Autumn chill is reminder to insulate

Published on Thu, Sep 4, 2008 by Jack Kintner

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Autumn chill is reminder to insulate

By Jack Kintner

The occasional chill in the air that tells us autumn is coming is also a reminder that it’s time to begin thinking about preparing your place for the winter.

“So soon? We’re still water skiing!”

Even so, the time to prepare for winter is before it gets here. This is because some winter-oriented chores, such as buying firewood or repairing your roof, are best done in the summertime, well before they’re actually needed.

If you need motivation to do things for winter in T-shirts and sandals weather, the old story from Aesop (who, to no one’s surprise, was a slave as well as a story teller and therefore used to hard work) about the grasshopper and the ants illustrates the point, although the Muppet version of the fable is my personal favorite: it ends with the ant being stepped on and the grasshopper driving his Porsche to Florida for the season.

In Aesop’s version he starved to death just outside a well-insulated anthill filled with well-fed ants all warm and toasty from their summertime preparations which the grasshopper lazily ignored, to his peril.

This winter, with the price of petroleum products such as heating oil and propane at an all-time high, winterizing your house ought to be a priority. So here’s some tips from local builders and hardware stores to help you get going.

Staying warm

Get your furnace inspected, including an inspection and cleaning of your duct work and, if applicable, outside air intakes and chimneys. Buy a supply of furnace filters and change them out monthly.

Chimneys for wood and pellet stoves need an annual inspection and, if needed, a cleaning, since creosote and ash builds up and creates a fire hazard, especially in stoves and fireplaces with inserts that can be set to burn wood slowly.

You can call a chimney sweep or save money in buying appropriately sized brushes for $12 to $15 and wands at $10 apiece to be able to push the brush down your chimney from your roof. You then vacuum out the inside of your stove or fireplace and that’s it.

Supplement your home heating with a wood or pellet stove or gas furnace.

Jerry Thramer of Innovations for Quality Living in Bellingham said that the cheapest sources of heat these days are natural gas stoves or furnaces, pellet stoves and wood stoves.

“We’ve sold more than a 100 wood stoves this year, where two years ago we’d sell just a few,” Thramer said, “and nationally it’s hard to get any pellet stoves at all because they’ve been bought up by easterners whose only alternative is oil heat.”

For firewood, expect to pay anywhere from $160 to $200 or more for a cord (four by four by eight feet). Wood purchased now should be stacked in the open, not against the house, and covered on top for rain but not the sides so it can air out and dry.

It will get more expensive the longer you wait, and may not be available at all by the time you really need it.

Though it sometimes seems tempting when you go to the beach and see all this free and very dry wood, the salt in it will rapidly corrode steel stovepipes and furnaces, and will attack the mortar in a regular fireplace.
The only place to burn driftwood is on the beach below the high tide line and in places where it’s allowed.

If your house will not hold its heat and is a few years old or more, think about adding insulation to your attic by renting the equipment to blow it into your attic. Inspect and install storm windows and doors, and check for leaks that will allow cold air to enter your house.

Conversely, it’s important to make sure that your roof and soffit vents are working properly to maintain a continuous air flow through your attic to keep it dry.

Check roof gutters and downspouts to make sure water is being carried off the roof and away from your foundation.

Preventive maintenance

Trim trees and shrubs around your house to minimize storm damage. Last year’s snow wiped out power and damaged houses because it stuck to branches and then got too heavy with subsequent rains. This happened after several light winters in a row and caught many people by surprise.

Rake dead vegetation away from your foundation (but if it is decomposing, it can be left on plants for winter mulch). Plug up holes and crawl space access points where small animals may try to get in for warmth.

Often you’ll spot yellow jackets nesting for the winter in sometimes obscure holes or openings in the exterior of your house. To keep them from returning next spring mark the holes and when it’s colder, 40 degrees or less, and the yellowjackets aren’t as active, cut a few thin sticks off a small sheet of a solid insecticide (such as “no-pest” strips) and push into the openings, then cover them with tape to plug the hole.
According to the WSU cooperative extension service, even when dormant the insects respire enough to ingest the insecticide and will not emerge in the spring. Use rubber gloves when handling solid insecticides and do not use them near food preparation areas or where pets may find them.

This is much more effective than trying to poison them with spray or liquid insecticides in the heat of summer when they’re active, plus insecticides don’t decompose but instead will eventually enter the watershed.

Dave Pfeifer of J & M Service and Repair on Blaine Road said that when you’re done mowing, “run your lawn mower dry,” that is, the gas tank and carburetor should both be empty for the winter, and the easiest way to do that is to just run it out of fuel.

Gasoline can deteriorate over time and may make your lawn mower impossible to start next season.

To clean off the bottom tip the mower up on its side to hose it and scrub it off, but make sure to tip it so the air cleaner is above, not below, the engine. “Otherwise you’ll foul the air cleaner with oil, a very common mistake that can lead to trouble,” Pfeifer said.

Once clean, coat the blade and housing with a light coating of a rust preventative such as WD-40, something you should also do with all your steel garden tools.

It’s also a good time to clean, sand and even steel wool wooden handles after a season’s use to make them smooth and prevent blisters. Don’t forget to get your snow shovel out, and if you use a snow blower then now is the time to tune it up.

If your pipes break, do you know how to shut off your water? Find the valve, which for some Blaine and Birch Bay homes is the street-side main water shut-off, and have the tool it may need handy should your pipes break, which is unusual here but not unheard of.

Buy Styrofoam covers for your outside water faucets that are on your house’s exterior wall and drain them, if possible. Some designs are supposedly freeze proof but a cover also helps keep them clean for spring.

In your garden, the time for fall bulb planting is approaching. You can find out from local garden stores and staff, such as Nancy Bartholomew at Pacific Building Center, about other fall garden preparation techniques.

“This is the one time to fertilize your lawn,” Bartholomew said, “if you only do it once. And you’ll want to clean up your garden debris before winter, especially around perennials.

Snow damage to plants hit many gardeners hard last year.

This fall, tear up some old bedsheets to make tie strips that won’t cut the bark but can keep shrubs from splaying out under a snow load and cracking under the strain. You may need to trim some trees that are close to your house or electrical lines.

Clean off sidewalks and driveways with weak solutions of detergent and bleach as our sometimes steady drizzle can make them slippery when the green grunge grows uncontrolled. There are commercial preparations that are better to use but can be expensive.

Now is the time, too, to deal with moldy basements, something that often requires the attention of a professional, as bleach preparations will clean the surface but will not kill the colonies of mold.

Set aside a supply of sand and kitty litter to deal with ice and snow. Rock salt works to melt ice but will remain in the environment and can damage plants.