Winter is coming, and it’s bringing some potentially costly and dangerous threats that your house may not be prepared for: broken boilers, clogged chimneys, frozen pipes. The risk of each, and other issues, can be alleviated if proper precautions are taken by homeowners to winterize.
Last year, Long Island endured its coldest December since 2010, based on measurements taken at MacArthur Airport by the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Science at the Northeast Regional Climate Center in Ithaca. January’s average of 30.1 degrees was a 6.1 degree drop from the previous year.
So, before temperatures dip, take a fall weekend to brace for winter with these six steps to better prepare.
1. Service the boiler
No one wants to be left in the cold, wrapped in blankets, desperate for someone to come fix the boiler. So, have the boiler serviced while it’s still warm.
“Don’t wait until the coldest day of the year to turn up the heat and find out something isn’t functioning properly,” says Ed Schoen, owner of Prestige Heating Service in Massapequa. “Just like everybody wants ice cream in July, everybody wants the heating guy in December and January.”
One of the first steps in winterizing should be to have the boiler and heating equipment thoroughly checked for maintenance and safety by a licensed professional, says Joe Cornetta of Elmont-based Cornetta Brothers Plumbing and Heating and president of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors of Long Island trade group.
In addition to routine replacement of boiler filters and nozzles, running a draft test on the chimney and using a digital combustion analyzer to measure carbon monoxide levels will help determine if the deadly exhaust is properly exiting the house.
“It tells you if the boiler is burning properly and cleanly, and not making any harmful gases,” Cornetta says. “That’s the No. 1 thing we stress this time of year.”
Having the system checked costs about $150, reduces safety risks and better ensures that the boiler will operate properly and more efficiently when needed most. “People that are doing this proactively will possibly alleviate an emergency call come January or February,” Cornetta says. “That’s when it creates more of a hardship.”
2. Blow out the sprinkler system
When spring arrives and the in-ground sprinkler system is turned on, there may be very little pressure coming from the heads, and water could be bubbling up from the grass. That means the lines suffered freeze damage during the winter — and parts of the lawn will likely have to be dug up for costly repairs.
To prevent underground lines from freezing and cracking, the sprinkler system must be blown out with a commercial-grade compressor and shut down before temperatures start to freeze, says John Dellafiora of Queens-based Pacific Lawn Sprinklers. Optimal time to do so, he says, is between mid-October and early December, with prices typically ranging between $60 and $125, depending on the size of the property and number of zones in the system.
Winterizing the system improperly, or not at all, can cause damage to the sprinklers, the lawn and even the house. “If the air compressor is too small, it’s not blowing out all the water, and if it’s too big, it’s actually putting too much [air] pressure, which can wind up doing damage to the sprinkler heads and zone valves,” Dellafiora says.
If not blown out and shut down, the stagnant water in the lines can freeze and expand, causing a break in the main line or the lateral lines leading to the sprinkler heads. Once thawed, water will rush out of the break area, oversaturating the ground.
“If you have a freeze break by the foundation or by a basement window, that much water built up for that long a period of time can sometimes find its way into a crack into the basement and flood it,” Dellafiora says.
Traditional water spigots and hoses can also cause flooding if not properly shut off and disconnected.
“If the hose remains connected, the water tends to freeze inside because it is trapped and bursts very close to where it meets the home or inside the home,” says Rob Cartelli of Outstanding Plumbing and Heating in Smithtown. “Then spring comes, you’ll turn it on, and the water is all over the basement. . . . The problems are caused by winter and lay dormant until spring.”
3. Insulate the pipes
Wrapping pipes within the house may seems like an obvious step, but be sure to find the most vulnerable ones. "I can’t believe how many times I see unwrapped pipes in an unheated attic,” says Schoen, also a member of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors of Long Island trade group. “It can cause major league destruction.”
Frozen and burst pipes, Schoen says, are, in fact, most commonly found in unheated areas such as attics and crawl spaces. Homeowners can wrap water pipes on their own with foam pipe insulation readily available at hardware stores. On extremely frigid days, allow water to circulate by letting cold water faucets drip, Schoen says.
Pipes typically burst when temperatures are in the 20s and there is wind chill, Schoen says. During those frigid days, do not try to save on your heating bill. Water that becomes stagnant in pipes when heat is off can be susceptible to freezing. Schoen suggests taking the thermostat off its scheduled temperature settings, raising it manually to 70 degrees, and keeping it set on hold. “The money you’re going to save by keeping your thermostat down will be destroyed by the amount of money it costs for me to go in there and fix your pipes and the destruction it’s going to do to your house,” Schoen says.
Also, be sure to find your water main and label it before winter. This way, in the event pipes do freeze or burst, you’re prepared to shut off the water rather than be left desperately searching for the main when time is of the essence during an emergency. If the pipes do freeze — warning signs of which can include little to no water pressure, frost on the pipes, improper water temperatures and odors coming from the faucet — do not leave the house.
“You have a ticking time bomb on your hands,” Cornetta says. “Raise the heat as high as you can. A good percentage of them can be defrosted naturally.”
Do not use a flame or torch to defrost the pipe, he warns. “I even had somebody last year leave a blow dryer under a cabinet and walk away, and it started a fire,” Cornetta says.
4. Weatherstrip the house
As cold air leaks in through the windows, money is thrown right out of them.
Trap the heat in, and keep the draft out, by weatherstripping windows and doors to conserve energy. Small gaps in the frames and casings can be sealed with caulk while different forms of weatherstripping can block leak points around windows and doors.
“You should do an interior examination to make sure there is no air leakage so you aren’t getting wind infiltration — there are easy, inexpensive fixes you can do that make a big difference,” says Sal Ferro, owner of Alure Home Improvements in East Meadow and Commack, and president of the Long Island Builders Institute trade group.
An affordable option for do-it-yourselfers is adhesive-backed foam tape or felt that is easily applied between window sashes on double-hung windows and between doors and doorstops. Because it is not as durable as more expensive forms of weather stripping, foam and felt should be used in low traffic areas with little moisture. More expensive options such as V strips, tubular rubber and vinyl, and magnetic strips are more effective and more aesthetically pleasing air barriers. Adding a door sweep to the bottom of an interior door will fill the gap between the base of the door and the threshold. Ferro says homeowners also should build or buy an insulated box or cover for their attic hatch.
Potential air leaks can be found near exterior corners, outdoor water faucets, the spacing between siding and the chimney, electrical outlets, switch plates, electrical and gas service entrances, baseboards, fireplace dampers, attic hatches, air conditioners, TV and phone lines, and vents and fans, according to the federal Department of Energy.
A home energy audit, Ferro adds, can identify leak points and areas of inefficiency. Audit cost varies with the size of the home, and remediation can be expensive depending on what is needed. But, Ferro says, it will “help you not only save money, but live more comfortably.”
The U.S. Department of Energy offers a Weatherization Assistance Program for low-income households. The website, www.energy.gov, where homeowners can apply, says the program has helped save houeholds an average of $283 per year on energy costs.
5. Clean the chimney
There’s nothing better than sitting around the fireplace on a cold winter’s night. But if the chimney isn’t properly cleaned, it could ultimately lead to a much bigger fire — the kind that requires the fire department.
Over time, an accumulation of creosote and soot deposits form in the chimney, clogging the flue and creating a highly flammable buildup. Odors, poorly burning fires and a blackened damper typically suggest that a chimney needs a cleaning.
The National Fire Protection Association recommends that chimneys be inspected at least once a year by a licensed professional. Homeowners can check for creosote buildup themselves, wearing a dust mask and goggles, and using a flashlight to inspect the interior of the chimney. Thick deposits of creosote, a black soot formed from burning wood, indicate a need for the chimney to be swept. The cost for this generally ranges from $125 to $250. Of course, if homeowners are willing to go on the roof and have the proper chimney rods and brushes available for use, they can attempt to tackle the project themselves. Be sure to check for cracks in the mortar inside and outside the chimney and for wildlife that may be nesting inside the chimney.
And while you’re up there, clean your gutters to avoid a clog that would make the house susceptible to an ice dam buildup at the edge of the roof.
“When the snow is melting during the day, if it’s not draining in the gutters because they are clogged, it will infiltrate into the house,” Ferro says. “You need proper flow and drainage in the gutters.”
6. Keep vermin out
When it gets cold outside, raccoons, possums, mice and rats may want to turn your home into something of a long-term Airbnb. Your attic — warm, quiet, dark and inviting — could look like five-star accommodations. When you hear scratching coming from the ceiling or in the walls, that probably means they have checked in.
There are ways to prevent those unwanted furry guests from entering the house, says Michael Deutsch, one of the owners of Arrow Exterminating Company in Lynbrook.
Mice, especially, are subject to hypothermia and therefore must find their way inside, Deutsch says. They seek winter residency in warm areas such as boiler rooms and heated garages and beneath dishwashers, washing machines and dryers, he adds. To help deny entry, Deutsch says the first step is obvious: Make sure all doors in the house, particularly the garage doors, close and seal properly. A door left ajar, even slightly, invites a mouse or rat right inside.
Small openings near lines that run into the house — for air conditioning, gas, plumbing, cable, telephone, utility wires — offer other pathways. “Identify those penetrations, examine them and seal them up with caulking or sheet metal so they don’t have access,” Deutsch says.
If storing pet food or bird seed in the garage, make sure it is in an airtight container, preferably made of metal so mice cannot gnaw through it. Insects and rodents can settle in firewood or debris kept directly against the foundation of the home, providing easy access to the house, Deutsch says. Keep firewood a safe distance from the house and bring inside only what is intended to be burned that day.
Raccoons and possums, experts at climbing trees or drainpipes alongside the house, can often chew their way in through an area along the roofline or sneak in through attic vents, Deutsch says.
“If they really want to get into a space, they will do just about anything to get in,” he adds.
To restrict their access, Deutsch advises making that ventilation screening and soffits have not deteriorated or collapsed in any way. Organic repellents can also be sprayed on the house, but in winter on Long Island they should be reapplied each week, he says.
And if you should encounter a raccoon while retrieving the holiday decorations from the attic?
“It’s not a good idea for the homeowner to try to get it out themselves,” says Deutsch, who recommends calling an exterminator or animal control specialist. “Raccoons are known to carry rabies and can be very aggressive. I don’t advise inexperienced people to get involved with raccoons.”
The raccoons, after all, are simply trying to survive the winter like the rest of us.