Real Estate

Heads up for winter

Handy hints for preparing your home for the cooler months

Just like the changing of the season from winter to spring tells us it's "spring cleaning time" again, fall is a time to prepare your home for the cooler months. There are many simple, inexpensive things you can do to make your home more energy-efficient and less susceptible to water damage.

Here are some handy hints that are effective and reasonably priced:

1. Change your furnace filter.

There are health issues, efficiency issues and safety issues associated with changing your furnace filter, said Max Weisbarth, owner of Palo Alto Plumbing, Heating and Air.

If your filter is full, it will no longer filter the air and could eventually shut down the whole system and need costly service repairs, he said.

Weisbarth said 30 percent of his calls during the winter months are for plugged furnace filters and clogged filters could potentially cause a fire, though it is not likely.

"When it has not been getting air, it creates a lot of havoc, as well as dust, especially for asthmatics," Weisbarth said. He changes his own filter every two months with a high-efficiency filter because he has three kids who are asthmatic.

The recommended time to change your filter is once a year, but some people need to do it more than that, he said.

Weisbarth said Palo Alto Plumbing, Heating and Air charges $110 per hour for the service. People could change the filters themselves, depending on their mechanical abilities and the location of the filter, he added.

"We usually only take one hour if the furnace has been maintained; some take longer. The other day I had one that was horrible. It took a couple hours," he said.

2. Clean out your chimney.

"Your fireplace is a negative air system, drawing up air all the time," said Tony Sanchez, president of United Chimney Cleaning, a third-generation, family-owned and operated business based in Menlo Park.

The dust that is always being drawn up the chimney is combustible, he said. He recommends getting a chimney inspection or sweeping once a year, right before the winter season.

He also recommends getting a spark arrester rain cap on the chimney to keep the water out. "If water gets in, the water buildup can lead to the back wall cracking, which could allow fire to get between the walls," he said.

People can clean their chimneys themselves if they get the proper-sized chimney brush, Sanchez said. "It's a common problem that people try to clean with too small brushes, which doesn't work," he said, adding that Home Depot only sells a few sizes of chimney brushes.

He said people need to seal off the front of their fireplaces when sweeping out the chimney so that soot doesn't come into the house.

Sanchez recommends using a Shop-Vac with a Hepa filter, rather than a regular home vacuum, because the soot is too fine for regular filters.

"When not using your fireplace, close the vent. It will save you up to 30 percent of the furnace heat from rising up the chimney," he said. Then, make sure the vent is open all of the way and that there are no cobwebs or dust on the vent before making a fire.

Sanchez said the fire code requires that trees be kept outside a 10-foot radius of your chimney.

Sanchez also advises cleaning your dryer exhaust vent at least once a year because lint gets inside and is combustible, and could lead to a dryer fire.

United Chimney Cleaning charges $85 for a visual inspection of the chimney or $128 for sweeping out the chimney.

3. Clean out your gutters.

"(Cleaning out gutters) prevents costly repairs due to leaks in walls and roof rot. It's cheaper to clean now than to repair later," said Randy Mills, owner of Pioneer Services, a one-man show servicing Silicon Valley.

Mills said gutters should be cleaned out once or twice per year, depending on the leaf droppings. He suggests getting your gutters cleaned out in October and February or November and March.

If there are no trees over or near your house, you can get away with cleaning out the grit, dirt and bird droppings from your gutters once every two to three years, but there aren't many houses like that in Palo Alto, he said.

Depending on the clogs, it takes between one and two hours to clean the gutters on a single-story home less than 2,000 square feet, he said.

Pricing for his gutter cleaning services start at $125 for a one-story home less than 2,000 square feet and $175 for a two-story home less than 2,000 square feet, with prices varying depending upon the hard-to-reach areas of each system, he said.

4. Replace weather stripping and caulk exterior cracks.

Plugging air leaks in your home keeps the cold out, keeps your home airtight and waterproof, said Gerhard Aron, owner of Mr. Fix It, which services Palo Alto, San Jose and San Francisco areas.

"I'm sealing skylights in Portola right now. It will prevent dry rot and moisture problems," said Aron, adding that making your home airtight saves energy.

A consultation for winterizing your home costs $65 to $85.

5. Stop air leaks by installing foam inserts for electrical switches and outlets.

"Houses are full of little holes that are not obvious," said Kevin Carney, president of Sunnyvale-based Solera Home Improvement.

Foam inserts seal up the space behind the light switch or electrical outlet plate where air is freely flowing in and out of the wall, he said, and it heats and pressurizes the home.

"It's actually a big benefit. People don't realize how much warm air leaks out of their homes," he said.

In a multi-unit complex, an added benefit could be preventing smoke from seeping in from other units. "I believe this would prevent smoke from getting in because if the inserts are installed properly, they prevent the flow of air," he said.

Carney said you can buy the inserts from any hardware store and that the only tool you need to install them is a screwdriver to take off the plate. The inserts come with pieces you can tear out to fit around the switch or outlet.

"It really is that simple," Carney said, and you can purchase several of the inserts for around $5.

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