Preparing the Homestead for Winter, Part One: The Buildings

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Winter is a lot like death and taxes… it’s one of the few constants in life.  Here on our property in Missouri, you can rest assured cold and snow will happen sometime after fall rolls through, but just how much and how bad is always a gamble.

I once heard it said, “A poor man has his cold in winter and his hot in summer.  A rich man can have his whenever he wants.”  Over the years, during times of high heating costs, and before we added a whole-house wood furnace in our circa-1880s home, I was starting to believe that was to be my fate in life.

But in recent years I’ve made a concentrated effort to “button up” our drafty, old house, and to improve my heating methods, too.  I’ve learned over the years that the key to an efficient and happy homestead is to plan ahead.

As an example, a few years ago there was a television show out about a family homesteading in Alaska.  One young couple always worked at least a season ahead.  At the first glimpse of spring, they were planning and working on projects to make summer more productive.  In summer, they prepped things for fall harvest and hunting.  In fall, they took care of winterizing projects and getting in plenty of firewood.  They built a greenhouse to extend the growing season, worked in the heat of summer cutting wood, and made sure their simple house was as weatherproof as possible.

But the guy’s cousin and his wife were always running behind.  In late spring, they were trying to get the tiller and tractor running to make a garden.  In fall, they were harvesting what little they had grown from beneath a layer of early season snow (remember this was Alaska).  In winter, they were constantly running out of firewood and having to slip and slide, battle cold-weary equipment, and work in uncomfortable conditions to scrounge for wet, unseasoned wood that would just sputter and smolder in their poorly-constructed, homemade woodstove in their drafty house. You get the picture.

This is the first of a series of three stories outlining winter preparations.  This first story deals with getting the house ready for winter.  The second will focus on machinery (including machines with engines), while the final installment will deal more with land and assorted stuff around the homestead.

So, the question is, how can we be more like the prepared young couple who took advantage of, and seemingly enjoyed, each season as it came, instead of being like the second couple who were always fighting Mother Nature and Father Time and getting backhanded as a result?  Here’s how…

The first step is to make an honest assessment.  You may love your house, or perhaps you abhor it, but this isn’t the time to let feelings get in the way.  You’re simply giving it an honest, thorough survey to determine likely problem areas… and possible fixes.

As you walk around and through the house multiple times checking the different areas and pieces—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.

The first rule is that heat rises and cold settles.  While cold air can enter around a window or soffit, let’s start at the bottom and work up.  That’s where the cold will usually enter.  The heat you generate inside the home will escape up top.  So, for now, 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, look closely at where different sections of the foundation intersect at corners.

Then check where the sill plate sits on the foundation.  If the home is more than a couple of years old there might be some settling of the foundation or warping of the sill which could leave some sizable gaps.  A little later, 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 doors where the actual door meets the jamb.  Inspect windows where the upper and lower panes meet in the middle, especially if the windows are older, wooden units.  If the drapes move when the wind blows then you’ve got a serious leak.  Another way to check is to move a lighter or a burning 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 on first inspection—the amount of heat they can rob from a home is unbelievable.

There’s no mystery that single-pane windows are robbers 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 (like me) can find themselves dealing with older, less-efficient windows.  The best option would be to upgrade and replace them, but 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 sun and weather exposure.  Transition areas between two exterior surfaces, even with proper flashing, can open over time and create a crack or 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 of water stains or actual dripping during heavy rain, or snow or ice thaws.  Finding such leaks can be a pain.  Where the moisture enters isn’t always where it shows up inside.  Water will migrate along the bottom of rafters or joists and show up feet—if not yards—away from where it came in from the outside.  And remember that heat rises, so along the roofline is where you’ll lose it most.

Now what?

With your list made of possible 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.  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.

Preparing the Homestead for Winter: The Foundation

For visible cracks in the mortar between stones (blocks, brick, etc.) or concrete walls, you’ll find compound, caulk, or grout 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 a “crack filler” compound or an exterior-grade latex caulk.  The 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 and 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 forever.  Whichever option you choose, make sure the surface of the material around the crack is clean to promote good adhesion.

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 migrating through the metal or plastic of the vent.

Preparing the Homestead for Winter: The 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.  Factory seals are usually glued or 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 for a fix.

If it’s a matter of the seal being worn, 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.

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 then, basic hand-tools are all that’s needed… a small saw or tin snips, screwdriver, and scissors.  Remove the rubber bulb-seal from its framework, and measure and cut the frame to fit 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.

Also, consider a sweep seal.  There are many kinds available including rubber and vinyl, and one that looks like thousands of short, nylon broom-bristles. 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.

The next step is to assure you’re not losing heat or gaining cold air through a poorly-fitted door or window frame.  Nowadays, rubberized adhesive membranes and better replacement door and window designs allow an installer to really “button up” a window or door into a wall.  Most older doors and windows were not installed with such attention to potential air leaks.

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’s in there?  If your house is old or exceptionally drafty, it’s likely you won’t find anything but an open space and a few nails holding the 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 the insulation into the hole.  It’s much more effective if left loosely packed, but be sure to see that it touches all edges. The other option is filling those open areas with expanding spray-foam.  Keep in mind it comes in regular or “high-fill”.  Use caution when filling a boxed-in area with high-fill foam because the expansion can flex boards and cause a door or window to bind.  But if you have the 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 and trim it away with a utility knife or hacksaw blade afterward before reinstalling the trim. Reattach the facing trim and you have a perfectly-sealed perimeter to block out the scavenging cold air.

Preparing the Homestead for Winter: The Windows

As mentioned before, older homes will often have single-pane windows.  A single pane of glass can stop rain, or snow, or wind, but 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.

The answer to less drafty windows for years was the addition of storm windows.  First in aluminum and then 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, before air conditioning.

While nowhere near as efficient as dual-pane windows, having that second glass of a storm window as a windbreak can make a significant difference.  But if that’s not your case, the low-cost window winterization step that anyone can do is plastic-sheet shrinkable film such as these pictured to the right.

The only tool required to apply the film, which mimics an additional pane of glass, is a pair of scissors or a 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 supplied double-sided tape to the window frame, then, starting at the top, apply the film and work downward keeping it taut.

A better-looking fit can be had by applying heat to the face of the film with an electric 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.

Preparing the Homestead for Winter: The Exterior

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 where the siding meets other materials such as masonry flues, you might consider using exterior-grade caulk to seal the openings.

So far, these have been easy, straightforward measures nearly anyone could do with basic hand-tools.  But this next step, if required, takes more skill and is best left to a handyman or carpenter.  Flashing repairs around flues and chimneys and where differing roof-angles and materials meet and should be left to someone with the proper tools and know-how.  Fortunately, rural areas are rich with handymen and neighbors who possess all kinds of fix-it skills.  Many will do small jobs for honest pay, or trade skills for other labor or goods.

Other Things to Consider When Preparing the Homestead for Winter

With the exterior buttoned up, 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.

Increase attic insulation:  One of the best investments in winterization is adding more insulation in the attic.  More is usually better.  You should have a minimum of 12 inches of insulation in the attic.  Keep in mind the higher the insulating properties (the larger “R” value), the higher the cost will be, but insulation is worth the investment.  Just remember, when you lay out the insulation, it should be snug to the exterior walls to eliminate any air gaps; and remember the tip about not packing it too tight.  Insulation, after it’s installed, should maintain nearly the same “fluff” it had when unrolled from the package.  Cutting and installing can be done with a utility knife and tape measure.

Seal around electrical outlets and switches:  Any openings in exterior walls, even openings on the interior side only, can let in cold air that has bled into the walls from outside.  The area around electrical outlets and switch boxes are a perfect example.  You can fill voids around the box housing the switch with a little insulation pushed loosely into the crevice or a shot of expanding foam.

Before you button it back up, 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 inner wall surface and switch or plug cover plate.  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.  These two simple measures repeated on all switches and outlets can make a noticeable difference for little cash outlay.

Insulate water lines: If your home sits on a crawlspace which is not sealed up—such as a mobile home with inadequate underpinning or an older home with a stone foundation full of cracks and crevices, or if water line runs along an exterior wall, then you might want to consider covering them with insulation or installing a heat tape.  The insulation comes in lengths several feet long and can be slipped over the pipes and then secured with tape or zip ties.  If you go the route of using a heat tape you’ll need an outlet to plug it in.  It’s advisable to install or retrofit using a ground fault outlet to reduce the potential for a shock or fire if the heat tape or cord leading to it comes in contact with moisture.

Furnace upkeep:  Replace the furnace filter regularly.  Although it sounds simple, how many people actually do it religiously?  I buy four or five at a time and set a reminder alarm on my phone.  Our thermostat has a reminder message that pops up every few months, but our old dusty house requires more frequent filter changes than is suggested by that new thermostat.  If you’re not into smartphone text alerts, simply write the task down on a calendar.  I’ll admit I’m more of a “list maker” than the average person, but I have a list on my calendar of things that need to be checked every couple of weeks (oil level in our cars and trucks, etc.), every month (furnace filter), every six months (batteries in smoke detectors, etc.) and on, and on.

Other heating concerns:  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 the firebox and flue pipe.  I also sweep my chimney at the same time.  I bought my chimney brush and fiberglass cleaning rods to attach it to several years ago, and I intend to use the same setup for decades to come.

Keep yard debris away from foundations and gutters clean. Take time to 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 needs 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.  And remove accumulated leaves from areas where they might come into contact with exterior wood siding or trim and hasten rot.

Reverse the ceiling fans. Most ceiling fans have a small switch near the bottom of the fan and above the light kit that allows the user to reverse the electric motor.  In the summertime, the blades should be forcing air down into the center of the room.  In the winter the motor should be reversed, causing the blades to pull heat up in the center of the room and force it down exterior walls, which will still circulate the warm air but without feeling that breeze of air being forced down upon you by the fan.

The more Missouri winters I endure, the more I think those old Florida snowbirds are onto something.  My wife and I are now passing the 50-year-old mark and looking ahead to retirement a little way down the road and thinking a little house or duplex in the Bahamas might be just the ticket for weathering January and February each winter.  I could never leave my native Ozarks behind for good, but with each harsh winter we have, I think it might be nice to shut off the water, drain the lines, turn the thermostat down to about 58F and head out after Christmas and return only in time to think about gardening in the spring.

Robert Byrne is credited for saying, “Winter is nature’s way of saying ‘Up yours’.”  But by following these helpful tips just discussed you can have the final say in how this upcoming season treats you.

Read “Part Two: The Machinery”

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  • For many of the reasons you wrote here, I am so glad that I made the effort to build our home earth sheltered. I've never seen it freeze here. The coldest record indoors was 45 F above zero, while we were absent for a couple of months one winter. The outside temps had dipped as low as minus 35 F. I lived for a few years on my previous homestead, which was an old one room school house with a 24 foot bank of 3X8' single glazed, multi paned, double hung windows. Yikes. And a three foot ezposed foundation/crawlspace. I vowed to build underground. I built Lilac Moon the summer of 1984, and we're still here. We have wood sheds full of seasoned firewood. We have a large pantry full of food. Our gardens are sleeping now, but asparagus, garlic, French shallots, rhubarb and a multitude of perennial flowers with peek through the dwindling snow with the warmth of the spring.

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