There’s something romantic or heartwarming about seeing a home in a clearing in the woods or down a lane with a glow of lamps or lanterns spilling out the windows and a wisp of smoke curling from a chimney or flue. While such a scene can warm the heart, making that home as comfortable and tight as it appears can take more than just a passive thought. It takes a good bit of home winterization to get through the winter months comfortably.
There’s a quote by an unknown author which puts it plainly: “Winter is the season in which people try to keep the house as warm as it was in the summer, when they complained about the heat.” Still, the goal is to make your home—whether it be a tent, portable building, camping trailer or solid frame or masonry home—a dependable escape from Old Man Winter’s stifling grasp.
Buttoning up your cabin is a simple matter or stopping cold air from coming in, warmth from going out, and developing a dependable and consistent source of heat. The first step is making an honest assessment of what you have and what work needs to be done. Home winterization improvements are generally simple steps any homeowner can accomplish with basic hand tools.
First Step in Home Winterization is to Take a Look
As an example of what to look at when making your home winterization plan, let’s consider this writer’s home. First, we’ll get a picture of what we’re working with, then we can take an informational look at where we can make some simple, low-cost improvements to keep the cold at bay.
Our wood-frame house was built in the 1880s out of sawmill-cut framing lumber and wood siding on a stone foundation. As is customary in older homes, additions were added in later decades using building practices of that time. The walls are true 2×6 timbers with wood siding on the outside and lathe strips and plaster on the inside. The rafters were hand-cut with pine strips covered by cedar shake shingles. The rooms originally had ten-foot ceilings of tongue-and-groove pine boards covered by a thick wallpaper.
The house still uses its original single-pane poured windows. The single glass windows are a virtual heat sink, letting the warmth inside migrate through the single layer of glass to be absorbed by the cold outside. In this case, the windows add to the historic appeal of the home, so we’ve opted for maximizing (instead of replacing) them with our winterizing efforts and remodeling. The original portion of our house was built about 18 inches off the ground. The foundation was made from stones found in the region, some cut for the corners and others simply fit and mortared together. There’s a root cellar beneath one room where vegetables canned by the previous owner were stored, along with a wooden bin that housed garden-grown potatoes kept stored in layers of lime. Three rooms added to the home in the early 1900s—a kitchen, bathroom, and third bedroom—were unfortunately built with little thought to future crawlspace access or material integrity. A thin layer of foundation stones beneath the soil surface holds the floor sill, which has had to be replaced over the years as moisture and termites found the untreated wood.
Originally the home was heated by multiple wood, or coal, stoves. There are three flues sealed up inside the walls. Like so many homes of the day, there’s a center room with bedrooms and a dining room extending from it; no hallways. I’m sure the middle room held the largest heat source, which fed the bedrooms with residual radiant heat. Wiring was added some decade after the home was built, and we finally installed attic-mounted ductwork and a furnace and central air in 2001.
That said, start by looking for leaks. As you progress around the house multiple times checking the different components—foundation, windows, doors, siding, soffits, roof, et cetera—carry a notebook and list all concerns. You’re not going to be fixing as you go, and if you rely on your memory to recall what all needs tightened up at a later time I can assure you’ll miss a few things. As mentioned earlier, incoming cold and outgoing heat are equal adversaries in making your dwelling less than comfortable on a winter’s day. Even the most efficient heat source will not do the job if you’re constantly warming cold air from the outside … or heating the yard along with the dwelling.
The first rule is that heat rises and cold settles. While cold air will enter around a window or soffit, let’s start at the bottom and work up. Inspect the foundation. Look for cracks or gaps. Check any built-in vents to assure they are closed for the season. Foundation vents with screens can be left open in summer to allow cool air to reach the crawlspace and help cool the floors. Leaving them open in cold weather can mean cold feet and indoor heat robbed through absorption through the floorboards. Also, check close where different sections of the foundation intersect at corners.
A little later on we’ll discuss winterization of the plumbing beneath the floor, but for now, we’re only looking for heat-robbing exterior concerns.
Next, inspect windows and doors. Look for visible gaps around facings and sills. At the same time check for gaps in the doors where the actual door meets the jamb. Inspect windows where the upper and lower panes meet in the middle. If the drapes move when the wind blows then you’ve got a leak. Another way to check is to move a lighter or lit candle, or—even better—a lit incense stick, along an inch or so from the sealed edges of windows and doors on a windy day and look for the flame or smoke being pushed about by an otherwise undetectable breeze. While these gaps might be small, even invisible upon first inspection, the amount of heat they can rob from a home is unbelievable.
There’s no mystery that single-pane windows are thieves of heat. A double—or better, triple—pane window has a gas-filled air gap that provides a buffer between the cold outer pane and warm inter pane on a winter day. A single pane window is little more than a hole in your wall. It might not let the wind or rain through, but the glass will constantly be wicking the indoor heat out and the outdoor cold in. Still, for many reasons a homeowner can find himself or herself working with the older, less-efficient windows—you cannot afford new replacement windows, used single-pane windows were within your budget while building your home, or you choose to keep the old windows for aesthetic reasons. If your choice of dwelling is a temporary or portable structure you might have opted to install cheaper “storm” windows as a starting point. A quality double-pane, vinyl-framed replacement window can start at $200 and go up from there. Later we’ll talk about the cheap way to add a second “pane” to your single windows to dramatically save on heat loss.
Next comes looking at the siding or whatever covers the exterior of your dwelling. Whether it be 4×8 sheet goods, board and batten, wood or vinyl siding, brick or stone, any exterior can have leaks… whether due to poor quality installation, or shifting or shrinkage of an older surface. Wood products dry and shrink over time. Moisture can gather in the mortar between bricks or stones and freeze and eventually open up gaps. Vinyl siding ultimately becomes brittle after years of ultra-violet and weather exposure. Transition areas between two exterior surfaces, even with proper flashing, can open over time and create a crack or even a gap.
Next check the roofline. Look for gaps between wall covering and soffits. Look for missing or damaged shingles, or openings along flashing around vents or flues. Chances are if you have flashing problems you’ve already seen signs by way or water stains or actual dripping during heavy rain or snow or ice thaws. But remember that heat rises, so any problems with the roof or flashing fit can result in warmth escaping upward.
Address Your Home Winterization List
With a list made of possible home winterization concerns, it’s time to simply start at the top of the page and address each entry. It makes sense at this point to create a shopping list. Yes, you’ll likely have to make return trips to the hardware store. But you can collect most of what you’ll need on the first visit. When it comes time to actually address your home winterization projects, you will want to buy the supplies first, but since this is an informational article I’ll move ahead with explaining the simple, do-it-yourself fixes needed for each area.
Foundation: Visible cracks in the mortar between stones (blocks, brick, etc.) or concrete walls? Compound, caulk or grout… those are the top three choices. Of the three, grout would be considered the most permanent repair but is primarily for horizontal cracks only. It’s hard to adhere grout to a vertical crack and keep it in place until it dries. Most likely the cracks you find in a foundation will be vertical or close to it. That said, look for crack-filler compound or exterior-grade latex caulk. Compound can be added to foundation cracks with a putty knife or clean paint stir stick. Work to press the material deep into the crack instead of simply smearing it over the surface. You want to eliminate any places for water to pool and freeze deep in the crack.
Caulk comes in a tube and can be easily applied by snipping the end off the applicator on the tube and then squeezing the contents out using a caulk gun. Caulk is usually much more pliable than compound for the first several minutes, and can easily be shot into deep cracks for complete penetration. Regardless of the method you use, spread enough material on the surface of the crack to not allow any water or ice to find its way back in. Caulk will need to be replaced every year or two, while a good grout or compound repair can last from a few years to permanent. Whichever option you choose, make sure the surface of the material around the crack is clean to promote good adhesion.
While you’re buttoning up things down below, make sure any foundation vents are closed for the season. And look to see if there’s some way to add an extra layer of insulation in front of or behind the vents to help block cold air.
Doors: By their very nature slab doors are usually not drafty themselves. It’s how they fit and seal within the frame, or oftentimes how the frame and adjoined trim are sealed within the wall, that is an issue. Start by looking to see if the door is sealing against the jamb within the frame. Newer doors will have a rubber blade- or strip-style seal up both sides and across the top. Factory seals are usually secured by a vinyl or metal strip screwed to the door facing. Older wooden exterior doors will likely have a felt strip nailed, stapled, or glued to the facing, if it has anything at all. Close the door and inspect from the outside to see if the door is firmly touching the seal. If not it’s definitely time to replace the seal.
If it’s a matter of the seal being worn broken down from the effects of weather, new blade or strip-type seals are readily available at the local hardware or farm and home store. Simply remove the old seal and put a duplicate in its place. If you find the door doesn’t have a seal, or wear and time has taken its toll on the door to the point the old factory-style seal will no longer work, consider installing one of the easy-to-use self-adhesive foam strip seals. Start by measuring the length of the vertical runs up the sides of the door as well as the horizontal run at the top. The foam seal will come in a roll. Simply measure the lengths needed and cut with scissors. Start at one end and peel away the adhesive covering and stick the seal to the inside edge of the door jamb. On the sides, it works best to start at the top and work your way down ending at the threshold. While very inexpensive, these foam seals can be very effective in keeping out drafts.
Threshold seals for the bottom of the door come in two main forms—a vinyl “bulb” seal that attaches to the threshold, or a “sweep” that attaches to the bottom interior face of the door. Bulb seals require slightly more skills, but even at that basic hand-tools are all that’s needed… usually a small handsaw, screwdriver, and scissors. Remove the rubber bulb seal from its framework, and measure and cut the frame to fit over the threshold of the door. Secure it down with the supplied screws. Then measure and trim the rubber or vinyl bulb seal to the correct length and reattach in the frame—usually a simple press fit.
Another time-honored way to attack the problem is with a sweep seal. There are many kinds available including rubber and vinyl, and one that looks like thousands of short nylon broom bristles. A rubber or vinyl sweep is usually used for residential applications. The seals attach in one of two ways, a screw-on vinyl or metal strip which holds the rubber or vinyl sweep in place, or a self-adhesive backing… a simple trim to fit, peel and stick application. A bulb seal might take 30 minutes or more to install, while a peel-n-stick sweep seal can be installed in five minutes or less.
The next step is to assure you’re not losing heat or gaining cold air through a poorly-fitted door or window frame. The steps for installing a window or door have improved tremendously in the past several decades. Rubberized adhesive membranes and better replacement door and window designs allow an installer to really “button up” a window or door into a wall nowadays. Most older openings in walls were not installed with such attention to potential air leaks around the perimeter.
While resealing a door or window is not as fast or easy as adding a self-adhesive foam strip or sweep to the bottom of the door, taking the extra steps will pay in big dividends in cost savings from this point forward. Here’s what I suggest. Start by removing either the exterior or interior trim around a door or window. Either way the main concern is always that the trim will split where it is nailed in place. Work with a small pry bar and slowly work your way along the length of the trim pieces. Once the trim is removed set it aside in a safe place. Now look between the door frame and wall framing. What is there? If your house is old or exceptionally draft it’s likely you won’t find anything by air hanging out in there, and a few nails or screws holding the door frame in place.
There are two approaches here. The first is to loosely stuff the open area with batt insulation. You don’t want to tightly wad insulation into a hole. It is much more effective if left loosely packed, but be sure to see that it touches all edges. The other option, which I thoroughly enjoy, is filling those open areas with expanding spray foam. Several companies manufacture the spray-able foam in disposable cans, and it comes in regular or “high fill”. You must use caution when filling a boxed-in area with high fill foam because the expansion from it’s normal chemical reaction can potentially flex boards and cause a door or window to bind. But if you have trim from one side or another of the door or window frame removed you can fill the entire crevice with foam and let the excess expand outside the opening.
Once the foam had had a chance to set up, use a knife or hacksaw blade to trim off the excess flush with the door or window frame. Reattach the facing trim and you have a perfectly-sealed perimeter to block out the scavenging cold air.
Windows: Newer homes usually have double or triple-pane vinyl or metal clad windows. The air gap between the multiple layers is filled with a gas that displaces oxygen and aids in heating and cooling and ultraviolet protection. Many older homes will have single-pane windows, likely set in wood frames. There’s little in the way of aid for help in cooling or heating … except maybe to cool in the winter and heat in the summer. A single pane of glass serves as a heat sink, reaching an average of the temperatures both on the inside and outside. It wicks cold to the hot side, and heat to the cold side. And most old windows also suffer from dried out and cracked glazing which held the glass panes in the wooden frames anyway.
The answer to less drafty windows for years was the addition of storm windows. First in aluminum and then later vinyl frames, storm windows provided the first line of defense against the winter’s cold, and a screen window to keep vermin out when windows were opened in the summertime prior to today’s practice of using central air cooling and never letting the fresh air in.
In homes with single glass windows with the benefit of storm windows, you’ll want to make sure the lower glass is down and in place for the winter. While nowhere near as efficient as dual pane windows, having that second glass as a windbreak can make a significant difference. Removing and replacing window glazing compound is more of a handyman skill than an easy homeowner fix, but if you’re handy and your windows are falling into disrepair you might want to familiarize yourself with the relatively easy fix. A lesser temporary fix is to closely examine the entire window and fill any cracks or gaps around the glass panes with exterior-grade caulk. The repairs will not look as original or smooth as glazing compound, but they will keep out drafts and keep in the heat.
The low-cost window winterization step that anyone can do is a plastic sheet shrinkable film such as the ones made popular by 3M Corporation. The only tool required to apply the film, which becomes akin to an additional pane of glass, is a pair of scissors or sharp knife and a tape measure or ruler. Start by measuring the size of the window frame. Now cut the sheet of clear film one inch larger than the frame. Next, apply the double-sided tape to the window frame, then starting at the top apply the film and work downward keeping it taunt. A better-looking fit can be had by applying heat to the face of the film with an electric handheld hairdryer. Films can be applied to the exterior of the window as another option. While not the most visually appealing, the temporary window applications can offer significant savings for only a few dollars each. One window film can be installed in 10 to 20 minutes from start to finish.
Exterior Surfaces: The next step is addressing any cracks or gaps found in the siding, soffits or roofline. Small gaps in wood sheet goods or board and batten exterior can be patched with wood putty. Gaps, where vinyl siding meets other surfaces, can often be repaired by slightly shifting the siding pieces. Normally vinyl siding is merely a cosmetic covering anyway. The walls will either have a layer of foam insulation or an older layer of siding beneath. When installed properly vinyl siding trim assures moisture is kept out. If your siding was not installed properly and there are gaps where walls intersect or the siding meets other materials such as masonry flues, you might consider using exterior-grade caulk to seal the openings.
Of all winterization measures discussed so far, all can be done by a homeowner with minimal skills or tools required. The final winterization measure mentioned so far requires more skill and is best left to a handyman or other carpenter. Flashing repairs around flues and chimneys and where differing roof angles meet should be left to someone with the proper tools and know-how. Fortunately, the country is rich with handymen and neighbors who possess all kinds of fix-it skills. Many will do small jobs for honest pay, or even trade skills for other labor or goods.
Other Winterization Measures: With the exterior better sealed, now it’s time to turn your attention to the interior. There are several simple, inexpensive things you can do to save on heating costs. The next several suggestions are listed in no particular order, but all are good ideas to address.
Consider more insulation in the attic. One of the best investments in winterization (best because you can get good returns for the investment) is adding more attic insulation. I know, reading the labels of insulation packages can be mind-boggling. But it doesn’t have to be. Just know that more is usually better. You should have a minimum of a foot (12 inches) of insulation in the attic laying on the top of the ceiling.
Like so many things, the higher the insulating properties (the larger “R” value) the higher the cost will be. But do what you can afford, keeping in mind that anything is better than nothing, and more is better than a little. Just remember that when you lay out the insulation it should be snug to the exterior walls to eliminate any air gaps. And insulation works best if not packed too tight. It should maintain nearly the same “fluff” it has when unrolled from the package. Cutting and installing can be done with a utility knife and tape measure.
Winterize electrical receptacles. Any openings in exterior walls, even openings on the interior side only, can let in cold air from inside the walls. Electrical outlet and switch boxes are cut into walls, often with small gaps between the boxes and interior wall covering. Those gaps can be a quarter-inch wide. A typical box is 4-by-2 inches. That quarter-inch gap around the perimeter is equal to a 1-by-3 inch hole in your wall. Let’s say your home has 10 outlets or switches on exterior walls. All total, that’s equivalent to a 5-by-6 inch hole in the interior wall letting cold air in. You’d certainly want to patch that hole, wouldn’t you? Well, you can for pocket change.
Hardware stores and home centers sell outlet gaskets, thin foam rectangles that sit behind the faceplate of a switch or receptacle and insulate the gap between the box and surrounding wallboard. Installing them is the easiest repair discussed yet. Simply remove the cover plate of the outlet or switch, slip the foam gasket in place, and replace the cover. It’s that simple but can really save you from heating unwanted outside air.
Winterize the water lines. In many cases wrapping water lines with insulation is unnecessary. But if the crawlspace of a home is not sealed up—such as a mobile home with inadequate underpinning—or a water line runs along an exterior wall of the foundation, then you might want to consider covering it with insulation or installing heat tape.
In the case of the example home mentioned in this story, the homeowner, this author, made a major engineering mistake while rerouting water lines one summer day several years ago during the kitchen remodel and snaked the water lines for the faucet and dishwasher along an exterior footing in an area that has only about two inches of clearance between the soil and bottom of the floor joists. The next winter I discovered, to my own dismay, that when the temperature dropped below 15 degrees outside for more than 24 hours or so that my water lines, both hot and cold, would freeze.
The lines were not wrapped with insulation or heat tape. They sit just inches in from the concrete footing and practically lay on top of the ground. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that the cold wicks through the soil and quickly reaches the PVC pipes. After a few freeze instances early that first winter I temporarily removed a couple of siding boards from the exterior wall and insulated the pipes as best as possible with little space to work. The afterthought fix has helped considerably, but during prolonged times with temperatures hovering around 5 Fahrenheit or less, I am sure to leave that particular faucet dripping as a precaution. Never run water lines along exterior walls if it can possibly be avoided! Simple stuff a plumber would know, but not a novice first-time homeowner.
Keep the furnace clean. Replace the furnace filter regularly. Although it sounds simple, how many people actually do it religiously? Not the people I know, anyway. But it pays to create a routine of switching out filters on a regular basis. Old houses seem to manufacture dust at a rapid rate, so I switch out my furnace filters every month. In a newer, less productive dust factory that might only be required once or twice a heating season. But find what works best for your furnace and then mark a reminder on a calendar.
We heat with a combination of an electric furnace during mild fall and spring days, and a wood furnace during hard winter. At the end of each heating season, I clean the ashes from my wood furnace and coat the interior of the firebox with a film of used oil. I tie a rag to a stick and use it as a mop to apply the oil. It keeps down the likelihood of rust forming during summer when heating and cooling can create moisture on metal surfaces. I also sweep my chimney good at the same time. Come wood-heating season, I climb on the roof and make a visual inspection of the flue with a flashlight to assure birds have not built a nest in the pipe. Then I’m ready to fire the furnace for the season. The amount of oil I use in the spring for coating the firebox is only a half a quart or so at little cost. I bought my chimney brush and fiberglass cleaning rods to attach it to several years ago, and I intend to use the same setup until I’m too old to keep up with a woodstove.
Reverse the ceiling fans. Most ceiling fans have a small switch near the bottom that allows the user to reverse the electric motor. In the summertime, the blades should be turning counter-clockwise, drawing heat up and away from center of the room. In the winter the blades should turn clockwise, pushing the warmer air (hot air rises, remember that from middle-school science class) downward and causing it to recirculate through the room.
Clean gutters and yard debris. One last winterization tip is to take time and clean out the gutters after the last leaves have fallen and before winter’s dampness starts freezing ice on the roof. Clean gutters and downspouts will not necessarily keep your home warmer in winter, but it will certainly make it last longer. Winter involves lots of water—rain, freezing rain, sleet, snow—all of which need an easy way to get off your roof and away from your home’s exterior.
Also, look to make sure any landscaping you might have done during the summer months hasn’t created drainage issues around the foundation. Adding a flower bed or regrading a section of the lawn can cause runoff to divert toward the house instead of away. Check immediately after a heavy fall, or early winter, rain for signs of water pooling near the foundation.
Winter can really be trying, and especially to a homeowner. But by taking the initiative to correct a few minor concerns and staying on top of any issues, you can have a warm, inviting oasis from Old Man Winter’s foul breath. Robert Byrne is credited for saying “Winter is nature’s way of saying ‘Up yours’.” But by following the helpful home winterization tips I discussed, you can have the final say in how winter treats you.