Winter weather can wreak havoc on homes (and your wallet) no matter where you live: frozen pipes, broken furnaces, flooded basements, drafty rooms, high utility bills, the cost of repairing burst pipes or busted heaters. Storms and cold weather can push an HVAC system already on the brink of collapse to failure at the exact moment you need heating most, leaving everyone in your household at risk for both physical and mental health issues.
While homeowners have greater control over upgrades and repairs to their houses, renters can also take simple, preventative measures to winterize. Whether you live in a warmer, rainier climate or contend with below-freezing temperatures every winter, experts offer guidance on how to prepare your house for the season.
Prevent problems before temperatures plummet
“One of the big things is being proactive versus reactive,” says Dylan Evans, an HVAC and plumbing expert at Complete Comfort Heating, Air and Plumbing, an HVAC and plumbing maintenance company based in Greenwood, Indiana. “A lot of times, people wait until it gets severely cold outside to even acknowledge that their heat exists.”
The simplest, and most effective, preventative winterizing measure is regularly changing the filter on your furnace. Over time, the filter can get clogged with dust and debris, causing the HVAC system to stop functioning altogether, says Bill Samuel, a licensed general contractor in Chicago and owner of Blue Ladder Development. Most filters will need to be replaced every 90 days, Evans says, but if after 30 or 45 days your filter is dark and dirty, you’ll want to swap it earlier, so check it about once a month. “Not even kidding, probably about 50 percent of the calls that we get when it gets super cold outside, it ends up simply being a dirty filter,” Evans says.
Renters can easily replace the air filters in the furnace of a rented home. Just check your lease or clarify with your landlord to determine who is responsible for replacing air filters, especially if you live in an apartment and don’t have access to the building’s furnace.
While you’re changing the filter, make sure the furnace isn’t leaking, making any strange noises, or has flashing lights, Samuel says. Any of these signs could indicate an issue, so call an HVAC professional or tell your property manager.
Evans also recommends yearly inspections by plumbing and heating and cooling companies so they can identify any potential problems. Renters concerned about the health of their building’s systems should ask their landlord to schedule an inspection before a cold snap or winter storm approaches. (More on what landlords are legally required to provide later.) “In our area, landlords are pretty receptive to it,” Evans says, “because it’s a lot easier to have somebody talking to you about getting preventative maintenance than it is calling and saying, ‘Hey, the property that I rent from you is now currently full of water.’”
For those who live in flood-prone areas, Evans suggests keeping bags of sand on hand to use as a barrier preventing water from entering your home or garage. FEMA recommends clearing out gutters and downspouts so water can flow easily away from your home, and raising equipment like air conditioning condensers, heat pumps, and water meters onto platforms that are at least a foot above the anticipated height of floodwaters. Protect your valuable documents and items, such as birth certificates and passports, and store them in a location where water isn’t likely to damage them and in watertight containers. If you can, make sure any appliances (washer, dryer, hot water heater) and HVAC systems aren’t in flood-prone areas in your house, like the basement. (This might not be possible if you rent or these appliances were already installed on lower levels.)
Keep warm air from getting out
Caulking and weatherstripping doors and windows can save you anywhere from 5 to 20 percent in energy savings, according to the US Department of Energy. Caulking and weatherstripping seal areas around doors and windows where cold air can sneak through. The Department of Energy provides DIY guides to caulking and weatherstripping, but if you’re not super handy, reach out to a professional. Rope caulk isn’t permanent and may be a good option for renters.
An easy renter-friendly insulating method is to apply plastic wrap over drafty windows. You can find a window insulation kit from a hardware store (Home Depot sells a four-pack for $6) and apply the adhesive and the plastic film around your window, then use a blow dryer to shrink the plastic in place.
For households that are unable to afford winterization upgrades or their heating bills, you can apply for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which provides funding for these projects and utilities.
Since warm air rises, Samuel suggests setting your ceiling fans to spin clockwise in order to push warm air down toward you. Look for a switch at the base of the fan allowing you to change the direction. Just make sure you keep the fan on low speed. “This will keep an updraft that will move warm air trapped on the ceiling around throughout the room,” Samuel says.
Protect your water pipes from freezing and bursting
Pipes have a higher risk of freezing once temperatures dip below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, says Brittany Katterjohn, the marketing coordinator at Complete Comfort Heating, Air, and Plumbing. If you have pipes exposed to the elements — outside, in the garage, attics, basement, or in an area that gets cold — you’ll want to insulate them so they don’t freeze. Most hardware stores will stock pipe insulation — “it’s kind of like a smaller pool noodle,” Evans says. “It comes in a full piece and you’re able to cut it and it basically hugs the pipe. That’ll help those pipes from getting below-freezing temperatures.” Evans also suggests letting the cold water side of one faucet on each level of your house drip slightly in temperatures below 20 degrees. “That moving water will help make it harder for that pipe to freeze,” he says.
If your pipes do freeze and you or your landlord can’t get a hold of a plumber, you can try to thaw them yourself using a hair dryer or a space heater, Katterjohn says. You can tell a pipe is frozen when water isn’t coming out of a faucet and there is frost on the outside of the pipe. Constantly monitor the thawing process — never leave a hair dryer or space heater unattended — and leave your faucets open so when water starts to flow again, you know the pipe is properly warmed up. “If this doesn’t work or you do not have access to these supplies, we recommend shutting your water access off completely until a licensed professional can address it,” Katterjohn says.
Outdoor water spigots for hoses are also at risk of freezing. Remove any connected hoses and turn off the interior shut-off valve to avoid freezing, Samuel says.
Signs your pipes burst include puddles under sinks, water damage on walls and ceilings, low water pressure, and a high water bill. In this case, shut off water access into your house if you can. Your water shut-off valve is likely by your water meter or water heater. For those without access to the water shut-off valve, contact your landlord immediately.
Have a backup plan for worst-case scenarios
While laws differ from state to state and city to city, generally, landlords are required to provide heat, hot and cold water, and operating plumbing. Any issues with the temperature of your apartment and water should be brought up with your landlord or property manager as soon as they arise. If they fail to respond or repair any damages, send a formal complaint in writing to the landlord. Should the landlord still avoid the fixes, tenants can withhold rent, pay for repairs out-of-pocket and deduct costs from their rent, or take legal action. Again, check your state and city’s property maintenance laws to determine your landlord’s responsibilities and tenant rights.
In the event of storms preventing technicians from making calls and repairs, have a space heater available to keep your household warm during an emergency, preferably one with a built-in timer that will power off if accidentally left unattended, Evans says. Don’t use your gas oven for heat as it’s both a fire hazard and increases your risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. If you’ve lost power altogether, try a portable generator but make sure you run it at least 20 feet away from your home and never inside, since generators burn fuel and, again, can cause carbon monoxide poisoning.
Ideally, you’ll want to have all materials and plans in place before storms roll in or temperatures drop so you’re not scrambling during an emergency. A few preventative measures can keep minor issues from turning into catastrophes — or prepare you for the next storm.
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