9 must-do winter home maintenance to-dos

Iris Price | Improvement Center Columnist | December 14, 2015

home maintenance tasks for winterAs if you don't have enough to do with last-minute holiday preparations, you've got this nagging feeling you've forgotten one or more winter home maintenance tasks you should have done already.

While they aren't as much fun as readying your home for the holidays or making arrangements for a vacation, yearly home maintenance before winter really sets in may prevent emergencies and lower costly heating bills.

How many of these fall and winter home maintenance chores have you already taken care of?

A winter home maintenance checklist for cold weather climates

  1. Roof and gutters. When snow on the roof melts because your attic is too warm, it freezes and forms ice dams. Pooling water from the melting ice can cause leaks and mold in your home. Clean gutters of debris that can cause water to back up and freeze. Sweep snow from the roof and eaves as soon as possible after a significant snowfall. If you get a lot of snow each winter, install an Ice and Water Shield barrier 32" wide along the gutter edges of the roof -- between the decking and shingles -- to prevent leaks.
  2. Attic. Inspect for properly installed insulation, which should be keeping heat in your house but not in your attic. Proper attic ventilation can let cold outside air into the attic to help the roof stay cold enough for snow to evaporate rather than melting and refreezing. Otherwise, the continual cycle of melting, freezing and forming ice dams can cause damage from water dripping not only through the roof but around windows and through your exterior walls. If your furnace is in the attic, you may need more insulation between the attic and the roof to keep the roof colder.
  3. Chimney. Cleaning should be done by a professional chimney sweep, who also inspects for cracks, loose bricks, and debris from animals nesting or sheltering. To prevent a possible chimney fire, they do a chimney cleaning to remove debris and charred deposits such as creosote from previous use. Improperly maintained chimneys can cause house fires when the intense build up of heat from your fireplace or wood stove causes those deposits to ignite. If you never use the fireplace, seal the flue permanently to prevent drafts and mice from getting in.
  4. Smoke alarms. Every room should have a smoke alarm, and carbon monoxide detectors are strongly recommended. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) suggests testing each one monthly. Change batteries at least once a year, sooner if and when the alarm chirps. If you have children, pets, elders or disabled household members, now is the perfect time to review your emergency escape planning together. In case of a fire, you may have as little as one to two minutes to get out after the alarms start sounding. Winter is a prime time for house fires.
  5. Furnace. EnergyStar.gov recommends inspecting and doing needed maintenance to your furnace yearly, whether it's a gas, oil, or a heat exchanger furnace. An HVAC technician typically checks the thermostat and the control systems -- such as start up and shut off functions; tightens electrical connections; lubricates moving parts, especially in the motor; changes furnace filters; and inspects gas and oil connections, burners, or the heat exchanger for malfunctions. Faulty connections may cause fires. Well-maintained furnaces also help save you money on your winter utility bills.
  6. Windows and doors. You lose a lot of heat through your windows, so if you want to save additional dollars in heating costs, inspect for drafts and look for cracks around all windows and doors. Caulk any cracks around windows and replace missing or worn out weather stripping. If you don't have energy efficient windows, winterize windows with storms or thermal window coverings. At entry doors provide non-skid mats and rugs to protect the floors and save anyone coming in with wet footwear from slipping. Place draft stoppers inside at the bottoms of entry doors and insulate the inside of your garage door.
  7. Exposed plumbing. Insulate plumbing in attics, unheated basements, and crawl spaces with a pipe sleeve, or wrap with heat tape to prevent water pipes from freezing and bursting. If your pipes are located in exterior walls and the outdoor temperature gets very cold, leave water dripping from faucets that connect to exterior wall plumbing, particularly where the water pipes enter your house from outdoors. Make sure to maintain the temperature no lower than 55° F. if you're going to be away from home. Remember to disconnect hoses from the outside water bib (spigot), and drain and shut off the irrigation system before the first hard freeze.
  8. Foundation. Seal cracks and close vents if you have a crawl space. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends sealing off points of entry for mice and rats, one of which can be cracks in the foundation. Mice can squeeze through a hole the size of a nickel, and rats can fit through one as small as a half dollar. Unless you want these rodents freeloading and multiplying in the warmth of your home, fill these small holes with steel wool, holding it in place with caulking.
  9. Snow and ice preparedness. Keep snow removal tools close at hand: a roof rake to remove snow that can melt and cause ice dams; snow shovels or a snow blower, and pet-safe ice melt. Stock up on your emergency supplies, too. Arrange for snow removal while you're away. You can ask your landscapers if they offer this service in winter.

You may be super busy stringing lights and wrapping presents, but take some time out to attend to the items that can pose life-threatening safety hazards or cause extensive damage. Better yet, hire qualified professionals to handle them for you; then settle in, minus the worries, for a cozy holiday season and the chilly months ahead.

About the Author

Iris Price is a single Baby Boomer whose antidote to a lack of retirement funds was to launch a long-delayed career as a writer. While others her age concoct bucket lists and travel the world, she bought a new-construction home and obsessively creates lists of must-have home improvements and personal realization goals. She specializes in writing about home services and self-motivation.