How To columnist Jeanne Huber has offered advice on a number of cold-weather topics throughout the years. We decided to pull together some of our favorite tips for folks fretting over drafty windows and freezing pipes.
The Web is a wonderful resource for research, but it also has its pitfalls, one of them being that outdated information lingers. If you Google for advice on de-icers, you’ll still find folks who recommend using fertilizer. Yes, it melts ice. But the urea, nitrogen and phosphorus concentrated in synthetic fertilizers run off with the melting water and wind up in Chesapeake Bay. That’s why using fertilizer ingredients on pavement is now against the law in Maryland, as of Oct. 1. Virginia adopted a similar law last year, with regulations that will take effect the last day of this month. Washington’s rules went into effect in early 2013, as part of the Sustainable D.C. Act.
What’s still okay to use? Not salt. That’s a pollutant, too. (It can be toxic to plants and animals.) Deicers containing calcium magnesium acetate are considered the best for the environment. For best results, pick up a snow shovel and clear walkways before fresh snow is tramped on. That’s usually enough, but if ice still forms, try sprinkling on a little sand for traction.
Most exterior faucets have built-in protection against freezing in cold weather, but they work only if no hose is connected. So no matter how busy you are this month, invest a few minutes in unscrewing hoses or checking to make sure they are already off. If you need to use a hose frequently in the winter and find all the connecting and disconnecting troublesome, especially when your fingers are freezing, attach a quick-connect fitting between the tap and hose. The fitting can be left in place all year.
For even better freeze-protection of outdoor faucets, replace standard frost-protected faucets with ones that have a built-in pressure relief valve. This type works even if you leave a hose connected because when ice forms and expands, the valve opens and relieves the pressure. Woodford Manufacturing (www.woodfordmfg.com) makes several models and also offers rebuild kits that retrofit its standard models. The part number is RK-PRV-*, where the asterisk refers to the valve stem length. Determine that by measuring the thickness of the wall at a window or door and add any amount that the existing valve stem projects.
To install, turn off the faucet’s water supply and remove the handle and packing nut. Use the handle to turn the rod counterclockwise until it disengages from the valve seat. With a small screwdriver, pry the packing loose. Pull the rod out of the faucet. A check valve might add resistance, so use a swift pull. Then install the new part.
If your skin becomes dry and itchy and you suffer frequent nosebleeds every December, the air inside your home could be too dry and you might benefit by installing a humidifier. Check first with a hygrometer, a small measuring device that’s often combined with a dial or digital thermometer. Hardware stores sell them for about $10 and up. The ideal reading is 40-45 percent. A reading below 30 percent means the air is dry enough to possibly warrant using a humidifier. Check with your doctor first, though, if you or someone in your family suffers from asthma. Even if asthma isn’t an issue, make sure it doesn’t become one by cleaning the equipment regularly - every three days, if possible. Change water in the pan every day.
Although many people associate cold weather with dry indoor air, you might have the opposite problem - especially if you rely on open windows to clear out excess moisture in the warmer months. If water frequently condenses on windows or leaves walls moist enough to allow mildew to grow, you need to reduce the moisture in the air. Before you invest in a dehumidifier, consider simpler steps. If you have a vent-free fireplace that burns natural gas or propane, stop using it or at least run it for shorter periods. Run kitchen or bath fans a little longer. If that produces no change, consider upgrading them to ones that exhaust air better.
If you shop for a new bathroom fan, look at models that suit the size of your room. Fans rated by the federal Energy Star program generally are more effective, as well as more energy-efficient, than other models. With kitchen fans, one thing to watch out for is whether the fan actually exhausts air to the outdoors or simply moves it through a filter. A filter can extract grease droplets and smoke smells, but it doesn’t take out moisture.
If you burn wood, you probably know to hire a certified chimney sweeper to clean the chimney or inspect the wood stove annually. If you have a fireplace insert or a wood stove, also check the gasket around the door. If it’s frayed or loose, replace it when the fireplace or stove is cold.
Take the old piece with you to a hardware store or fireplace shop so you can buy replacement cording of the same diameter. Also get a container of the cement that holds the gasket in place. Chip out all the old gunk before you install the new piece.
Wood fires are gorgeous when they’re burning, but there’s no denying the mess they create. To make cleanup more convenient, get an attractive basket to hold the tools you need: a whisk broom and a small dust pan, plus a spray container with glass cleaner and a few old newspapers if you have glass doors. Keep the kit near the fireplace. Empty the dustpan into the fire - it’s a lot safer than dumping stray embers into a wastebasket or vacuuming them up, where they could set a bag of collected dust on fire.
If you have bare water pipes running through your crawl space, attic, basement or other accessible place, this is a good time to insulate them. Besides helping to prevent freezing, which could cause the pipes to burst, insulation also keeps the water in hot-water lines hotter and helps prevent condensation on cold-water lines in the summer. Hardware stores and home centers sell foam tubes that are easy to install. Measure the diameter of your pipes before you shop so you buy a suitable size. To install, cut a tube to a length you need, if necessary, with scissors. Then just open up the lengthwise slit on the tube and slip it over the pipe. If there is a crease but no slit, carefully cut along the crease first. Some types come with tape attached to seal the slit once the tube is in place.
Can you feel cold air rushing into your house through spaces that you don’t want to seal permanently, such as between the top and bottom sashes in old-fashioned double-hung windows? Caulk them closed for the winter, using an easy-to-remove product such as Dap Seal ‘N Peel Removable Weatherstrip Caulk or DuPont AirTite Removable Weatherstrip.
The Dap product is solvent-based, so make sure you have plenty of fresh air while you work, and plan the job for a day when you can leave the house while the material cures. The DuPont product is an acrylic and contains only a small amount of solvent. A solvent-free option is rope caulk, a sticky cord designed for pressing into gaps. It works, but not as well.
Even a relatively light snow can help you pinpoint maintenance issues you might otherwise never notice. Go out periodically after a snow and watch how the snow melts.
If you see vertical strips of bare roofing between thin lines of snow, the attic insulation is probably inadequate. The snow is persisting longest where rafters lie underneath because the wood in them adds insulation.
If you see icicles forming rapidly even when the weather isn’t warming enough to melt snow, warm air is getting into the attic. The insulation could be too thin or there could be air leaks that need sealing. For a great guide on how to do that, go to the federal Energy Star program’s Web site, www.energystar.gov, and type “DIY guide to sealing” into the search box.
Have a problem in your home? Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Put “How To” in the subject line, tell us where you live and try to include a photo.