The weather is perfect, just right for a jaunt to the Cape, a touch-football game, or a lazy day in the yard without a worry in the world. But there’s something lurking in the corner of your brain that is likely to spoil this idyll: How will my house make it through the vicissitudes of Old Man Winter?
It’s a good question, and right now there are seven chores that demand your attention. Some are easy, some are harder, and those too hard for an amateur are best left to a pro. To prepare, set aside a good chunk of time and gather the tools you’ll need.
First, wash them. Clean windows are a delight, brightening up the house even in winter. Even if you only do the outside glass, it will improve things a lot. If you’re skittish about heights, hire a pro.
Washing windows will help you see what shape they are in. Check storms. If they are loose and rattling in their frames, they are not doing very much. Buy new ones.
If you have old puttied wood windows, and the putty (glazing compound) is coming off, replace the compound, because broken compound loses heat. Chip or scrape off what putty is left, and paint the dado where the putty was with boiled linseed oil, which will soak into the wood and make the putty stick better by preventing the wood from sucking out oils in the putty. Then work new putty into the space against the wood and glass and smooth out with a putty knife.
It is fussy, slow work, so consider hiring a pro. It may cost $200 or more per window, so you may want to consider replacement windows. Price depends on size, of course. Be wary of replacement window ads, and do plenty of research before you buy.
Roof: Inspect your roof with binoculars. If your roof is more than 20 years old, or even 30, and there are no suspicious looking cracks, or curled or warped shingles, there is nothing to worry about for a while. If you need a new one, roofers will work in almost any weather through the winter, but the sooner the better. The argument against cold weather application is that the tar strip, which melts in warm weather to seal the shingles, will not melt and seal properly. This is often disputed by roofers, who say that eventually there will be warm weather to seal them.
Siding: Look for loose boards, whether they’re vinyl or wood or fiber-cement, and put them back or replace them. Replace loose or broken shingles. To remove a shingle, split it in several narrow bits, pulling them down and out. Then pull any nails that you can feel under the shingles, or drive them flush.
To remove several rows of shingles that have rotted out, usually at the bottom of the wall, pull off the several rows (called courses), and start at the bottom. To install new shingles, use a ledger board (a 1-by-4 straight board) nailed level to allow the proper exposure, and allow the installer (you) to put on the shingles nice and level. Shingles are best installed 5 inches to the weather. Wood clapboards are relatively easy to install level (use a spirit level).
Trim: Look for decayed or broken areas. You might find decay at the bottom of side casings on windows. Replace heavy decay by cutting off the decayed area and putting in pressure-treated wood, which can be primed and painted in the spring. For minor decay, dig it out, treat it with bleach, rinse, and let dry. Then apply a wood hardener, fill with a wood rot filler, sand smooth, and prime and paint. Work fast; the material is an epoxy, and will harden in 10 to 15 minutes.
Here’s an easy trick to save heating fuel. Take the plates off your switch and outlet boxes to see if there is anything like a small sheet of foam insulation in place. If there aren’t any, buy kits in hardware and big box stores that contain foam covers for outlets and switches. Just unscrew the plates, push on the foam covers that are holed to accommodate the switch opening and outlets, and put back the plates. If you see open spaces in those switch and outlet boxes, leave them empty. They should not be filled with insulation.
If your house is under 20 years old, you probably don’t need insulation because it’s already there. In old houses, two places could use extra insulation or any insulation. Check the attic. If there are no floorboards, and maybe 6 to 12 inches of insulation between the floor joists, you can put up to 4 feet of unbacked fiberglass batts or blown-in cellulose. The only caveat is not to fill eaves with anything if they are ventilated with eave vents or, more appropriate, long continuous vents in the soffits, which are the under-part of the roof overhang. This is very tricky; you have to lay down pieces of plywood as flooring on the joists; it’s not unusual to put your foot through the ceiling if you miss any flooring. If in doubt, have a pro do it.
If there are floorboards, you can take them out and put in more insulation, or take out some to hold more insulation, leaving an area of flooring for storage.
Now, check the basement. Chances are there is no insulation in the ceiling. The thinking that was prominent in those good old days is that warm air rises, so there is no need for insulation in the basement ceiling. Wrong! Heated air in the house will escape in all directions — up, down, and sideways. Standard insulation in a basement ceiling is 6-inch fiberglass with the paper vapor barrier up, touching the ceiling above.
Oil heating systems usually have annual inspections from the dealer, for a price. What you can do is replace all filters, which can be done two or three times a season for more efficiency. That goes for hot water and steam systems, and hot air. Gas systems should be inspected at least every other year. If you have oil heat, save big by replacing your system with a gas heating setup.
Mold is a problem any time of year. In summer you see it outside a lot, where it is best left alone. Same goes for moss, algae, and lichen, except when it is on siding, trim, and roofs. It is easily treated with a solution of 1 part bleach and 3 parts water. Wear skin and eye protection when working with bleach. All the above will yield except lichen, which can be handled with Simple Green and other citrus products.
When cold weather arrives, the mold can thrive inside the house. On occasions, house denizens are horrified when black mold appears — sometimes as stains, sometimes as black dots — on walls and other places in the house.
It appears indoors because the owners have closed up the house like a drum. Venting the house a few times a month will help stop any spreading of mold. Turning on exhaust fans for a few minutes a day, week, or month will do wonders.
Basements that smell dank and damp do so because of mold and no ventilation. So, ventilate, ventilate, ventilate. Open windows for cross-ventilation, and install burglar bars for security. You can even put an exhaust fan in one of the windows.
What you wear and how you sleep can really save fuel. Turn the thermostat down to 60 at night and try it at 68 or 65 in the day. With the right attitude and clothing, you will get used to it. There was an old wives’ tale that claimed that setting the thermostat down at night cost more fuel to bring it up in the morning than was saved all night, but it is just that: an old wives’ tale.
Use flannel sheets on the bed. Wool is the best blanket you can get, though there are good substitutes. All this will keep you busy, warm, and maybe even content until April, when summer beckons.
Peter Hotton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.