Want to be snug as a bug in a rug this winter, without the bugs? It's time to winterize the house, while the temperatures are sinking low enough to convince us that winter is, indeed, coming but remain high enough during the day to make the work pleasant.
Keeping pests and cold air out will not only make life cozier, but can also lower monthly utility bills and prolong the life of your house for long-term savings. Some people compare pre-winter maintenance to an oil change for your car.
This year, you can also try to get a tax credit for toasty energy-saving improvements you make before the end of the year, but be aware that some companies are already booking work into 2011. (They hope the tax credit is extended into next year.) The items that can reap 30 percent of your cost up to $1,500 in tax credit are biomass stoves; heating, ventilation and air conditioning; insulation; roofs (metal and asphalt); water heaters (non-solar); and windows and doors. For more information, go to the website www.energystar.gov and click on "Tax Credits for Energy Efficiency."
Here are some winterization hot spots.
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The cold can come in through a window, under a door or up from the floor.
"A pinhole can let a jetstream of air into a home and drop the temperature in a room by 10 degrees," says Jason Everett, manager of Window World in Wichita. He says that 70 percent of all energy leaves the house through windows and doors.
Whether you have older windows or new, be prepared for the fact that windows age, and they shrink and expand, and little holes develop over time, requiring some work every five years, Everett says.
Some fixes are as simple as replacing weather stripping. To determine if your house requires this, turn off the lights and examine a door or window. If you can see light around it or feel any sort of draft, new weather stripping is needed.
Energy-efficient replacement windows cost about $400 each, so do the math to see if the cost of the project will be offset by energy savings and any of the qualifying rebates from federal stimulus dollars.
But doors and windows aren't the only air thieves. The attic and crawl space need to be investigated, too. When a bathtub or toilet is added, oftentimes a hole is cut in the plywood to gain access, and the hole remains, says Todd McGiverin of Ecohome Solutions in Boise, Idaho.
McGiverin recommends getting a tube of caulk or foam insulation and running it along the top seams of the interior walls from the attic, or patching a hole with a piece of plywood. Then seal the seams with foam insulation.
Check around ductwork, too, to make sure it is connected properly. Use metal tape to seal any leaks and wrap any connections that don't have it, says Karen Meyer of Handyman Connection in Boise.
Another way to save is by installing foam gaskets around switches and outlets on exterior walls. Sealing the voids created by electrical boxes prevents air exchange between the inside and outside of the house. The gaskets can be found at most hardware or big-box stores and are easily installed following the instructions on the packaging.
The average cost for attic insulation is $500 to $750, and it's a fairly quick payback for comfort. Over the years, insulation, specifically attic insulation, becomes compacted and loses its effectiveness. If you can see the drywall or plaster, it's time to add insulation. Installation costs vary, but loose-fill insulation is typically less expensive to install than batt insulation and, when installed properly, provides better coverage.
If you have chilly floors, install insulation batts under the floor, not in the crawl space walls, says Celeste Becia, leader of residential energy-efficiency programs for Idaho Power.
For a quick and easy improvement, fluff up your attic insulation, McGiverin says.
"Go up there, and shake it out, fluff it up. I use a snow shovel, and I throw it up in the air."
The obvious way to maintain the furnace is to change the filter according to the manufacturer's recommendation, or clean it as often as recommended if it's a more permanent-type filter.
It's also wise to have the furnace checked before winter comes on full bore, to head off any problems and keep it in tip-top shape.
If you're considering replacing your furnace, know that if a unit is more than 20 years old, it probably is about 65 percent efficient or less, and it is possible to save about 30 percent on your heating bill with an upgrade to a high-efficiency furnace, according to K-State Research & Extension. (If you don't know the age of a furnace, check the flue. A metal one will indicate an old furnace.)
To estimate the savings in heating costs, total the gas bill for a year, K-State says. Subtract 12 times the July gas bill to remove the amount spent on water heating. What is left is the amount spent on heating. Multiply the existing heating costs by the percentage savings possible from above to estimate the savings.
If you want to save money by setting the thermostat back, expect to save about 20 percent with a nighttime setback of 10 degrees, and an additional 5 percent if the thermostat is also set back during the day, K-State says.
If you plan to close off registers to some rooms, do not close any more than two of 10 at one time, K-State says. Furnaces need the cooling action of air flowing through the furnace to cool the unit.
Fireplaces can be inefficient, sending the heat up the chimney. But there's no denying their appeal. Get a yearly inspection of fireplaces or wood stoves before you start a fire. Adding a biomass stove also can qualify for a tax credit; such a stove would burn such biological material as wood or wood pellets.
Drain and disconnect hoses before a freeze, but keep them handy so they can be used to water if the landscape needs it during the winter. Just be sure to water only when the temperature is above freezing.
"Hoses and shallow irrigation lines may be damaged over the winter if water is not drained," says extension associate Ward Upham of Kansas State University Research & Extension. "Lawn irrigation systems usually have shallow lines but are normally built to be self-draining. If there is a main shut-off valve for the system, close it and then run through the zones to make sure any pressure has a chance to bleed off.
"Hoses can be drained simply by stretching them out and then coiling them for storage. Water will drain as you pull the hose toward you for coiling. Store them in a protected place as UV light can make them brittle over time."
This is also a good time to make sure gutters are clean.
The house needs to be sealed not only against cold air but against varmints such as mice.
* Make sure window and door screens fit properly and are not damaged. Cover chimney and flue openings with spark-arresting screening.
* Seal the holes where pipes and wires enter with caulking compound.
* To check possible entries between siding and foundation, take off some ceiling panels near the foundation, turn off all the lights, and see if you see daylight through the joint. A mouse can go through a hole the size of a dime.
It is easiest to fill the gaps from outside; simply insert oakum or a rope-like caulking into the gap, filling it completely. For bigger spaces, stuff steel wool into the hole.
* Drains in basement floors offer easy entry for a variety of creepy crawlers. To keep them out, lift the drain cover and drop in a tennis ball. When water is draining, the ball will float; after draining, the ball will settle back into position.