12 Ways to Save Your Home From a Winter-Weather Nightmare
Let's opt out of frozen pipes this year.
Winter landscape seen through the window, and green plant on a windowsill.
With much of the country prepping for dangerously cold temperatures, now's the time to get your home ready before chilling risks become your worst nightmare. (There's nothing more fun than ice dams and frozen pipes!)
Before any first-time homeowners begin to panic, there are a few things you can do to prepare your home for the harsh winter conditions. Industry experts share their top tips on how to avoid costly damage during winter. Take a look:
First, Start Outside
Wooden house with rain gutter in winter. Roof gutter at a wooden garage
Clean out gutters of all debris and position downspouts away from your home's foundation.
Cut away tree branches that hang over your house. Snow buildup on branches can be heavy and cause them to fall.
— Mark Welstead,
Check Your Windows
"Condensation has built up on a winter window with some moisture freezing in the corner. This is a fairly efficient double pane window. However, the exterior temperature is very cold and the humidity level in the home is too high. Many homes have whole house humidifiers installed as a component of the HVAC system. Humidifiers require automatic or manual adjustment to produce proper humidity levels. In this instance, the humidifier is set too high causing moisture to condense on cold windows. The background is very blurred trees."
Gaps around the window frames and doors can allow air to leak inside, so make sure the weatherstripping is secure. If not, self-sticking weatherstripping is a useful tool for helping windows close more tightly.
In Detail: How to Fix a Drafty Window
— Kevin Tennant,
Protect Your Water Lines
A 3/4" copper water pipe is wrapped with braided heating cord to prevent freezing. This pipe is the main supply for a house and the background is blurred oriented strand board (OSB). This would be a typical installation in a house with an uninsulated crawl space or a mobile home.
Whether your home is an older home or a newer home, you really want to be sure that you're paying attention to your water lines located in the attic or crawl spaces. First-time homeowners should be aware of areas of their piping that can be exposed to harsh winds and cold temperatures. Water lines in crawl spaces should be wrapped in insulation with heat tape. It's also important to be sure that the heat tape is plugged in and working. Some crawl spaces have vents that allow air to circulate within the crawl space, so you'll want to close these in the winter to protect the water lines from cold drafts.
— Amanda Sims,
Reset the Humidity Level
Humidifier spreading steam into the living room
Use humidifiers with controls to reset the humidity level based on the outside air temperature. This combination will keep frost from forming as the chosen humidity level will be lowered while outside temperatures fall and be restored to normal during less severe weather. We recommend a normal humidity level of 35 to 45 percent. However, as temperatures dip into single digits, it should be set closer to 20 percent.
— Richard Ciresi,
Get Your Faucets Ready
Orange Cat Playing In Kitchen Sink
Allow a small trickle of cold water to run from your faucet. This will keep water moving in your pipes, preventing freezing.
Open under-sink cabinet doors to keep warm room air circulating around the pipes.
— Amanda Sims,
Install a Programmable Thermostat
Emily Fazio, 2015
A programmable thermostat makes life a little bit easier by allowing you to set your desired temperature and then not have to worry about it anymore. In the winter, a programmable thermostat allows you to save money on your energy bills. In fact, studies show that you can save one percent for every eight hours you set your thermostat down.
Here's how to set your programmable thermostat in the winter:
Use energy-saving setbacks: These are most beneficial if they last at least eight hours at a time. The best times for setbacks are during the day while you’re away at work and at night when everyone is asleep. The longer each setback period is and the further you set the temperature back, the more you’ll save.
Change the temperature by only a degree or two: When you do decide to override the setting, don’t crank the programmable thermostat way up. This doesn’t heat your home any faster and only stands to waste energy.
— Richard Ciresi,
Do a Quick Refrigerator Check
Set the Temperature for Energy Efficiency: The optimal refrigerator setting for food safety and energy efficiency is 36 to 38 degrees F. You should also keep the freezer at 0 to 5 degrees F. Setting your appliances any colder than this wastes energy.
Check the Rubber Door Gasket: In order to create a tight seal, refrigerators have a rubber gasket running around the door. Over time, the seal can weaken as the gasket collects debris and wears out with age. When this happens, warm air enters the refrigerator, forcing it to work harder to remove the additional heat. This means higher energy bills and a refrigerator that wears out faster. To help the door gasket last longer, clean it periodically with an all-purpose cleaner. If you suspect the gasket is losing its ability to seal tightly, conduct a simple test: shut the door on a dollar bill and if it slides out easily, the gasket isn’t sealing tightly.
Your Guide to Frost Protection
Once autumn begins, it's a good time to start thinking about frosts and freezes and the effect they can have on your plants. Most garden plants, assuming they're hardy in your area, will weather the winter without any problem. An abrupt, early freeze may cause them to drop their leaves prematurely or cause some tissue damage, but most will rebound next spring.
Bring Tender Plants Indoors
Depending on where you live, some plants may behave as either annuals or perennials that simply can't handle even a light frost. Many people don't bother trying to extend the life of plants generally not meant to last more than a year and let them die back after a freeze hits. However, if you grow tender annuals and perennials in pots and want to save them, move the pots into the garage or house when frost threatens and take them back out when the weather warms a bit, at least for a week or two. This process allows the plant acclimate better to a drastic change in growing conditions.
Tropicals can go in the house or garage before temperatures drop below 45 degrees F. Before bringing them inside, spray any plants that appear to have pests, such as spider mites, aphids and mealy bugs. A solution containing neem oil works well for treating these pests. Once the plants are inside, cut back on watering and withhold applying any fertilizer until next spring. Don't forget to prepare your house for the new arrivals. There's nothing worse than watching the evening weather, only to discover that a freeze is on the way, and realize that you don't have any room for your plants.
Evergreens in pots can be especially vulnerable. If their roots freeze, they may not make it through the winter. Those in large pots may be fine during mild winters, but evergreens in small pots should be protected. Place them against a wall and cover the pots with mulch or shredded leaves. Keep them watered throughout the winter. Don't allow the root balls of evergreens in the garden dry out completely, even if it means dragging the hose out in the middle of winter and giving them a thorough soaking.
Cover Tender Seedlings in the Vegetable Garden
Fall veggies, especially tender seedlings, may need protection, although most can survive temperatures of around 28 degrees F with little or no tissue damage. Nevertheless, when the forecast calls for temperatures in that range, keep a few blankets handy to cover crops overnight. During the day, if temperatures rise above freezing, remove the blankets so that excessive heat doesn't accumulate beneath the coverings. Some people use clear plastic to protect their plants. Plastic causes more accumulation of heat, which is good, but if you don't take the plastic off before direct sun hits it the next day, your plants will cook.
Grow Hardy Herbs
Most culinary herbs are fairly tender but can survive temperatures in the upper 20s. However, some herbs, such as rosemary and thyme, can overwinter in their pots outdoors.
Watch Out for New Plant Growth
Interestingly, some plants may actually start to put on new growth in response to cooler temperatures, especially if summer temps were really hot. But that new growth is tender, especially in the case of broadleaf and needled evergreens, and unless it has a chance to harden off before a freeze, it may die back.
Resist Cutting Back Ornamental Grasses
If you grow ornamental grasses, resist the temptation to cut the foliage back until late winter or early spring because all that top growth helps insulate the root ball. That's especially true if the grass is only marginally hardy in your area.
Clean Out and Store Pots in a Protected Area
Keep in mind that freezes don't just affect plants. They can wreak havoc on other features in your garden as well. Even the best pots can crack if the soil is left in them over the winter, so remember to remove the soil. If you have time and are so inclined, scrub the pots clean with a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water.
Store Watering Cans in a Protected Area
Watering cans, especially galvanized cans, may expand and crack if water left in them freezes. Empty watering cans and place them where they can't collect rainwater.
Winterize Water Features
Water features are of particular concern during the winter. Small features will freeze, despite the running water produced by the fountain, and that can ruin the pump and the pot. So make sure you drain them and store the pot and pump in the garage or garden shed. Depending on where you live, larger water features and ponds may freeze over somewhat, but if they are deep enough or have a waterfall rapid and large enough, they shouldn't freeze solid. Consult a pond installation expert on how to properly winterize your water feature.Turn off water to irrigation systems and set automatic timers to the "off" mode. You may not want to turn the controller box off completely so you don't lose the watering schedule and have to reprogram it next season. It may be necessary to drain or blow the water out of the pipes. Consult your local irrigation specialist on recommendations. If any pipes, valves or the backflow preventer are above ground and exposed to the elements, wrap them with protective insulation, like insulator tape, to keep them from freezing. But don't insulate or block air vents or the pump motor.
Prepare Fish for the Winter
Koi enter a state of suspended animation during the winter and survive the cold water with no problem. Cut back on feeding the koi because the more they eat, the more waste they produce. In cold water the bacteria that breaks down that waste doesn't work well. So to maintain water quality, limit feeding to those occasional warm spells that may occur in the winter.
Plant Spring-Flowering Bulbs
Dig and store tender summer- and fall-flowering bulbs, such as dahlias. Plant spring-flowering bulbs like daffodils and tulips. Plant bulbs with their roots down. If the bulb has a sprout at the top, it can still be planted.
Avoid heavy pruning of trees and shrubs going into the winter months, but do prune away broken branches. Touch up mulch at the base of plants once temperatures are consistently cold.
In the perennial border, touch up mulch around plants for added winter protection. A layer of mulch about two to four inches deep is ideal. Unless you prefer otherwise, it is fine to leave foliage that has died back as it will help provide additional protection at the crown of plants. Leave ornamental grasses intact without cutting them back to discourage new growth during warm spells and encourage birds to visit.
Add Spent Plants to Compost
Remove spent plants from the vegetable garden and add them to the compost pile. Discard diseased plants in the trash. Turn over the soil with a garden fork (or till) to expose underground pests to cold temperatures. Caution: don't work soil when it's wet! Planting a cover crop can help reduce soil erosion, capture nutrients, reduce weeds and enrich the soil for spring. Winterize the compost bin by covering it with a tarp; this will help to keep the composting process going through the cold season. Occasionally soak the pile with water to keep it moist. Add an insulation of leaves or straw on the top and the sides of the pile.
Depending on where you live, there are different methods to winterizing roses. A good rule of thumb is to remove the foliage from on and around the base of rose plants; this keeps foliar diseases from overwintering and coming back next growing season. Prune away branches that show signs of decay or insect infestation; also cut long stems that can whip around in the wind. Throw away diseased foliage and cut branches in the trash, instead of composting it. Spray roses and the soil immediately surrounding them with a fungicide to protect plants through winter and hopefully keep disease from overwintering. A generous layer of mulch, topsoil or compost heaped around the graft union can also help protect it against the cold.
Remove Fallen Leaves
Fall is an ideal time for fertilizing your lawn. Remove fallen leaves by raking and composting them or mulch them with a mulching lawn mower.
Prepare Your Garden Tools
Preparing your garden tools for the winter helps to promote their longevity and makes using them next season much easier. Mark these must-do to-dos off your winterizing checklist. Wash off dirt that has dried and hardened onto garden tools, such as shovels and hoes. Apply linseed oil to wooden handles to prevent desiccation and cracking. Sharpen blades of tools, such as pruners, hedge trimmers and shovels.
Drain Your Hoses
Drain garden hoses and take them inside for the winter. Otherwise, water left sitting inside hoses can freeze and expand, causing the hose lining to rupture and create leaks. Repair leaky hoses and replace old and damaged washers and fittings. Thoroughly rinse pesticide sprayers and fertilizer/grass seed spreaders. Allow to dry before storing.
Prepping Power Equipment
Empty gasoline out of power equipment. To empty your lawn mower's gas tank, use it to mulch fall leaves on the lawn. Give four-cycle engines, such as lawn mowers and tillers, an oil change. Two-cycle engines, like string trimmers, use a gas-oil mixture in the gas tank. Although they don't require an oil change, the gas-oil mixture should be drained from the tank and properly disposed. Inspect spark plugs and replace worn-out ones. Check air filters and replace old, dirty ones. Scrape or hose off grass and other grime that has collected on power equipment, especially lawn mowers. Remove blades and sharpen before putting them back on.
For the Birds
Create a winter haven for your feathered friends. Provide them with the essentials: food, shelter and water. Keep bird feeders refilled throughout the winter season. If you're going on vacation during the holidays, you may want to think twice before leaving bird feeders unattended. Don't want to spend a fortune on birdseed or the time filling up bird feeders? Consider growing fruiting shrubs and trees that birds find naturally tasty. Drain and clean ceramic birdbaths before bringing them indoors. Clean all other birdbaths and keep them refilled. Provide shelter from the cold by way of birdhouses. Or, place nest-making materials, such as yarn, hair and dried grass, around the yard for birds to collect.
And Remember. . .
Generally speaking, winter frosts and freezes don't cause nearly as many problems in the garden as late-spring freezes, when plants are busting out all over with tender new growth. So don't panic this winter when the mercury takes a dive. Just do what you've got to do, then go inside and warm up by the fire.
Dedicate some time while the snow flies to getting your tools in shape. Time spent on tool maintenance in the garden’s off-season gives you more time to garden when spring arrives. Learn what you should do to put your tools in top working order.
Clean Cutting Tools
Clean blades of cutting tools, like pruners and loppers. For large chunks of dried sap, scrape blades using a piece of metal with a straight edge. If pruners have sticky pitch or sap residue, wipe blades using a cloth dampened with paint thinner. Once blades are clean, dry them with a clean cotton rag.
Now is the perfect time to clean up garden gloves. Nitrile-coated gloves can be hand washed or tossed in the washer and line dried. Slip your hands into gloves to inspect for holes. Recycle worn gloves as scarecrows or garden fence ornaments. Brush dried soil from leather gloves. If seams are splitting, consider sewing them to extend the wear.
If your hose leaked last summer, replace washers now. For hoses on hose reels that have developed a leak, bring them into a warm basement or garage area with a drain and make the necessary repairs now. You may need to remove the hose from the reel to replace washers inside the hose-reel connection. For hose splits, purchase a repair kit and tackle the job now. If hoses are stored in an unheated shed, bring them into a warm spot for a few hours so they’re flexible and easier to handle.
Clean Digging Tools
Remove dried dirt from tools using a stiff-bristle brush. If rust is present, sand it off using 80-grit sandpaper (for light rust) or a wire brush (for heavier rust). Wear safety glasses when removing rust. Sharpen edges of digging tools like spades and shovels with a file.
Oil Metal Blades
Apply a thin coat of oil to clean digging blades, especially steel ones, to prevent future rust. Mix one quart of motor oil (nondetergent 30W) with 2 cups kerosene or lamp oil. This thins the oil so it’s easier to wipe or spray onto tools (use a spray bottle sold for household cleaning). Apply only enough oil to coat metal surfaces—you don’t want it dripping off the tool. The small amount of oil on tool blades breaks down quickly in soil, so no worries about contaminating garden soil.
Check Tool Heads
Double-check the attachment point of all tool heads. If heads are loose, add a small screw to help attach the tool head to the handle. If screws are already present, use a screwdriver to check tightness. Don’t overtighten, though, or you risk cracking the tool head.
Repair Tool Handles
Replace broken handles on garden tools. Save old handles for stakes or to create measuring sticks (mark off the handle in 6-inch increments) for planting.
Clean Pruning Saw
Use a stiff bristle brush to remove any lingering sawdust from pruning saws. If sap or other residue is visible on the blade, wipe it with a rag dipped in paint thinner. Dry the tool with a clean cotton rag.
Prevent Rust with Oil
Wipe down pruning saw blades with a layer of motor oil thinned with lamp oil or kerosene. Use a ratio of 1 quart non-detergent motor oil (30W is fine) mixed with one pint of lamp oil. The layer of oil forms a barrier between the metal blade and air to prevent oxidation and rust formation.
Sharpen hand pruners, loppers and other cutting tools. Using a whetstone isn’t too difficult; simply follow the directions that come with it. You can also try specialized tools featuring a diamond, ceramic or high-carbon steel sharpening edge. Look for these honing tools online or at garden centers.
Sharpen Mower Blades
Remove mower blades and sharpen them. Winter is the perfect time to do this chore—don’t wait until you need the mower next spring to discover the blade needs sharpened. You can easily sharpen the blade yourself, or take it to a local hardware store. It’s a good idea to keep two mower blades on hand so you always have a freshly-sharpened one at the ready.
Rust-Proof Cutting Tools
Apply a light coating of oil or lubricant to cutting blades of pruners and loppers. Spray on the oil or wipe it on with a clean cloth. Rub it off lightly with very fine-grade steel wool. Be sure to spray lubricating oil into joints and moving parts of cutting tools. Create a tool oil by diluting 1 quart of 30W non-detergent motor oil with 1 pint of kerosene or lamp oil.
Tend to Handles
Check wooden tool handles for rough spots or splinters. Sand away problem areas. Wipe down handles with linseed oil or paste wax to preserve the wood and help prevent splitting or cracking.
Strip Wheelbarrow Handles
Don’t overlook wheelbarrow handles when you’re treating tools. Sand off any rough spots and wipe the handles with with linseed oil or paste wax to prevent future cracks or splits.
Winter often causes some deflation on wheelbarrow tires. Check and add air as necessary. In coldest regions, save this task until very late winter to avoid having to do it again once warm weather arrives.
Organize Garden Tools
Take time now to organize and hang garden tools. Put everything away before the spring garden frenzy arrives. Create new storage places for new tools. Hanging garden tools gets them off the floor and out of the way—and makes it quite easy to grab and go.
Straighten the Potting Bench
Clean up your potting bench. Ruthlessly review empty plastic pots, which easily accumulate. Recycle used plastic pots in curbside recycling programs or by returning to a local garden center (ask first if they take them). Consider slipping hand tools into a bucket of sand soaked with motor oil to keep blades clean and rust-free.