Winterizing homes can save money, lives

Posted: Monday, October 16, 2000

By now, you have raked the leaves and picked up the yard in advance of the snow.

But a little extra effort to winterize your house could save you money and maybe save your life.

"Any heating unit, whether it's a wood stove or fireplace, a furnace or boiler -- they all need some type of maintenance," said Gary Hale, fire marshal for Central Emergency Services in Soldotna.

Poorly maintained heating appliances are a leading cause of fires and carbon monoxide poisoning, he said.

Make sure that wood stove and fireplace chimneys are sound and that stovepipes have not rusted through. Sweep chimneys and stovepipes in fall and regularly through the winter to remove accumulated creosote, which can fuel chimney fires. Fire departments in Soldotna, Kenai, Nikiski and Homer loan chimney brushes for free, Hale said.

Check manufacturers' specifications, and be sure wood stoves and stovepipes are installed with adequate clearance from walls and combustible materials.

Homeowners should use Metalbestos or equivalent insulated stovepipe from the ceiling to at least two feet above the roof, said Rick Abbott, manager of Spenard Builders Supply in Soldotna, and there should be two inches of clearance between Metalbestos pipe and surrounding insulation. Clear combustible clutter from around wood stoves, boilers and furnaces.

Doug Thompson, sales manager for Preferred Plumbing and Heating in Kenai, said most gas and oil-fired furnaces should be tuned and inspected annually.

For gas furnaces, the thermocouple, which shuts off the gas if the pilot light fails, should be replaced, he said. For oil furnaces, the fuel filter should be replaced and the fuel system checked for leaks and contamination with water. For forced air systems, change the air filter.

Technicians check combustion gases and tune furnaces and boilers for maximum fuel efficiency, he said. That often cuts fuel costs by 4 or 5 percent and may save much more with older heating units. Technicians also check for leaks in heat exchangers that could leak deadly carbon monoxide gas, a product of incomplete combustion, into the home.

Oil stoves, such as Toyos, also should receive annual maintenance, though that requires technical skill.

"We clean out the burner pot, check for loose wires and make it run good again," he said.

Cut winter fuel costs by making sure the weather stripping around doors and windows is in place and in good repair. Abbott said trailers and modular homes often lack thermopane windows. Installing storm windows and storm doors or Flex-O-Pane, clear plastic sheeting that serves the same purpose, can cut heating costs.

Also make sure the insulation in your attic is intact, and has not been disturbed by squirrels, he said. Make sure the soffit vents are clear to avoid condensation and ice-damming, which occurs when heat from poorly insulated and poorly vented attics melts snow on the roof. The melt-water refreezes near the eaves, forming dams that trap water and cause leaks.

Owners of older homes may want to add additional fiberglass or blown cellulose insulation to the attic. In the 1970s and 1980s, Abbott said, homes often were built with R-19 ceilings. Upgrading to R-38 or R-50 often can shave $20 to $40 from monthly heating bills.

Snow often collapses boat sheds, RV sheds and lean-tos.

"Temporary structures need extra support in winter," Abbott said. "Put an extra post or two down the middle."

The main winter hazard to plumbing is freezing, which can break pipes. It helps to install skirting around trailers and homes built on pilings, Abbott said. Insulate that with fiberglass batting or foam. Also disconnect hoses from outside faucets. Otherwise, those may freeze and break, leading to costly leaks into walls and basements.

You can wrap exposed pipes with heat tape and insulation, but follow manufacturers' guidelines carefully. Hale said a common mistake is to wrap heat tape in one direction, then double back for two layers of protection. That is taboo with many brands. Where the wires cross, they can overheat and damage insulation, leading to short circuits and fires.

If you already have heat tape, inspect it for cracked or frayed insulation, and replace it if needed.

Daylight Savings Time ends Oct. 29. When you change your clocks, put fresh batteries in your smoke detectors. Since 1991, the building code has required all new homes to have smoke detectors in sleeping rooms, outside sleeping rooms and on every floor, Hale said. He suggested installing a carbon monoxide detector on every floor, too. Many electronic thermostats also require batteries. Install fresh ones now to make sure they work all winter.

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