Cold months, Cozy Home

January 2024

by stephanie hobby

When the weather outside turns frightful, safely keeping your home warm is vital. Pipes can freeze and burst, an unattended hearth can ignite a blaze, and furnaces on the fritz can cause bigger problems than just a chilly night. A little upfront effort in prevention goes a long way to keeping energy costs down and preventing a major disaster.  

One of the best defenses is good insulation. Laura Sciacca, owner of 406 Disaster Response, says modular homes are particularly vulnerable to frozen pipes and encourages owners to invest in insulated skirts if their home isn’t on a foundation. 

Speaking of pipes, if you haven’t already, disconnect your hoses and cover outdoor faucets. Contact a plumber immediately if you discover a pipe with a slow leak. As with most home maintenance, the earlier a problem is caught, the less it costs to fix.  

If you’re headed out on vacation or leaving a vacation home for the winter, keep the heat at least 55 degrees F. “Sometimes people will shut off their heat if they’re going on vacation or leaving for the season, but if you’re going to do that, the water lines can freeze, which can cause problems,” Sciacca said. She recommends contacting a plumber to winterize the lines if you are leaving long-term. 

There’s nothing like sitting in front of a cozy wood fire or enjoying a burning candle during Montana’s long winter nights, and you can do it worry-free with a few precautions. Make sure the chimney is cleaned annually. If you haven’t done it yet, it’s time to take your dead Christmas tree down. Once they dry out, plugging them in becomes a significant fire risk. Keep candles away from anything flammable. Never go to bed while a fire is still burning, and put a screen over the opening to prevent popping embers from igniting the living room rug. 

While space heaters are great for small areas, they are notoriously dangerous. Sciacca explained never to leave one unattended or attach one to a power strip or extension cord, as they can arc and cause a fire. People sometimes use them under their homes to prevent frozen pipes, but that is very risky.  

The real powerhouse of safe winter comfort is your furnace, and keeping it adequately maintained once a year will keep you and your family comfortable for 15-20 years, possibly longer if properly maintained. 

Jeffrey Scherr, owner of Comfort Heat and Air Conditioning, said furnace technology has come a long way in recent years, and high-efficiency furnaces are your best bet for even temperatures.  

“Even though a much older furnace is working and heating your home properly, the additional cost you spend on natural gas and electricity can be quite significant,” Scherr said. Ideally, set up a yearly maintenance plan with a local HVAC company, which can alert you when your furnace is reaching the end of its life, but if you haven’t, be proactive. “They typically fail right when you really, really need it, and then it becomes an emergency situation, whereas if you replace it on your own time and your own schedule, you can get what you’d want,” he said.  

To boost your furnace, seal up any windows or doors where air can leak through, and consider foam inserts for exterior wall electrical switches and outlets. Check the batteries in your thermostat, and turn it down at night.  

Keeping the furnace fan running will help your thermostat function more effectively. “If you look at some cars, there are three temperature zones, and that’s 15-20 square feet,” Scherr said. “If you have a house that’s 1500 square feet on each level, and one thermostat upstairs in the middle of the home, that thermostat has no idea what’s happening any place else in the house, so keeping the fan going can help.” If areas of your home aren’t being heated evenly, reach out to your HVAC contractor for solutions.  

A home humidifier is a must in our dry climate; not only can it help prevent dry, itchy skin, eyes and throats, nosebleeds, and breathing problems, but it helps eliminate static charges and is particularly helpful for keeping wood flooring in good shape. It also helps the house to feel warmer on a lower thermostat setting. “Keeping the relative humidity between 35 and 50 percent is optimal,” Scherr said. That range can prevent the growth of various molds and bacteria that thrive in either really moist or arid environments.  

If disaster strikes, call a restoration company and your insurance immediately. Remember that you do not have to use the restoration company your insurance recommends; by law, they must work with your chosen company. Sciacca recommends hiring a company with an IICRC rating, which ensures that a company has been trained to meet globally recognized standards, credentials, and certifications for the inspection, cleaning, and restoration industries.  

Above all, please don’t feel you must go it alone. Contact your HVAC contractor if you have questions or need preventative maintenance. “Most of us are more than happy just to come out and answer questions,” Scherr said. “We have a menu of options we can offer to boost comfort and efficiency.”  

Originally printed in the January 2024 issue of Simply Local Magazine

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