Winter is Coming: This is How to Keep the Heat Inside

September 30, 2014

Posted in macstaff

Winter comes early up here in the Rockies, and you can’t start too soon getting ready for the cold, snowy months ahead.  One of the critical factors in maintaining the health of your family and your floors as temperatures plummet is keeping the internal environment of your home as stable and balanced as possible. Here, we offer a few tips to help you stay warm through the winter.

1. Seal leaks and drafts

In the average home, something like 30% of all heat loss occurs around doors and windows.  Sometimes they are not sealed tightly enough, or perhaps they are not thick enough to hold in the heat.  In either case, there are plenty of things you can do to prevent leakage in these areas.

Some trouble spots to watch are windows and door frames, outside vents for dryers, baseboards, electrical boxes and outlets, plumbing fixtures, ceiling fixtures, attic hatches, and places where ducts connect to outside walls.

Most leaks around doors and windows can be sealed up with caulking (inside and out), sealant, or weather stripping, and you can use foam gaskets behind light switch and outlet covers to stop the flow of air.

2. Insulate your windows

Of course, not all of the heat loss around windows seeps through cracks and gaps.  Windows themselves are pretty decent conductors of heat, relative to your insulated walls, and will conduct the heat in your home right on out to the great outdoors.

To combat this effect, many people in cold climates replace screens with storm windows and doors come the fall.  These install and uninstall fairly easily and can reduce the amount of heat lost through windows by as much as 50%.  A cheaper, albeit a less elegant version of this solution, is to cover the insides of windows with plastic sheeting (available at any hardware store) that reduces heat transfer.

Layering curtains or finding heavier drapery to hang over windows and glass doors can also help to insulate these vulnerable places.  Remember to open the drapes on south-facing windows during daylight hours, though, to pull in as much of the sun’s warmth (and get as much sunlight for yourself) as you can.

3. Maintain your fireplace

Fireplaces are another heat sucker, often draining more heat from a house when not in use than they provide when in use.  To help lessen this effect, be sure to keep the flue damper tightly in place when the fireplace is not in use.  If you feel a draft even with the damper closed, it may be warped, worn, or rusted and need replacing.

You will also want to make an examination of the fireplace inside and chimney outside.  If you notice any bricks out of place or open mortar joints, especially inside the fireplace, this is something you will want to get fixed right away.  Not only can some heat energy leak out through these spaces, but it presents a serious fire hazard.  Do not use your fireplace until these things are repaired.

If you find using the fireplace too much bother, consider sealing it up entirely.  You can do this easily using a stiff piece of something like plywood or cardboard, or even something with insulation, and using foam sealant to seal it in place.  Then just set a nice fireplace screen in front of it and check the sealant from time to time.

4. Reverse your ceiling fans

This is an easy one.  Make sure your ceiling fans are set to turn in a clockwise rotation (you can change the rotation on most fans with a switch on the base).  According to the government’s Energy Star program, this will produce an updraft, pushing warm air that has risen to the ceiling back into the room.

5. Take care of your heating system

Hopefully, by now you have run your heater at least once to make sure everything is working properly.  As the temperature drops, getting faulty furnaces and boilers fixed takes longer and longer and the discomfort you have to suffer while waiting gets much worse very quickly.

Before you start running the heater full time, you will want to replace the air filter, for your health and to maximize efficiency.  Experts also recommend cleaning the unit once a year according to the manufacturer’s recommendation.  It may even be a good idea to get the unit inspected every year or so to make sure it is functioning at its best and to ensure that it is not putting out excesses of carbon monoxide.

Also, make sure that all your air vents are unblocked and open so that the warm air can circulate through your house instead of just sitting in the air ducts.  Speaking of which, you should also check to make sure those ducts are properly insulated and not just seeping heat into the attic or crawl space in your ceilings and walls.

Since it’s generally more energy efficient to maintain a constant heat (not to mention easier on your floors and wood furniture), try setting the thermostat to turn the heat on when the temperature drops below, say, 68°F.  If you have a whole-house heating system, you can install a programmable thermostat fairly easily, and for as little as $35-40.

If you have old-fashioned hot water radiators, you can increase their heating efficiency by bleeding their valves, releasing any air that might have worked its way inside.  Once they are up and running, try putting a reflector behind them and a fan in front to help spread the warm air out into the room.

6. Make sure you have adequate insulation

All of the above is for naught if your home is not well-insulated.  If heat is leaking out through the huge surface area of your ceiling, it will matter very little how well-sealed your windows and doors are.  Consequently, one of the most important things you can do to ready your house for winter is to make sure that the insulation in your attic is thick enough (the Energy Star program recommends 12 to 15 inches) and is in good repair.  Dirty spots in your insulation can indicate air leaks, so take a look around for these and repair any leaks with low-expansion spray foam made for this purpose.  Making sure your attic insulation is top notch will also help protect your home against ice dams that can form on the roof, but we’ll talk about that in a later post.

Similarly, try to make sure your attached garage, sunroom, and other rooms that are not connected to a central heating system are kept as warm as is reasonably possible, always above freezing.  The best thing is to insulate the garage as well as your do the attic.  It may be a bit of an expense at the outset, but it will save you in the long run.

7. Use humidifiers

Cold winter air has a low capacity for moisture, to begin with, but when you pull that air inside and heat it, the relative humidity can get dangerously low. This can cause respiratory problems for your family and unsightly gaps and cracks in your wood.  Last month, we looked at some creative ways to raise the relative humidity in your home as the air starts to dry.  One of the most reliable and consistent ways is to use a humidifier.  With a humidifier, it is much easier to maintain that healthy RH range of 40-60%.   And, of course, if you have a whole house humidifier installed with your forced air system, now is the time to clean its parts, replace the evaporator pad, and get ready for that sucker to fire up.