By Richard A. McGrath, CIC, LIA
Failing to winterize your home when it’s mid-winter is like failing to fix a leaky roof when it’s raining. Weather conditions prevent you from doing the job, but when the rain stops, the leak won’t bother you.
So some of the suggestions in this article may have to wait, but we’re mentioning them now, because they won’t bother you when spring comes.
Why should an insurance expert recommend that homeowners winterize their home? Because failing to do so can result in major claims on your homeowner’s insurance. And those claims will make your premiums rise – and could even make it difficult for you to buy homeowner’s insurance. Of course, winterizing can also keep you safe, help you save energy, and ensure that you’re warm and comfortable even when it’s bitter cold.
So where should you begin?
Your heating system
Start with your heating system, which has the greatest potential not only for life-threatening safety problems, but for major insurance claims. Having your furnace inspected every year will help to ensure that it’s not only running, but running safely. While gas furnaces are generally safe, a malfunctioning gas furnace can cause an explosion, resulting in a potential loss of life and major damage to your home.
Be sure to test for the presence of carbon monoxide, a deadly odorless gas that is created by burning fossil fuels. Carbon monoxide detectors are inexpensive and can be purchased at most hardware stores.
A leaking oil storage tank may not be life threatening, but it can create an environmental hazard that would be very costly to clean.
Even if you have someone inspect your furnace, it’s a good idea to test it yourself. Make certain a new air filter is installed and that obstacles are cleared from heating ducts.
Another source of heat that raises safety concerns is the chimney and fireplace, which can cause your home to catch fire if they are not functioning properly. Before using your chimney, make certain it is clean and that no animals or insects have built nests in it. Also make certain the flue damper is operating properly, opening and closing easily and locking in either position as needed.
You can test the chimney draft by rolling up and igniting a few sheets of newspaper while the damper is open to ensure that the smoke is going up the chimney instead of into your living room. The bricks in your fireplace should also be in good shape and should be properly mortared. If they are not properly sealed, fire can spread into the studs behind the bricks.
Bursting water pipes is another common winter nuisance that can cause damages that are expensive to repair.
Any pipes that are exposed to the cold should be covered with insulating material. Foam insulation can be used, of course, in hard-to-reach areas. Also be sure to shut off your water and drain your exterior faucets.
To protect your property and keep your heating bills lower, consider insulating your hot water tank, your air conditioning units and your exterior faucets. If your fireplace is not air tight, you can cover the opening with insulation when it is not in use. Use weather-stripping to keep your doors air-tight and caulk for any leaks around your windows. Check around your windows on a windy day and feel for cold air coming in. You can also place a burning candle or incense stick near potential leaks; if the smoke isn’t vertical, you have a leak.
Your roof and gutters
Given the severity of New England winters, it’s important to keep your roof and gutters well maintained to avoid leaks and ice dams. An ice dam is a ridge of ice that forms at the roof’s edge, preventing melting snow from draining off. As water backs up and refreezes, it can cause leaks and lead to damage in your home’s ceilings, walls and other areas.
Ice dams are caused by uneven temperatures on your roof. If your roof is warm enough to melt snow in one area, but not at the edge of your roof, ice dams will result. Uneven temperatures can be caused by poor insulation, heat from your chimney and other factors. Be sure that the hard-to-reach areas of your roof are as well insulated at the rest of your roof.
Also, be sure to keep your roof clear of snow when there is a large accumulation. Snow rakes are available from most hardware stores. Avoid going up on your roof, of course, as that may cause other safety issues, especially when the roof is slippery from snow and ice.
Ideally, before winter begins, you should check your roof for missing or damaged shingles and have them replaced. If your shingles are in poor shape, be sure to have your roof re-shingled. Check the flashing around your chimneys and skylights to make certain that everything is tightly sealed.
Also, make certain that your gutters and downspouts are clean. If they are full of leaves, the flow of water will be blocked and ice will accumulate throughout the winter. The added weight and volume can create leaks and other damage.
Shutting down for the winter
If you’re lucky enough to spend the winters in a warmer climate, be sure to shut off your water and drain your plumbing before you go. Ideally, you should have someone dependable check on your home when you’re away, or have someone living in it to ensure that any small problems are addressed before they become big problems.
Winterizing your home won’t take much time and it should give you peace of mind, knowing that you’ve taken steps to protect your most important asset.
Richard A. McGrath, CIC, LIA is President and CEO of McGrath Insurance Group, Inc. of Sturbridge, Mass. He can be reached at email@example.com.
This article is written for informational purposes only and should not be construed as providing legal advice.