and check the operation of the important safety mechanisms. If the service is to be done later in the heating season, you can start on the right foot by replacing or cleaning the furnace air filter. If you have a humidifier you should clean it out as well.
Once we have heat, let’s do what we can to keep it in the house.
If you live in a new house, odds are good your windows and doors are well sealed. Old windows and doors, and even some newer ones, may need sealing to keep heat in and cold out. One approach would be to replace them. Luckily, great improvements can be made with simple weather stripping kits available at any hardware store. Due to the tremendous variation in shapes and sizes, we could write a novel about how to do this, but all you really need to do is to find the pre-packaged material that has a picture of your window or door, or something close to it, and follow the instructions.
The previous suggestions are the most important winter tune-up steps. Other good ideas include cleaning the heating grates, especially on the big cold air returns, cleaning and lubricating exhaust fans, and cleaning out the dryer vent and cover. If you have electric baseboard heaters, vacuum the dust off the interior fins, and make sure drapes and curtains are several inches above their hot surfaces.