It's wise to winterize

Precautions: Homeowners can save money and heartache by getting ready now for the cold weather.

October 03, 2004|By Kathleen Cullinan | Kathleen Cullinan,SUN STAFF

When water started dripping into Suzanne Treffner's bedroom during the winter of 2002, she was stunned at the size of the culprit.

"It was this huge, thick piece of ice at the edge of the roof," Treffner said.

She paid more than $1,100 to fix the problem and to treat the water-damaged ceilings in her Sykesville home. This year, Treffner decided to address the ice-damming problem with a $585 investment in shingle shields.

Homeowners can keep costs and headaches like Treffner's away by spending an afternoon and a few hundred dollars during the fall months readying their homes for winter, experts said. It only takes an afternoon walk around your property to identify such things as overloaded gutters, cracks in caulking and critters nesting in the chimney.

This fall has been milder than last year, when Tropical Storm Isabel soaked the area. But the first freeze is only about a month away.

For contractors, it's an "absolutely insane time," said Maija Kropp, vice president of S&K Roofing, Siding and Windows in Sykesville. Homeowners who need repairs should arrange for them now, she said, because some businesses have a four-week backlog of appointments.

A gutter choked with leaves is at the root of many peoples' winter home ailments, contractors agreed. Water diverted by that debris can weigh down the gutter or leak into the attic and the walls. Or ice damming can develop, in which water freezes, melts and refreezes in thick, unyielding blocks on the roof, as Treffner saw.

Stormy weather makes gutter blockages and roof problems worse, said Craig Helmuth of National Property Inspections in Fallston. Helmuth said he sees gutter-related roof damage "almost 50 percent of the time because of trees and all the debris flying around."

"Almost all of the basement moisture problems that I see are attributed directly to faulty gutter and downspouts," said Matthew Bartels of Overbrook Home Inspection in Bowie.

Whether homeowners have guards to shelter their gutters or not, they should clear them or hire a professional if the roof is too steep.

S&K Roofing President Don Katzenberger also encouraged homeowners to make sure their attics and walls are well-insulated so that heat can't escape. He said homeowners also should check that fans are working and vents are unobstructed.

From the outside of the house, look for cracks in the areas next to dormers. If you find any, seal them with asphalt cement, Katzenberger said.

To really save on heating costs and preserve energy, the U.S. Department of Energy suggests that homeowners conduct energy audits using the guide on its Web site, www.energy.gov. Tips range from caulking windows and door frames to opening and closing drapes on south-facing windows for natural temperature regulation.

Another structure in need of attention is the chimney, especially if it will be heavily used.

Look from outside for signs of deterioration on your chimney, advised Wayne McDowell, owner of McDowell's Complete Chimney & Air Duct Cleaning Service Inc. in Catonsville.

Make sure it's properly capped, see that no birds or squirrels have moved in and check for fallen tiles that could block smoke and gas.

Most people hardly ever clean their chimneys, Bartels said, but it should be done every year to every other year, depending on how much wood you burn.

A deteriorated chimney can cost $1,500 to $5,000 to reinforce with a steel liner, which protects the house from heat and gas. It generally costs less than $150 to have a chimney cleaned.

Moving outside, homeowners should apply bibs to protect hoses from freezing. And make sure there is no water in pipes exposed to cold air.

"I think the most important thing to do is to drain your outside pipes," said Carolyn Gorman, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute and an Alexandria, Va., homeowner.

She speaks from experience. Pipes had frozen at her home and burst in the kitchen two years ago after she watered her shrubs in the spring. She watched $900 in damage spread across her floors and carpets.

"It was almost like you're wearing a dress and it's too tight, and the seam split 3 inches," Gorman said. "Water came shooting out of there."

A contractor used equipment to suck the water out of her carpets, applied an anti-mold substance and, for three days, left fans running to air them out.

To keep pipes from bursting in the spring as Gorman's did, shut the valve that connects to the outdoor faucet. Then turn the hose on and let it drain.

Finally, while furnace filters should be changed every month to three months, this is a good time of year to remember to do it, Bartels said.

If it's been a while since a furnace was inspected, have a contractor check for carbon monoxide leaks before using it. And be sure smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are working.

"I've seen houses that are 100 years old that are better maintained than houses that are 10 years old," said Daniel Balk, a Realtor with Long and Foster in Ellicott City.

Even if ice damming doesn't reached the severity of the problem that occurred at Treffner's home, owners who take precautions and study their homes will see a payoff, Balk said.

Tips for winter

Some ways to prepare a home for winter:

Clean leaves and other debris from gutters and areas next to dormers.

Trim back overhanging branches from trees near house.

Check and reinforce insulation in attic.

Conduct a home energy audit to minimize heating costs.

Have chimney inspected and cleaned.

Put bibs on outdoor hoses; drain outdoor pipes.

Change furnace filters and check batteries in smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.

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