Skip sidewalk salt, up the insulation and other expert tips for winter

Click to play video: 'Essential tips to winter-proof your home'
Essential tips to winter-proof your home
Handyman Chris Palmer shared some essential tips for getting your home ready for cold weather and winter – Nov 22, 2019

Winter came early this year for much of Canada, and the snow and colder temperatures may have caught you off guard.

Unfortunately, there are many months of winter weather still to go. Global News chief meteorologist Anthony Farnell says many places across the country can anticipate low temperatures and more snow than usual.

Thankfully, there’s still time to prepare your home so you stay warm (and save money) until the warmer weather returns next spring.

READ MORE: Flocks of ‘snowbirds’ escape Canada each winter. Here’s how to join them

Small changes — like switching to a natural alternative for salt to melt snow and ice — can be extremely beneficial for not only the environment but your lawn and pavement as well.

Here are some tips for preparing your home for the winter ahead.

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Chris Palmer is a professional carpenter and home expert based in Toronto, and he’s seen first-hand what can happen if eavestroughs aren’t cleared before extreme cold sets in.

“We need to make sure we unclog the troughs of all the leaves that came down in the fall,” he said.

“If we weren’t diligent and we weren’t cleaning up our leaves and we see them now in the troughs, there’s a good chance we’re going to have ice damming in the first thaw we’ll get after snow.”

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Ice damming refers to the ridge of ice that forms at the edge of a roof and prevents melting snow from draining. The water, left to sit in a heavy puddle, can start to leak into the home and cause severe water damage.

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“You’ll also see troughs jammed up, not leaking, and then they’ll be [too heavy] and snap off the side of the house,” said Palmer.
“That kind of stuff is what we try to avoid by just doing simple maintenance, removing leaves and branches and debris [as it collects].”

Trees and ‘problematic branches’

Anything that looks like it’s “leaning over the house” should be chopped down before bad weather — especially ice storms — can set in, according to Palmer.

“Look for problematic branches, anything that looks like it’s leaning over the house or any tree that looks like it might snap,” he said.

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“Call a tree service or do it yourself with some pruners and pull saws. Get that tree ready for snowfall.”

The more debris you can remove prior to heavy snowfall, said Palmer, the better.

Ditch the salt

Salt is still widely used by Canadians as an effective way to clear stairs, driveways and walkways of snow and ice. However, it can be extremely harmful to your grass, pavement and local waterways.

“We still have a lot of people throwing salt down, and then they wonder why their grass is brown in the spring. Why is my concrete looking a thousand years old?” said Palmer.

“The worst part about it is it goes into our waterways and floods our systems with too much salt in the water.”

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Instead, Palmer suggests buying an eco-friendly melting agent. These are usually easier on your lawn and cement, and they tend to be more gentle on dog feet, which can be injured by salt.

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He recommends LavaGrip, an organic and non-corrosive agent that can be reused.

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Plug ‘air leaks’

“It’s estimated that the average homeowner can reduce heating costs by up to 20 per cent by simply sealing or properly insulating where air is escaping the home or seeping in,” said Michael Schmidt, area director and chief inspector for HouseMaster Home Inspections of Toronto.

“Many of these solutions are quick and inexpensive, even for the layman.”

When it comes to plugging all the spots where cold air might enter the home, Schmidt recommends the following:

  • Caulking around windows and doors where the seal is cracked or a seam is exposed, replacing worn or damaged weather stripping
  • Caulking or insulating areas where plumbing fixtures, vent lines or electrical wiring extend to the exterior of the home
  • Insulating the attic hatch or access door and sealing edges with weather stripping
  • Adding insulation sealers behind electrical outlet and switching plates, particularly those on exterior walls

READ MORE: Cuffing season — Why are people more inclined to date during the winter?

Palmer adds that if you have a patio or balcony where snow can collect and push up against the side of your house, you should consider having a “bead all the way across those structures” in between the wood and the brick.

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“Water, once it freezes and gets into a crack, as soon as it thaws and expands, it can break the concrete, the brick [and] the mortar and start to turn on you,” he said.

Another way to stay warm, said Palmer, is to change the direction of your ceiling fans.

“The blade spinning counter-clockwise helps cooling,” he said. “in the wintertime, we change to a clockwise direction [because it] actually draws the hot air down to keep warmer air recirculating.”

‘Top up’ your insulation

Heat is also known to escape through your attic, if you have one. Both Schmidt and Palmer suggest an insulation top-up if you haven’t done one in a while.

“Heat loss through the attic can account for 40 per cent of a home’s heating bill,” said Schmidt. “Topping up the insulation in your attic is often an easy and cost-effective way to increase comfort levels and improve energy efficiency.”

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He recommends hiring a reputable company in your area to assist to ensure you don’t end up with mould come the damp spring weather.

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“The installation of baffles, an inexpensive styrofoam form, is often required when adding a significant amount of insulation to an attic to ensure proper ventilation is maintained,” he said. “In the course of our inspections, we regularly encounter mould in attics due to the lack of baffles, which results in the insulation blocking the soffit vents and stifling air circulation.”

Palmer said attic top-ups are typically needed every 10 to 15 years.

“You might notice that your insulation is starting to settle and it doesn’t hold the heat. The higher it is, the more value it contains,” he said.

Frozen pipes

Unfortunately, given Canada’s extremely cold weather, frozen pipes aren’t uncommon. They’re not only inconvenient — the damage can be catastrophic.

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“If a pipe ruptures, thaws and then rushing water floods the basement or other area of the home, [it can] damage both the property and your personal possessions,” said Schmidt.

He has three recommendations so you can avoid frozen pipes this winter.

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  • Turn off and drain all your outdoor faucets in the fall before the first frost. Typically, there is an interior shutoff valve that needs to be shut off each winter. Locate this interior valve, turn it off and drain the line by opening the valve on the outside of the home to prevent freezing from exposure to outside temperatures. Empty pipes can’t freeze.
  • Follow the directions about plugging air leaks. This will go a long way to reducing air infiltration, which can lead to frozen pipes.
  • Keep the heat on. Even significantly lowering the temperature of the home can be a risk. If plumbing is located on exterior walls or if it is underused, lower interior temperatures can lead to frozen pipes as temperatures in the plumbing may fall even lower.

If the heat goes out, Schmidt suggests running the water a bit to keep things moving.

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“Go to the lowest fixture of the home and open the valve a trickle so that a small but steady drip of water empties into the sink, bath or shower,” he said. “This small flow of water will keep the water moving within the plumbing system so that it hopefully won’t freeze.”

READ MORE: 7 ways to fix your dry, cold home this winter

In the event that your pipes freeze, there are some immediate things you can do to avoid catastrophe while you wait for professional help.

“First, locate the shutoff valve for your water main. This is often at the water meter in your basement or utility room but sometimes can be at a ground-level valve in your front yard,” said Schmidt. “You will want to turn this off if a pipe bursts. Alternatively, there is often an upstream shutoff valve at the water heater if you can’t find your water meter or the valve is stuck.”

Then, turn the heat up in your home to “raise the overall interior temperature,” which may help thaw the frozen water.

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“Running a hairdryer on exposed areas of the affected pipes or bringing a space heater into the affected room may also help,” he said.

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“Once thawed and flowing, leave the fixtures on a trickle to avoid re-freezing until a more long-term solution can be introduced or outside temperatures increase. In the long term, a reputable plumber or other qualified contractor should be consulted to assess the situation and make corrections as needed.”

If you’re travelling…

It’s not uncommon for Canadians to leave the cold in search of warmer weather during the winter months.

If you ever leave for longer than two weeks, Palmer encourages you to enlist a trustworthy friend or family member to keep an eye on your property.

“Have somebody who’s there to shovel your driveway, shovel your sidewalk to make sure it looks like a) you’re home and b) your residence is safe for anybody coming up your steps,” he said. “Everybody’s liable for their property.”

READ MORE: Winter can get expensive. Here’s how to avoid overspending

Palmer also recommends shutting off your main water source.

“If your furnace fails, it’s going to give you less problems if the pipes burst,” he said.

“Set your heat settings to a minimal heat and consider updating to a smart thermostat.”

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This will allow you to control your settings from your phone wherever you are in the world.

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