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6 Fall DIY Home Projects That Can't Wait

Get ready for winter by checking gutters, pipes, heating systems

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Shorter days and cooler weather make it tempting to curl up under a blanket and hibernate until spring. It’s a good plan, but before the snow flies, cross these six home improvement projects off your list.

1. Clean the gutters

The first snowfall of the season is not the time to learn your gutters are filled with debris or too loose to handle the weight of the snow.

“Falling leaves can create a buildup, and when it rains or eventually snows and the snow melts, the water will need a clear path to run,” says Steve Cunningham, owner of Cunningham Contracting and chair of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). “Making sure you have clear downspouts has the same reasoning, [so] debris does not build up.”

Clean your gutters, or better yet hire a pro to tackle the job. While you're at it, look for areas where gutters are loose and may have torn away from the house. Reattach them using gutter spikes, brackets or hangers. Clean, well-secured gutters are essential to protect the foundation of your home and reduce the risk of basement flooding.

2. Check smoke detectors

Man installing smoke detector

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When you change the clocks to standard time, change the batteries in your smoke detector.

“Fall is a great time to install new batteries as you are preparing your home for cooler months,” says Amy Rea, senior fire and life safety educator for the Charlotte Fire Department in North Carolina.

Remember, if your alarm chirps—a sign the battery is low—replace it, no matter the time of year.

Once you’ve replaced the batteries, test the smoke detector: It’s as simple as pushing the button to make sure the alarm goes off. Don’t ignore hardwired smoke detectors; many have battery backups and those batteries need to be replaced, too. You should also replace any smoke detectors that are over 10 years old.

"Alarms are constantly checking the air for smoke, and after 10 years, the effectiveness of the alarm may decrease,” Rea says. 

3. Hire a chimney sweep

A chimney sweep isn’t just a character from Mary Poppins. These fireplace pros remove soot and creosote that build up in the chimney and pose a fire risk. A professional chimney sweep, certified through the Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA), will clean the chimney and inspect the entire fuel venting system for warped metal on the damper, cracked or collapsed flue tiles, cracks in the exterior masonry and other signs of fire damage. The National Fire Protection Association recommends an annual chimney inspection.

Russ Dimmitt, CSIA's director of education, notes that a clean chimney makes it safer to build a cozy fire in the winter; it’ll also make your fireplace more efficient.

“A chimney that has been swept not only helps prevent chimney fires but will also aid your fireplace ... to operate more efficiently as the smoke and other flue gases can exit the chimney more quickly,” Dimmitt explains.


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4. Perform furnace maintenance

Call in the pros before turning on the heat. Regular maintenance ensures that your furnace runs at peak efficiency. Without semiannual maintenance (in the spring before running the air conditioner and in the fall before turning on the heat), airborne allergens may get trapped in the filters, resulting in poor indoor air quality.

Cunningham suggests having the furnace inspected to make sure it’s in good working order and changing the filters before starting it up for the first time.

Furnaces that are not cleaned at least once a year can wear out more quickly and can stop working altogether. And soaring energy costs make it more important than ever to ensure the furnace is running efficiently. ​

Hand installs faucet cover to protect the plumbing from freezing in the winter

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5. Winterize water pipes

Data from the Insurance Information Institute shows that almost 30 percent of homeowners insurance claims were related to water damage and freezing. So make sure to drain outdoor water spigots and winterize water pipes to reduce the risk.

You can winterize water pipes by locating your hose bib shut-off valve, which may be in a basement or crawl space, and turning it off at the source. For extra protection, purchase a Styrofoam cover that attaches over the outdoor spigots to keep them from freezing.

These quick fixes can provide protection against the elements as temperatures drop. You may also want to shut off water to exterior faucets and drain sprinkler systems for extra protection against freezing pipes and water lines.

6. Assess windows and doors

person caulking a window sill

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Heat lost through windows and doors can account for up to 30 percent of home energy use, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

To keep heat in the house, look for cracks or gaps in the exterior caulking, check seals around exterior door and add caulking or weather stripping as needed. While these DIY fixes can reduce heat loss, a professional energy assessment can provide additional insights into areas where you may be losing heat and recommend fixes. Call your utility company to ask about their services or get a recommendation for a pro.

Spending a few extra hours tackling these home improvement projects this fall will keep you warm and safe all winter long.​

Jodi Helmer is a contributing writer who covers gardening, health and the environment. She has also written for Scientific American, National Geographic Traveler and NPR.

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