Convert to Gas
Nothing communicates home-loving coziness like a fire in the fireplace. Unfortunately, traditional woodburning fireplaces tend to lose more energy than they produce, pulling heated air out of the house and sending it up the chimney (and burning wood adds to air pollution). If you have natural gas or propane heating, consider having gas logs installed. A direct-vent system is best for new, air-tight homes; it pulls in air from outdoors, pushes it past the firebox, and sends the warmed air into the room. Vent-free systems require no chimney, flue, or outside exhaust. They're relatively inexpensive to operate, warm the room efficiently, and meet national standards for indoor air quality.
Call the Chimney Sweep
If gas logs aren't in your budget and you use your woodburning fireplace often during the winter, have it cleaned and inspected before winter. Burning wood releases volatile gases that cool and condense on the inside of the chimney, forming sticky, smelly, highly flammable creosote. Allow enough of it to build up, and you run a risk of a chimney fire. Also make sure the damper is working properly and that the chimney is capped with screening to keep out critters.
Put the Ceiling Fan in Reverse
Check your ceiling fan for a switch that allows you to reverse the direction of blade movement to turn clockwise instead of counter-clockwise. Warm air rises, and the clockwise rotation of the blades forces the warm air down to where people benefit from it.
Wash the Windows
Yes, it's a tedious job, but washing the windows inside and out twice a year--spring and fall--rewards you with sparkling views, unobstructed light, and the opportunity to check for cracks and damaged caulking. Use a commercial window cleaner or make your own by mixing 1/4 cup of white vinegar with 1 gallon of water. Newspaper makes the best "cleaning rag" because it's absorbent and won't leave lint, but wear gloves to protect your hands from the newsprint.
Rearrange the Furniture
Changing the furniture arrangement is an easy way to give your rooms a new look and feel for the winter. Pull seating pieces close to the fireplace to create a cozier mood, and bring out soft chenille or fleece throws to ward off the chill. Set up a new display on the mantel to create a wintertime focal point--dark colors and layers of objects supply rich texture that adds increases the cozy factor. Some homeowners keep two sets of slipcovers, white for summer and a dark, warm color for winter.
Make Windows Airtight
10 percent of the air that leaks out of a house exits through the windows. Caulk around window frames and apply weatherstripping between the sash and window frame to eliminate air leakage. Tension seal and magnetic types of weatherstripping are durable and effective for double-hung windows. For casement and sliding windows, apply self-adhesive V-strip weatherstripping to the side of a clean, dry sash or window jamb. Measure the length you need, cut the V-strip to fit, then peel off the paper backing while pressing the strip in place.
Put Up Storm Windows
Install storm windows to reduce air leakage year-round. You can find storm windows with vinyl, wood, or aluminum frames and glass or plastic panes. Glass is heavier but longer lasting and clearer than plastic, which scratches easily and yellows over time. Interior storm windows are generally mounted inside the window jambs or flush with themolding. They're easy to install but must be removed when you want to open the windows to let in fresh air. An exterior double-track or triple-track storm window is permanently installed on the outside of the window, and the lower half of the window moves in a separate track from the screen so you can lower or raise it to control air flow.
Clean the Gutters
Whether your gutters have become roofline planters like this one or have simply accumulated a season's worth of fallen leaves, get them cleaned out before winter rains and snows arrive. After scooping out leaves and debris, flush the gutters and downspouts with a strong stream of water from a hose. Make sure the gutters fit snugly against the house and repair any cracks or damage. Many companies offer leaf guards that claim to prevent leaves from collecting in the gutters, but most don't keep out dirt, debris, and seeds, so you'll still have to flush them out
Check Smoke Alarms and Carbon Monoxide Detectors
Experts recommend replacing the batteries in smoke alarms twice a year, and if your smoke alarm is between 5 and 10 years old, replace it with a new one. There should be at least one smoke alarm on every level of your house and one in or near each bedroom. Safety experts recommend similar placement for carbon monoxide detectors--high on the wall, one on every level of the home, and near bedrooms. Where NOT to put them: within 15 feet of gas appliances, furnace, or fireplacebecause these give off small amounts of carbon monoxide when they're first turned on and would trigger false alarms.
An Easy Fix
Even though only 2 percent of air leakage is through electrical outlets and switchplates, every little bit counts, and insulating outlets is easy and inexpensive. Check a hardwarestore for outlet gaskets (also called insulation gaskets). To install them, turn off the electricity, remove the faceplate, pop out the perforated gasket, and press it over the outlet. Screw the faceplate back on, and you're ready to power back up. Look for UL-listed gaskets made from fire-retardant foam.
Have the Furnace Inspected
Call an HVAC professional to check the fan belt that runs the blower, vacuum out dust and debris, and oil the bearings if necessary. Buy enough filters to see you through the winter months and change them monthly--when filters become clogged with dust, the furnace doesn't operate efficiently and your energy bill goes up. Set the thermostat at 68 to save on energy costs, and consider replacing a manually controlled thermostat with a programmable one. This allows you to set the temperature at a comfortable level when you're in the house and cut it back to a cooler level when you're at work. Used properly, programmable thermostats can save up to $180 a year on heating and cooling costs.
Time to Go Tankless?
Conventional storage water heaters use energy to keep the tank full of hot water at all times; a tankless heater provides hot water only when you need it, which requires less energy thus saving you money. Whole-house tankless heaters are probably not cost effective for most homeowners--they cost more upfront than storage water heaters, and installation costs are also much higher and more complicated. Point-of-use heaters, however, are small and installed where you use them--at the kitchen sink or in the bathroom--and because they only need to furnish enough hot water for fixtures in that area, they can be efficient, cost-effective, and green. Gas-fired models deliver hot water at a faster rate than electrical models, which require upgraded wiring if they have to do much more than supply hot water to a bathroom sink.
Plug Hidden Leaks
About 30 percent of the cold air that leaks into your home comes through holes where pipes, vents, or electrical conduits run through the walls, ceiling, and floors. Check under sinks in the kitchen and bathroom and in the basement for gaps around pipes, and fill them in with an insulating foam sealant. Small gaps can be effectively sealed with caulk.
Protect Pipes from Freezing
To minimize the possibility of water freezing in your plumbing pipes causing them to burst, wrap each pipe in a blanket of foam insulation. Check hardware stores for these foam tubes, which have a slit on one side. Just cut the tube to the length you need, pull the slit open, and push the tube onto the pipe. If the slit doesn't have self-adhesive edges, use duct tape to secure it.
Check the attic to see whether you need to add insulation -- experts recommend a depth of about 12 inches. Ultra Touch from Bonded Logic is an eco-friendly, formaldehyde-free insulation made from the scraps and waste left over from the manufacture of blue jeans. It's treated with a boron-based solution to prevent mold and mildew growth, discourage pests, and retard fire, and it won't irritate your skin during installation. Visit bondedlogic.com to find a retailer near you.
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