Homeowner's complacency is gone with the wind

November 15, 2003|By ROB KASPER

THE WIND is a great leveler. The muscular gusts that rocketed though Maryland late this week swept away feelings of seasonal smugness and sent me scurrying to weatherstrip the home front.

During November it feels, as Verlyn Klinkenborg says in his new book of essays, The Rural Life, as if "winter could come the next minute or the next month."

I had been counting on cold weather to mosey into town in a month or two. But Thursday when the howling wind woke me up at 4 o'clock in the morning it sounded like the wolf was at the door. In our home, the wolf would come in the back door. That is the point of entry that drafts favor. It is the proverbial cold spot that every home has and that most homeowners battle to eliminate.

Our back door had been reasonably prepared for bad weather, or so I thought. Last weekend, the door's breeze-welcoming screen had been replaced with the wind-buffering glass panel. Since the nasturtiums were still blooming in the back yard, it seemed that this November we were going to ease, not race, into winter.

But then a cold front from Canada packing blasts up to 50 mph came roaring through the Mid-Atlantic, rattling windows, downing trees and turning any trash can that wasn't weighted down into a noisy urban tumbleweed.

Thursday afternoon, while maneuvering my way along the brick sidewalks of Charles Street (downtown sidewalks that seem to have been under construction for eons), I watched as a woman who looked a lot like Julie Andrews was not only stopped in her tracks by the wind, but appeared to be lifted off her feet. It was nearly a Mary Poppins moment.

The wind was still flexing its muscle that night when, back at home, I sat down at the back door armed with a putty knife, some weatherstripping and a candle. This is a ritual, an annual dance I do with the door, to block drafts. There isn't much joy in this endeavor, other than getting it over with, so to amuse myself I fetched a transistor radio and tuned in the broadcast of the Maryland-Virginia football game being played in College Park. According to play-by-play man Johnny Holliday and his sidekick, Jonathan Claiborne, the wind ruled the gridiron, toying with those who tried to challenge it.

As the football players fought the wind in College Park, I moved a blazing candle around the edge of my Baltimore back door, trying to detect where the rude breath of winter was coming into the house. Some use an incense stick to find drafts, but I have always been fond of the flame. I like the smell of beeswax.

At a few spots on its trip around the door frame, the flame flickered and almost died. Those were the spots I worked on.

There are various types of weatherstripping materials that are applied around doors and windows to keep the wind out, and this door frame had several of them. There was some compression weatherstripping, a molded strip of wood with a flexible vinyl bulb, running along one side. It seemed to be in good shape.

There was some V-shaped weatherstripping, pieces of bronze metal that fit against the door frame. They press against the edge of door and form a seal when the door is closed. The V-shaped strips were old and, over time, had become depressed. Using the putty knife, I revived the "V," prying the strips open to make them a little wider, and thus make the seal a little tighter. This was a stop-gap measure. A long-term fix would be to remove the old strips and replace them with new ones. But for most of the drafty spots, prying with the putty knife did the trick.

The biggest leak, a virtual zephyr, was coming from the spot where the bolt of the door lock went into the door frame. This has been a traditional trouble spot, and I applied the usual correctives.

I plugged it with felt strips and pieces of adhesive foam. The felt is an old-time remedy. It works for as long as the tiny tacks that hold it in place remain on the job. Usually, the normal opening and closing of the door knocks the tacks loose after a few weeks. The pieces of foam bail out even sooner.

I ran the candle around the door again and the flame proclaimed victory. It was, I knew, a temporary triumph. Given the forces of nature and the facts of family life, my draft defenses will weaken. By the time snow is on the ground and icicles are on the gutters, another barrier - a cloth napkin hanging from the doorknob - will more than likely be called upon to keep the wind at bay.

Yet during this time of year when winds howls and darkness falls early, I take whatever small comforts come my way. I went to bed the other night reasonably content. Maryland had beaten Virginia. A few back-door drafts had been defeated. And even the wind had turned into a fierce friend, lifting up a nest of leaves from my back yard and depositing them in the yard of a neighbor.

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