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Winterizing a Vacant Home

Whether you are shoring up a shore house for the winter, battening down the hatches at your summer cabin, or simply planning to leave your home for an extended period this winter, there are a few must-do steps to take that will help ensure your spring or summer return is not met with disaster.

Plumbing System
The single most important chore is to prepare your plumbing system for freezing conditions by thoroughly draining all pipes and tanks. First, locate and turn off the main water valve, usually located at the water meter. If you are unsure where the valve is, simply call your plumber or do a little internet research to find it. Next, working from the top floor down, open all sink faucets. When in the basement, open laundry tub faucet (where all upper faucets eventually drain) and empty hot water tank. Return to upper floors, open all tub and shower faucets and flush toilets. After just a few minutes, all pipes and drains should be fully cleared and ready for the winter freeze. An added measure for homes in climates with extended freezing periods, pouring a little antifreeze into the drains is a good idea. Some homeowners choose to be extra cautious and blow air through the plumbing systems with an air compressor, but this can be a somewhat involved process. Calling a professional for this task is usually the best way to go, and generally only costs a couple hundred dollars if the system is drained beforehand. Don't forget to shut off the valve for outdoor plumbing (if it is separate) and drain outdoor hoses.

Heating and Power
Even if you plan to visit the home periodically, it is best to disconnect any propane tanks and all natural gas in the home (must be done by the utility company). It is always a good idea to leave the electricity on with light timers and motion detectors, as this discourages potential burglars, but if you must turn off the electricity, be sure that battery operated smoke detectors are functioning properly.

Other Indoor Considerations
To avoid critters setting up shop, be sure to close and seal (with plastic and/or duct tape) all fireplace dampers, dryer vents and, of course, any pet doors. Stuffing spaces around plumbing pipes (especially under sinks) with steel wool is a great way to keep out rodents and scattering mothballs throughout helps to deter a variety of pests. Finally, unplugging and thoroughly cleaning the refrigerator (and leaving the doors open) will avoid molds and mildew from growing.

Outdoor Considerations
Locate and remove any overhanging branches to avoid potential roof damage and clean gutters/downspouts thoroughly. Removing fallen leaves from under or near the home and storing firewood a safe distance away helps to keep mildew, termites and other pests from getting too comfortable. Scheduling regular plowing or snowblowing is always a good idea, as it sends the message that the home is not vacant for an extended period. It also helps to avoid potential liability if there are shared sidewalks or if the home is being shown by realtors.

If money is no object and security is a looming concern, you can consider outfitting your home with smart technology. Remote surveillance and control can help ease your mind and also be very convenient if you're not doing a full-on shut down. You can raise the heat before a visit and operate lights and a security system from wherever you are. Whatever your plans, following the simple steps listed above will avoid a whole host of potentially costly problems and allow you to relax over the winter months.

Gearing Up for Cold Weather Ahead

There are very few places in the U.S. that weren't hit hard last winter. Even the generally calm, suburban Philadelphia neighborhood where I lived was plagued with multiple ice storms that down many power lines and rendered the roads impassable.

Folks in Boston faced record snowfall at 108.6 inches and one storm has come to be known as the January 2015 North American Blizzard (unofficially named Winter Storm Juno). To predict this early in the fall what we'll face this winter would be an exercise in futility, but being prepared for whatever comes is never a waste of time.

When asked what they wished they had done to better prepare for last year's historic storms, homeowners in the northeast part of the country tell me the following, in order of importance:

Purchase a Generator:
Losing power for even a day or two can be a hardship. Heat and hot water is lost at the time when it is needed most and the food on which you so diligently stocked up can be spoiled in just a few hours. Last year, millions of people across the U.S. lost power for a week or more and in some cases, it cost human lives. Whether you live in an area prone to tornadoes, tropical storms or severe snowfall, owning a generator will never be a regrettable decision. Since operating a generator is much more than plug-and-go, click here for a basic guide to purchasing the right machine for your needs.

Purchase a Snowblower:
While shoveling snow is an excellent cardio workout, it can also be dangerously strenuous for those not already in relatively good physical shape. The second most popular lament from ill-prepared homeowners was that they wished they had a snowblower for the storm of 2015. As one property owner tells us, It's not just the lazy factor - it's removing the snow quickly and thoroughly from driveways and sidewalks to avoid potential injury to those walking about. "It just gets to be too much," another makes note. "Sometimes it's better to just wait until all the snow has fallen and get it in one fell swoop."

Better Insulate the House:
Even for those homeowners who never lost power, the hardship came in the form of hefty energy bills. With furnaces working overtime and more people stuck in the home, heating and energy bills can be a disaster of their own kind. One very simple and affordable way to avoid energy loss is to pick up a few tubes of caulk and find the areas around the house where air is entering or escaping. Hovering a candle around door and window frames is the tried and true way to locate drafts, and sealing them up will make a marked difference in your level of comfort and your energy costs over the course of the winter. Another very simple and effective trick is to wrap your water heater to avoid heat loss. Quilted moving blankets are a great choice, but any old blanket will do.

Maintain the Gutters:
If cleaning the gutters is something that ends for you after the first major dropping of fall leaves, you may want to reconsider your plan. When snow and ice amounts surmount what your gutters can handle, it is important that they are as clear and free as possible. In addition to leaves, there is a lot of dirt and debris that can accumulate in your gutters - debris that can cause major problems once frozen in the system. A thorough initial cleaning at the end of October is a great start, but taking a peek once a month through the end of February can help avoid damage to the gutters - as well as to the roof. There are some inexpensive gutter tools out there that will avoid the dreaded ladder, but the first major cleaning should ideally be done by hand.

While we can never truly outsmart Mother Nature, we can surely be better prepared to take her on. We wish everyone a happy 2016 winter and hope that these simple tips can help make it as safe and comfortable as possible. Let it snow!

Be sure to clean the window surface before installing plastic window insulation.

Window Plastic For Additional Savings

The past week has seen some low overnight temperatures here in the Northeast. More than a few of my friends admitted to turning the heat on and I've seen numerous chimneys coughing up the first smoke of the season. Fall isn't even officially here but I know many people are thinking the same thing: winter is coming.

I'm glad I have efficient windows installed in the home. Even with the fierce winter winds blowing down from Canada, the home stays pretty cozy, warm and sealed up.

The guy next door, however, has a rather older home with what looks to be single-pane windows. In the wintertime he installs plastic window insulation, which I have never fully embraced. Personally, I find them to be a little tacky. I compare them to the black winter wheels I used to have to put on my old Sentra in the winter: they knock the car's looks down a few pegs for about 6 months, but they get the job done.

As I understand it, installing window plastic can potentially save a homeowner $20 per window over the season. It's not a gigantic savings, but it's something. And that combined with a few other energy-saving moves can make a pretty big difference over the colder months.

The real upside to window plastic? It's a pretty inexpensive purchase and dead simple to install: clean the glass, measure and cut the film to fit, apply adhesive and film or tape the plastic in place and then use a hair-dryer to shrink-fit the film tightly across the window.

Those with a real fixation on cutting the heating bill will find this an easy list item to cross off in the coming weekends. Me? I'm pretty happy with the windows' performance. I think I'll leave them be.

If you live in a hurricane-prone area, you should be prepared for dangerous winds and high surf.

Are You Ready for Hurricane Earl?


Hurricane Earl is blasting its way up the East Coast, with Tropical Storm Fiona hot on its heels. If you live in Earl's path, you should be prepared for the possibility of torrential rain, flooding, and dangerous winds in the next few days. Make sure your disaster kit is complete with enough food, water, and medication to last for at least three days. Watch this video to find out how to board up your windows if you don't have impact-resistant glass. Follow this checklist to make sure you've done everything you can to get compensation from your insurance company in case your home is damaged. Scroll down to the hurricane-specific section of the list to ensure that you've prepared adequately.

Remember that along with dangerous flying debris and high winds, hurricanes cause flooding. Earl is predicted to cause flooding along the Outer Banks and Cape Cod later in the week. If you live in those areas, read up on avoiding flood damage and on protecting your property from flood damage.

Not in Earl's path? If you live in a hurricane-prone area, you should still make sure that you'll be able to withstand a storm the next time one comes your way. Find out how to protect your home against damage by installing straps, clips, anchors, and bolts in its structurally weakest parts. Read up on planning a safe room, an independently constructed space in your home built to withstand wind speeds of up to 250 mph. If you follow these tips, you'll be prepared to weather the storm.

Germ-fighting weapons check.

Clorox To Give Away Free Flu Shots

The company that redefined "clean" is taking the flu head-on, by giving away 1,500 free shots at the South Central Family Health Clinic in South Central, Los Angeles, on Wednesday, October 21. The free flu shots will be available from 10:00 AM - 3:00 PM, and both adults and children will be eligible.

Clorox seems intent on preparing its faithful customers for Outbreak 2010, with an entire page on their site devoted to the latest flu strain.

With homeowners sealing up their windows, doors and walls against the oncoming winter and all its accompanying germs, viruses, and what-have-you, it's a good time to evaluate the indoor air quality (IAQ) of the home. Now might be a good moment to consider an air purifier.

In the meantime, are you getting the flu shot and/or the H1N1 shot this season?

Community weatherizing: bringing people together.

Turn Up the HEET...And Lower Your Bills

Most people care enough about energy efficiency that they'll make some changes to their own home to lower the bills a few bucks. But wielding the caulk gun at a stranger's house? Isn't that extremist? The volunteers at HEET don't think so. The Massachusetts-based organization combines weatherizing techniques and good ole-fashioned barn raising sensibilities to kill a few birds with one big good-will stone. Improve a home's energy efficiency? Check. Teach participants skills on said topic? Check. Build community? Check.

Their most recent "barn raising" (yes, they really call them that) attracted the attention of fellow blogger Martin LaMonica, who joined 40 others to help weatherize a leaky New England house before Old Man Winter starts his blowing. You can read all about his experience on his CNET GreenTech blog page.

Great concept, great cause. I wonder how many of these groups are cropping up across the country. Have you helped raise a barn lately? What are you doing to winterize your house this season?

Hi-tech, Low-itch!

About five years ago we did a major renovation to our house and the architect suggested we use spray foam for insulation. There were many benefits; it was a green technology, it provided a vapor barrier, it added some rigidity to the structure, it filled every nook and it could get wet without growing mold. The down side: In those days a truck showed up at your house with 55 gallon drums of chemicals and a very loud machine used to mix the foam and to power the sprayers. They did a great job, they were pros, but I was not about to call them for my newest project, a small basement room makeover.

Step in "Foam it Green" from sprayfoamdirect.com, which has a DIY version of the big truck. For $330 I got two small canisters connected to hoses which meet and mix at a spray gun. The kit also came with extra nozzles, safety equipment (gloves, glasses etc) and instructions. Note: It's important to read these even though it is against every guy's better judgement. With things like temperature of the foam and spray force, you don't want to waste the product or the applicators.

The process went well and after a minute of spraying I got pretty good at it. (You can see the finished product in this picture.) After the foam cured -- about four minutes -- I added a second layer, where needed. The best part: I've insulated the whole room and I'm not itching!
Next up: Drywall.

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