NorthJersey.com

Now Is The Best Time To Prepare For Winter

The Record (NorthJersey.com) — Sunday, September 2, 2007

By KEVIN G. DeMARRAIS
STAFF WRITER

No one likes to rush the seasons, but as you mark the end of summer this weekend, it's not too early to think about what you need to do to get your home ready for cooler weather.

To help you along, we offer 10 Tips to Winterize Your House.

Sure, you don't want to be thinking about winter weather now unless you're a skiing enthusiast. But it's easier getting ready now, when the weather is relatively warm and you're not rushed.

1. Clean your heating system

The last thing you want is to turn on the furnace on the first day you need heat and discover that it's not working.

"It doesn't matter if it's oil, gas or electric, you should do it before the season starts," said Joe Kirsch of Kirsch Energy Co. in Nutley.

It makes a difference in efficiency – a big plus at a time of rising energy prices – and helps spot potential problems – such as a smoke pipe that became disconnected or a clogged chimney – before they occur. September is an ideal time to get started on this, for a number of reasons.

Full-service oil heat dealers offer comprehensive service contracts for around $150 a year, including preseason tune-ups and emergency repairs. Less-expensive service programs cover just the pre-winter inspection.

Public Service Electric and Gas Co. suggests that gas heat customers test their own heating systems now. Go to PSEG.com and click on the "get your home ready" button on the right for details.

If the pilot light is out, follow the instructions on the heating unit to relight it; if there's a problem, call PSE&G and have it checked.

PSE&G will also light the pilot – at no charge – through next Sunday. After that, the lighting service costs $25.

This is also the time to have your chimney cleaned, but beware of scam artists who low-ball an estimate before hitting you with expensive repairs. Expect to pay at least $79 for a professional cleaning. To be safe, many homeowners stick with members of the National Chimney Sweep Guild or those certified by the Chimney Safety Institute of America.

"By testing your heating systems early, you will be better prepared for the cold weather ahead," said Joe Bassolino, PSE&G's manager of business development.

"Taking a few minutes to concentrate on this now, when the weather is mild, can help give peace of mind and ensure that your heat works when you need it most."

2. Install a CO monitor

Carbon monoxide detectors are important year-round, but become essential in fall and winter with windows closed and furnaces on.

They run on batteries, electricity or both and cost between $25 and $75. That's a modest sum for a vital safety device.

If you have one, change the battery so you start the season fresh.

3. Caulk and weather-strip

Many older houses in North Jersey were never properly insulated, and settling has created openings around windows and doors. Warm air escapes, cold air blows in and homeowners waste their money.

Insulating an attic can be tough, and doing the walls calls for a professional. But almost anyone can eliminate drafts caused by air leaks with relatively inexpensive materials.

On a cool, windy day, hold a smoking object, such as an incense stick or a thin thread near doors, windows and vents and watch for movements made by the air currents, the state-published Consumer Conservation Handbook suggests.

Mark those spots and seal them with caulk or weatherstripping.

There are many varieties, ranging from rope or cord caulk that may last only a year or two, to silicone, polymeric foam and polyurethane, which can last 20 or more years. Pick the one that best fits your needs.

Weatherstripping is applied at joints where two surfaces meet and move relative to each other, such as doors and windows.

4. Install programmable thermostat

Replace your old thermostat with a programmable one. You can find seven-day models with four settings for each day and weekday/weekend models.

Multiple settings allow you to turn the heat up before you get out of bed, lower it when you leave for the day, warm it up before you come home and lower it again before bedtime.

Costs range from $25 to $150, and three of the top-rated models (all made by Lux) in the October issue of Consumer Reports magazine sell for $35 to $80.

Forget the conventional wisdom that you will use more energy to warm up the house again than you saved with the lower setting, the state's Ratepayer Advocate says. "You always save by turning down your thermostat, no matter how long you will be gone."

5. Winterize lawn and plants

"The quality of next year's lawn depends on what you do in the fall," says Jerry Baker, the so-called "America's Master Gardener" of PBS fame.

Seed germinates faster and existing grass plants multiply faster in the winter than any other time of year," he wrote. So if you want a nice lawn next year, spend the $20 to $50 to seed and feed with high-quality grass seed fertilizers blended especially for the season.

Fall is also time to plant bulbs to produce the flowers that will herald the end of winter next spring.

Spread mulch around your roses and evergreens to retain moisture, and protect young shrubs from the wind and sun (which can cause burning) with burlap barriers. Keeping the plants well watered through the fall will help them survive winter.

To give your evergreens even more protection, spray them with an antidessicant, a waxy coating that covers the pores on the leaves to seal moisture in.

6. Clean gutters; drain pipes

Several simple autumn tasks are critical if you wish to avoid ice damage.

Drain and store your hose, turn off the water from inside the house and drain the spigot so that none of the lines crack from freezing and thawing.

It's also time to clean the gutters so ice and melting snow don't remain there and push up under your shingles. (But wait until the leaves have fallen so that the gutters don't get blocked up again.)

If the thought of climbing a ladder to clear muck from your gutters is unappealing, hire someone to do the job for $50-and-up.

7. Seal-coat the driveway

Seal-coating an asphalt driveway every three years will not only make it look better, it actually will make it last longer, says Roy Barnhart for the Handyman Club of America Web site.

"Sealing shields paving from the sun's ultraviolet rays, which can deteriorate the binder and expose the aggregate," he said. "Seal-coating also prevents water and ice from getting into the paving and causing it to crumble."

You have a choice: Do it yourself for about $50 for a 700-square-foot driveway for five-year sealer or have it done commercially for $250 to $500. The job is not especially difficult, but it can be extremely messy.

8. Arrange fuel financing

Historically, late summer was the best time to shop for oil and to lock in prices for the season. No more.

"Last year prices were much higher in the summer, then they dropped dramatically," says Wende Nachman, director of the non-profit New Jersey Citizen Action Oil Group, which sells oil at a discount.

"It was cheaper last winter than in the summer, and we're expecting prices to drop in the fall," she said. "We warn our members to avoid [locking in prices] this year. They should wait until fall, when they need their first delivery."

Even if you want to lock in a price, it might be difficult to find a dealer willing to commit so far in advance due to the volatility of energy markets. But that shouldn't stop you from considering a budget plan, which is available from most gas and oil companies.

Details vary from one company to another, but the basics are the same: Make even payments over 10 or 11 months, followed by one or two "balancing" months to reconcile the difference between payments and consumption.

You end up paying the same as you would on a pay-as-you-go basis, but budgeting is simpler.

9. Prepare for snow

You know the snow is coming, so unless you plan to remove it yourself, start shopping now for someone to plow your driveway.

You'll find dozens of companies listed in your phone book. But most exclude residential driveways, so finding someone to do the work can be tough.

The other option: Do it yourself. If you don't have a snowblower, watch for deep discounts in preseason sales; if you have one, get it tuned now.

10. Replace screens with storm windows

Here's a tip that doesn't cost a cent: Go around your house and put screens away and replace them with storm windows. If you don't have storm windows, check out the inexpensive plastic sheets that can be mounted over windows to stop the wind.

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