Keep your Midwestern home free from damage by preparing for the constant cycle of freezing and thawing that occurs throughout fall and winter. “In fall, it’s important to do seemingly minor things that can have disastrous consequences if not done early,” says Frank Lesh, president of Home Sweet Home Inspection Co. in Indian Head Park, Ill.
Key maintenance tasks to perform
• Disconnect hoses from outside faucets. This keeps water inside the hose from freezing and splitting the casing, and it also allows the pipes inside the wall to drain completely so that water doesn’t freeze and crack them. Most outside spigots now are self-draining, but if you have an older home, you may have to manually turn off the valve inside the house to shut off the water so that it drains completely (this valve is usually in the basement or crawl space near where the pipe goes to the outside).
It’s important to remember this task, because you may not notice that these pipes have burst until you turn the faucet on in spring and water leaks into your exterior wall. If you’re lucky, Lesh says, you’ll have a major leak that will be noticeable right away; it’s actually worse to have a slower leak that allows water to drip slowly into the wall, where mold and rot can do extensive damage without your even seeing it.
• Seal coat blacktop driveways. The heat of summer may cause asphalt to expand and crack. If these cracks aren’t repaired, water gets into them and freezes, widening the cracks. Eventually, big chunks of asphalt will break off and repair will become more difficult and expensive, so applying sealant (generally every two to three years) is an important preventive step.
On a warm, dry day in early fall when you don’t expect rain for at least 24 hours, you should clear the driveway of debris, clean up any oil stains with detergent and a scrub brush (be sure to rinse the entire driveway well with a hose), and apply asphalt crack filler to individual cracks larger than 1/4 inch wide. Allow the filler to dry for at least an hour and then spread a coat of sealant over the entire driveway. Don’t use the driveway for at least 24 hours. Expect to pay $100 for the driveway detergent, crack filler, long-handled roller, and sealer needed to do the job.
If you have a concrete driveway, you don’t need to maintain it—unless it’s less than a year old. It’s very important that during the first year of curing, no salt come into contact with the surface; don’t salt your driveway and clear any roadway salt that gets thrown onto it.
• Clean your gutters. In the Midwest, this task is especially crucial because of freezing and thawing. “After a snowfall it’s typical for the sun to come out just long enough to melt the snow on your roof, which then drips into the gutters,” Lesh says. “But the water freezes before it’s all drained.” If your gutters are clogged with debris, standing water freezes and forces its way up under the roof shingles or into the eaves, which introduces moisture that can eventually rot the roof decking. Trapped ice and frozen debris can also bend your gutters so that they don’t drain well, or even pull them away from the house.
• Schedule your annual furnace checkup. Your technician should be able to tell you exactly what he’s going to check to keep your furnace maintained. Lesh recommends asking open-ended questions (“What specifically will you be cleaning?”) and making sure the contractor is checking fuel connections, burner combustion, and the heat exchanger. In the meantime, you should be checking your furnace filters monthly and changing them whenever they’re dirty. Inspect floor grates and return ducts regularly and clean them out with a vacuum cleaner brush. You may want to enroll in a yearly maintenance agreement with an HVAC professional that includes a fall furnace service and a spring air conditioning service. Otherwise, expect to pay $50 to $100 for a furnace tune-up.
You don’t need to prepare your outside air conditioning unit for cold weather because it’s designed to withstand snow and cold. In fact, if you cover your unit with plastic to protect it, you provide a place for mice to overwinter and gnaw through the unit’s wiring. If your unit sits in a spot that’s vulnerable to falling ice or heavy tree limbs, place a sheet of plywood over the top and cover with a loose drop cloth for protection; just don’t enclose the space completely.
• Make sure deck and porch boards are secure. Loose or warped boards are hazardous. Prop up low spots with wooden shims and fasten loose boards with galvanized deck screws
• Insulate your whole-house fan. If you use a whole-house fan to help cool your house, be sure to cover it when not in use with an insulated box or other cover. “If you don’t, heated air—which you’ve paid for—will enter the attic,” Lesh says. Introducing warm, moist air into the attic will then cause frost to form on the cold surface of the roof decking, which melts and drips onto the attic floor—your ceiling, in other words. Mold and staining can result.
You can make a simple fan cover from a batt of insulation; make sure it fits snugly over the opening with no gaps. For about $30, you can buy duct tape and a piece of 2-inch-thick polystyrene foam and make a foam box to fit over the top; 2-inch foam has an insulating value of about R-10.
Attic fans, designed to remove super-hot air from attics, are usually installed in the roof or gable ends of an attic space. Unlike whole-house fans, attic fans don’t require insulation, but fall is a good time to investigate whether animals have tried to force their way in through the screen covering the vent. Replace the screen if necessary.
• Scrape, prime, and paint. Lesh recommends painting wood surfaces early in the fall before the weather gets too cold and before winter’s moisture has a chance to do any damage. Scrape peeling paint even if you can’t get to the painting this season—water actually sheds better off bare wood than wood with peeling paint attached, which traps moisture.
• Prune back trees. After leaves drop, prune any nearby trees or bushes, especially if snowfall will cause them to bend and rub against the house. This can shorten the lifespan of your roof and siding.
Performing these important fall maintenance tasks can prevent costly repairs and alert you to developing problems.