How to winter-proof your home

Avoid costly, unexpected surprises by making sure your home can withstand a harsh winter.

Yahoo Homes

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Winter can provide a much-needed respite from mowing and watering grass in sweltering summer temperatures and constantly swatting small, annoying insects. So now that the temperature is dropping, you might be planning to spend all of your free time on the sofa watching TV.

But don't pick up that remote just yet. There are six home improvement projects you really need to tackle in order to get ready for the winter. The good news? Unlike your grass - which requires constant mowing and watering - if you perform these winter projects now, you can relax on the sofa for years to come.

Must-Do Project #1: Replace Your Roof

Is your roof older than your college-age kids? If so, you may want to replace your roof now - while the weather isn't too harsh.

In fact, while you may have only minimal leaks or damage now, if you wait until the middle of winter, a severe snow or ice storm can exert enough pressure to cause the roof to collapse.

But how can you tell if your roof needs replacing?

Home improvement expert Jeanne Huber recommends replacing the roof if it's older than 20 years or if the majority of the roof has seen better days.

[Time to replace your aging roof? Click here to find a home contractor today.]

Huber, who writes a weekly home improvement column for The Washington Post, notes some early warning signs to observe:

  • Inside the house there may be water stains on the heater, damp areas around the fireplace, and dark spots on the ceiling; in addition, there may be peeling paint underneath the roof overhang.
  • Outside, look for buckled shingles, cracks in the caulk and rusted flashing, in addition to an accumulation of asphalt in the gutters. Also, the presence of moss may signal that the roof is decaying.

If Huber has just described your roof, it's time to consider replacing it.

Must-Do Project #2: Install Heated Floors

If you cringe at the thought of icy-cold feet during the winter, installing heated floors is a must-do project that will increase your comfort level and save on heating costs.

In fact, according to the National Association of Home Builder's (NAHB) article "LSC Members Provide Green Heating Choices for Energy-conscious Consumers," radiant floor heating systems allow homeowners to be comfortable at temperatures 6 to 8 degrees lower than the homeowners who use forced heating systems, based on studies conducted by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).

Sounds great, but what the heck is radiant floor heating, you ask? Essentially, heated cables or tubes secured to mats are installed under a floor composed of an inert material such as tile or stone, according to the DIY Network. The heat is powered on and off by a programmable thermostat.

[Want a toasty floor this winter? Click here to find a contractor in your area.]

Another benefit of heated flooring is that you will have a healthier home, adds the DIY Network. How? Dust will not be blown around your home - as it would with a central heating system - and there will be no place for allergens to accumulate.

If you want to enjoy toasty feet and a clean home this winter, consider the versatility provided by heated flooring.

Must-Do Project #3: Fix/Replace Your Heater

The worst snowstorm of the century is not the time to find out there's a problem with your heating or ventilation system. Take precautionary measures now so your heating system won't fail you when you need it most.

A heating system should be regularly serviced by a professional who can ensure that everything is working properly. If you don’t get your heater checked, the ASHRAE warns that accumulations of dirt on the coils, fans, and filters will hinder airflow and can possibly damage the system.

ASHRAE also recommends taking some preventative measures of your own. Here are a few inspections you can make before your heating system starts working full-time this winter:

  • Check heating ducts for leaks and patch them with the proper certified tape from your local hardware store.
  • Check water tanks for insulation. For older models without insulation, ASHRAE recommends placing an insulating jacket around the tank, taking into consideration manufacturer recommendations of course. The first six feet of pipes connected to the water heater should also be insulated.
  • Examine your home for furniture or objects that obstruct vents or radiators, which can reduce or block the flow of heat, notes ASHRAE.

If you're still having trouble with your heating system, or if you find yourself in over your head during inspections, it's best to contact a heating and ventilation professional.

Must-Do Project #4: Install Energy-Efficient Windows

Before the frigid weather arrives, you'll also want to make sure that your windows are an effective barrier against the harsh effects of winter.

For example, if your windows are old and inefficient, they are providing an avenue for a considerable amount of heat to exit the house. As if that weren't a good enough reason to consider replacing them, the Department of Energy adds that an estimated 10 to 25 percent of your heating bill is the direct result of heat seeping out of your windows.

Before making a window purchase, however, the Department of Energy suggests studying energy performance ratings. Also look for ENERGY STAR certified windows, which provide a minimum energy performance rating criteria by climate.

[Have your old, drafty windows seen better days? Click here to find the right contractor for the job.]

You might consider making the switch from single-pane to double-pane windows, says the Energy Department. Double-pane windows, of course, provide more insulation, which helps keep warm air inside the house.

Must-Do Project #5: Insulate Pipes

Because plumbing pipes are vulnerable to bursting during winter months, insulating them is another must-do winter project. But how do you know which pipes need to wear sweaters this winter?

Homeowners should be concerned of pipes when the temperature is at 20 degrees Fahrenheit or below, says the Building Research Council (BRC) in an article published by the Weather Channel. However, even if the temperature doesn't dip that low, your pipes could still be in danger.

Why? The BRC discovered that in some cases, pipes can burst as a result of other climate elements. For example, on a windy day, cold wind can enter through cracks in a wall and cool uninsulated pipes to their breaking point.  

Pipes in attics, crawl spaces, or on outside walls are more vulnerable, warns the BRC, especially if they are located on outside walls that have holes for the cable or telephone lines.

So what can you do to help shield your pipes?

The Weather Channel recommends wrapping them in rubber foam or fiberglass sleeves. In addition, caulk holes in areas near the pipes where air can flow in.

If you're still worried that your little pipes might not be able to make it through the winter, a plumber may be able to reroute exposed pipes to a more protected location - so you don't have any surprises this winter.

Must-Do Project #6: Fireproof Your Home

The winter months pose the greatest threat for electrical house fires, according to the U.S. Fire Administration's "Factsheet on Home Electrical Fire Prevention." December and January have the highest incidences of fire because people tend to be indoors more often and use more lighting and heating during this time.

Most electrical fires are the result of old wiring problems with cords, or overloaded circuits. Fortunately, the U.S. Fire Administration provides preventative maintenance tips that can protect against many electrical wiring problems:

  • Examine your appliances and replace any worn or ragged cords.
  • Never place appliances on wet countertops or floors. Be careful with kitchen and bathroom appliances.
  • Don't overload extension cords and wall outlets.
  • Keep flammable material such as clothing and curtains at least three feet from portable heaters.
  • Use childproof electrical outlet covers if you have small children.
  • Call an electrician if your lights are flickering or if you have a cracked wall outlet.

Electrical problems should be taken care of as soon as possible to prevent the possibility of fires.

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