Spending a few hours this fall to button up your house and other valuables for the winter can save you big bucks down the line. There are plenty of easy and inexpensive ways to protect your possessions from harsh winter weather. Here's a checklist of preventive measures to consider before it turns cold:
Driveways, sidewalks and patios: Little cracks in concrete surfaces can quickly grow into big ones during the winter with the constant freezing and thawing of trapped moisture. Sealing cracks with ready-to-use concrete sealant is quick and easy: Just apply with a caulking gun or squeeze directly from the tube. A one-quart tube of sealant should cost under $10 at most home improvement stores and it goes a long way. By the way, rock salt used for winter snow and ice removal can erode concrete surfaces and kill surrounding grass and plants, so use deicing products that are safe for your surfaces and landscaping.
Gas grills: If you're through grilling for the season, turn off and disconnect the propane tank and store it separately, as winter cold is hard on the flexible tubing and can cause cracking, especially if it's still under pressure. Open burner valves to bleed off any trapped gas. Clean grates, flavor bars and grease trap using a wire brush and soapy water; add a little ammonia to help cut the grease. Be sure to clean out any ashes on the bottom of the grill because they'll trap moisture and may rust during the winter. Ideally, cover the grill and store indoors or in a dry outdoor location. If you store it outdoors, wrap the burners in plastic bags to keep moisture out and then cover the entire grill in a sturdy vinyl grill cover, which typically costs under $40 at home stores.
Lawnmowers/gas-powered garden equipment: Lawnmowers and other gas-powered garden equipment should be thoroughly cleaned, removing all caked-on grass, dirt and loose rust. A simple scrub pad made from repurposed aluminum foil works well for this job, particularly when used with a spray lubricant such as WD-40. Air and fuel filters should be changed, along with the oil. Most experts agree that the gas tank should be kept filled with gasoline that has been treated with a stabilizer, available at many hardware and auto supply stores. This keeps the gas fresh and prevents condensation and deposits from developing in the engine. Be sure to run the engine for about 10 minutes after adding the stabilized gasoline.
Motor vehicles: If you live in a cold climate, your car and other vehicles require a little TLC this time of year to make them safer and more efficient, and to help them last longer. Oil in the engine thickens in cold temperatures, making it less effective, so read the owner's manual and make sure you're using the right oil for winter conditions. Check and replace rubber parts, including hoses, belts and windshield wiper blades, as needed, since winter ice, snow and salt will wear them out at warp speed. Air pressure in tires typically drops as temperatures decrease, so check tire pressure more often during colder periods. Make sure you have the right mix of antifreeze in your radiator (get an inexpensive tester from an auto supply shop). If your car battery is more than three years old, have it tested to make sure it's able to hold a charge. When shopping for snow tires, it pays to compare prices. You might be able to save by buying tires online and having them shipped and installed locally.
Furnaces and ductwork: At a minimum, change or at least inspect your furnace filters once a month during heating season. A full, professional furnace cleaning and tune-up in the fall (mine costs about $150) will likely more than pay for itself in winter fuel savings. If your home is heated by a forced-air system, the U.S. Department of Energy says, about 20 percent of the warm air is wasted because of leaks and poorly sealed connections in the ductwork. It's well worth the cost to have your ductwork both cleaned out and properly sealed and repaired by a professional every few years.
Fireplaces and chimneys: For safety and energy efficiency, devote a little time to your fireplace and chimney before you light it for the first time this fall. Having your chimney professionally cleaned and inspected every two or three years is highly recommended if you use your fireplace regularly. To prevent water damage and possible fire hazards, fill cracks in the masonry work and around the chimney with a fireplace mortar product available at home improvement centers. Make sure the damper closes tightly when the fireplace isn't in use, so as to reduce the amount of heat escaping up the chimney. If you rarely use your fireplace, consider investing $60 or so in a DIY "chimney draft stopper" — an inflatable balloon-type device that temporarily seals off the chimney to reduce both heat and air conditioning loss to virtually zero.
DIY weatherproofing: A little experiment I did at our house last winter showed that every 10-ounce tube of window caulking (costing about $3 each) that I used to seal cracks around the house lowered our heating bill by about $3 per month. Over the course of the winter, that meant a savings of about $15 per $3 tube, and that was only in the first year. I'm convinced that I can caulk my way to becoming a millionaire! Simple, do-it-yourself steps for increasing energy efficiency around the home almost always pay for themselves in a single heating season. In addition to caulking, weather stripping around windows and doors, "shrink and seal" plastic window kits and spray foam insulation for filling larger gaps and cracks are all quick, easy and inexpensive fixes.
Outdoor water supplies/pipes: Unless outdoor water faucets are properly insulated or specifically designed for year-round use, the water supply to them needs to be shut off and the fixtures opened and properly drained before freezing temperatures set in. Similarly, in-ground irrigation systems for lawns and landscaping need to be fully drained (usually through a bleed-off valve) to avoid freezing. Carefully check and properly insulate any exposed pipes in crawl spaces and along exterior walls of the home. A burst water pipe caused by freezing is expensive to repair, but often it's only the beginning in terms of the total cost of repairing the resulting water damage.
Now that you've prepared your home and other valuables for the long winter ahead, treat yourself to a cup of hot chocolate or glass of wine in front of a roaring fire in your fireplace. Just make sure to deflate your chimney draft stopper first.
Jeff Yeager is the author of Don't Throw That Away!, The Ultimate Cheapskate's Road Map to True Riches and The Cheapskate Next Door. His website is www.UltimateCheapskate.com; you can friend him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.