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Preparing your home for winter

Winter is coming, so Julie Watson has put her husband to work. For the past few weeks, as the air cools and daylight time ends, he busies himself with removing old caulk around the windows, cleaning out leaves and debris from the eaves troughs and removing any obstacles that will cause drifts when the snow starts to accumulate.

"It's all about economizing and controlling costs," says Watson. "It's also about being comfortable in the winter." Living in a 30-year-old bungalow in Charlottetown, P.E.I., the couple makes sure their house is toasty warm for the winter.

Whether you're living in a bungalow or a town house, there are many check-ups to do before winter sets in. We've amassed a list of seven savvy tips to keep the fires burning and the pipes humming, just as they should, all winter long. Not only will these tips conserve energy, but they'll also save you money in the process.

1. Seal the deal
The easiest way to keep the heat inside your home is to seal air leaks. If you're in an older home, hire a professional to test your home for leaks, which costs about $150. To do it yourself, ensure the caulk around windows and weatherstripping around doors are in good condition and replace where necessary. For unused or older windows, seal them using a plastic window-sealer kit, available from most hardware stores for about $20.

If you live in an older home, installing storm windows will also give you another layer of protection from the elements.

2. Get ready to heat
Furnaces should be checked every year, says Charlie Smolenaars, building supply manager from Rafuse Home Hardware Building Centre in Wolfville, N.S. "You should have your furnace serviced yearly to change the filter and nozzle in the burner to make sure it's working as efficiently as possible," he says. He adds that for those using oil, the annual checks may be tied into your contract with your oil provider.

Ottawa resident Judy Scott tops up her fuel early in the season to keep her warm all winter. "We make sure our oil furnace tank and the propane tanks for our propane fireplace are topped up early, before the snow and ice come. When the guys come with the propane tanks, we also have them check and turn on the fireplace," she says.

3. Don't forget about your cooling systems
On the cooler side of things, air conditioners need attention, too. Partially cover freestanding units, ensuring they can still breathe. For window units, cover them tightly with a cover, and caulk the gaps between the unit and the frame to prevent leaks. Depending on how big your unit is, and how big the gaps are, you may be better off removing it from the window all together until the nicer weather arrives.

If you have an air exchanger -- a system that filters and cleans the air inside your home, exchanging the old, inside air with outside air -- it also needs some winter care. "Normally in the summer, a lot of people don't run those systems, so the fall is the best time to change filters and clean it to run properly for the winter," says Smolenaars, who adds that most filter changes require a service technician.

4. Look up at your roof
It's also important to inspect your roof. If you don't have a ladder, use binoculars to visually inspect the roof, making sure there are no sagging or missing shingles.

Alongside the house, ensure gutters and eaves troughs are clean. You can have your eaves troughs cleaned professionally (it costs about $80 for an average-sized home) or, for $40, you can invest in the Gutter Blaster, an eight-foot extension for your garden hose. The U-shaped end fits into the trough and blasts out unwanted build-up using the regular pressure from your hose.

5. Look at pipes and holes
If you have pipes, drainage or otherwise, that run outside, keep them warm to prevent freezing. Watson's husband puts a heat cable around his drainage pipes, but you can also buy heat tape, foam rubber sleeves or fiberglass insulation.

Inside, make sure you plug every hole you can find. So, for every electrical outlet in the house, buy a liner that acts as extra insulation and fits between the wall and the cover. And even if you don't have kids, plug the outlets with plastic socket inserts.

6. Check your insulation
The largest amount of heat that escapes your house leaves through the attic -- almost 45 percent in fact. So, to prevent your warm air from taking off, ensure your house has adequate insulation. Experts agree that an R-30 rated insulation is the minimum requirement. Newer homes usually have this standard, but older homes may need some new insulation.

7. Pack an emergency kit
Don't be caught without supplies for you and your family -- pack an emergency kit before the bad weather arrives. According to the Canadian Red Cross, every kit should include: four litres of water per person per day, enough canned food to last for a few days, a first aid kit, blankets, sleeping bags and a crank-operated radio.

Homeowners are notorious for leaving this little detail to the last minute, which means everyone scrambles to the hardware store at the same time if there's a rough winter storm that knocks out the power. Montreal residents were without electricity for days during the 1998 ice storm, with no heat and no lights.

Melanie Chambers is a freelance writer based in London, Ont.

-- Posted: Nov. 10, 2005
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