Guard Your Home Against Old Man Winter

Is your home protected against winter’s icy chill? Here are a few places to keep out the cold and stay comfortable this winter.

The leaves have fallen off the trees and winter’s chill is in the air. While a walk in the snowy weather can feel relaxing or romantic, there’s nothing soothing or poetic about Old Man Winter following you indoors.

Keeping your home warm and energy-efficient is crucial to staying comfortable this season, and there are a few easy places to lead your defense against cold winter air.

Insulated Windows

Anyone who’s replaced outdated windows knows what happens when a winter breeze rattles the pane. Cold air has little problem finding its way through a damaged or aging window.
New vinyl window frames are not only built to block the winter cold, but they’re also installed to keep outdoor air where it belongs.

There was a time when window installers shoved fiberglass insulation into the cracks between windows and drywall, says Ron Strobel, owner of Simply Windows and Doors, 9235 S. Illinois Route 31 in Lake in the Hills. These days, professionals turn to a more surefire solution.

“We use a spray foam made for windows and doors so that it does not expand heavily,” Strobel says. “That’s a great way to stop those air leaks and drafts that you feel coming in around an old window.”
Spray foam has a higher resistance to heat loss than fiberglass, thus making it a better insulator. It expands to seal and close any gaps and cracks behind the casing around a window.

These days, windows themselves are built with better insulating properties, too. The standard model now includes double- or triple-pane glass with insulating argon gas between the panes that blocks cold air. While some cold will still escape through the window, it’s a vast improvement over older technologies.

“Even if you have a triple-pane window, there’s still some air that will get in,” Strobel says. “The cold air hits the outside, transfers into the inner sheet, then into the next sheet and then into your home. Triple panes work so much better because you add another layer and another air pocket. Each air pocket is insulative.”

Even the frame around a window is vastly improved over traditional wood models.

All-vinyl frames have hollow pockets of air inside that act as natural insulators – just like the space between two panes of glass. This additional protection blocks the outdoor air even further. Overall, vinyl windows are also more airtight than wood windows. They lose an average of 1.125 gallons of air per minute, as opposed to the 1.725 gallons lost through a wood frame, according to window manufacturers. A good vinyl window might lose as little as 0.23 gallons of air per minute, Strobel says.

“As far as keeping the home comfortable, the vinyl’s going to do a little better because of the insulation inside it,” Strobel says. “It gives you more comfort and you don’t feel that cold air.”

Retain Heat

There’s nothing quite like a cozy fire in your fireplace. The flames are mesmerizing, and the warmth, the crackling sounds and the woody fragrances are relaxing.

“What’s nice with a fireplace is the warm ambiance, what it does for the look of the house and just the feeling of being able to have a fire going,” says Andrew Benson, owner of Benson Stone, 1100 11th St., Rockford. “People have been doing that for all of time, so it is still enjoyable to see the fire.”

As comforting as those traditional fireplaces are, there’s a downside that many people don’t realize: These types of fireplaces are inefficient, and they lose most of their heat through the chimney.

A traditional wood-burning fireplace pulls air from the room and sucks it up the chimney, taking most of the heat with it. The net effect is a colder house, says Benson.

Newer fireplace technologies account for this effect and do a better job of heating a home. Direct vent gas fireplaces, in particular, help to vent harmful exhaust while still heating a room to a comfortable temperature.

“It has a beautiful log on the inside and looks like a traditional fireplace, but it’s sealed off,” Benson says. “It functions like a miniature furnace. You put that in your family room, flip it on at night and you have a beautiful fire to look at. But, at the same time, you’re not sending any room air out the flue and you’re getting a lot of heat back.”

These units typically operate on natural gas and can be installed most anywhere, from an existing fireplace opening to a newly built niche. Because they don’t require a chimney and vent directly out of a wall, they’re easy to match into an existing space with any type of framing, facing materials and style.

“It looks beautiful, just like a regular fireplace,” Benson says. “Once it runs for a little bit, the fan kicks on nice and quietly and it just starts pumping heat into the house.”

Although gas fireplaces are almost a standard these days, Benson has seen an increased interest in a different kind of wood-burning fireplace.

Free-standing wood stoves in some ways resemble an old-fashioned potbelly stove, with a black metal box for the fire, a pipe for exhaust and feet to keep the unit off the floor. Like direct vent gas fireplaces, these models have sealed glass doors that help to retain heat. Since it’s wood-burning, this model must be vented straight outside, yet it’s still more cost-efficient than its traditional cousins, Benson says.

“The new wood stoves burn very efficiently, the glass stays clean, but you’re controlling the amount of air that goes into them,” Benson says. “When you load wood into a free-standing wood-burning fireplace, it lasts two to three times as long as if you just threw it on an open fireplace where it has unlimited air supply and burns really fast. This burns for a long time, you get a ton of heat out of it, and you’re not paying for gas.”

Consider Alternative Approaches

Generations of homeowners have turned toward gas-powered furnaces to heat their homes for winter, but with a growing trend toward electrical appliances and alternative power sources, there’s a new player in town. Heat pumps are emerging as an alternative – and energy-efficient – way to warm up a cold home on a brisk winter’s day.

“Anyone with solar panels on their roof should be exploring adding this type of system to their home to heat with electric as much as possible,” says Mike Lea, of Lea Heating & Air Conditioning, 570 Rock Road Dr., in East Dundee.

This electric-powered system uses the same concept as an air conditioner, but in reverse – and without the use of natural gas. Heat pumps take energy from the air outside and use a refrigerant to transfer heat back in.

The system brings together indoor and outdoor units connected by refrigerant lines and electrical wiring.

In the past, heat pumps were incapable of producing heat when outside temperatures were below freezing. However, today’s heat pumps have made leaps and bounds, Lea says. They are much more able.

“Heat pumps of the past were never an option in Chicago because they provided little heating below 40 degrees outside,” he adds. “Some variable speed heat pumps today can provide 90% to 100% capacity at temperatures as low as 10 to 20 degrees outside.”

The most economical system on the market today is a hybrid system, Lea adds. Hybrid systems like the Bryant Evolution combine a gas furnace with a high-efficiency variable-speed heat pump, which kicks off only when temperatures dip below a certain threshold. Then, the gas unit fires up. Lea finds this hybrid approach is especially well-adapted to the cold Midwestern winter.

Selecting the right gas-powered furnace – for a hybrid or traditional setup – is an important part of the puzzle. Unfortunately, nearly 80% to 90% of all homes have an oversized furnace, Lea says. When an old unit is replaced, the installer typically tries to match the old unit’s BTU, a measure of heat output. That’s problematic, says Lea, because it means your new furnace is waisting natural gas.

“Today’s furnaces are much more efficient in how they operate, and the BTU output rating is a lot higher than the older furnaces,” Lea says.

Keep Up on the Little Things

Experts know best, but there is a lot homeowners can do to ensure they get the most out of their windows, fireplaces and HVAC systems before there’s a need to call the professionals.

If you’re looking for some easy warmth, let the sunshine in by opening the curtains and blinds, says Strobel. The heat from the sun’s rays transfers through the windows and into your home.

Cleaning your windows also makes a huge impact. In fact, most window problems are rooted in neglect and lack of maintenance, Strobel says. Cleaning the weatherstripping once a year can go a long way toward extending a window’s lifespan.

“As dust builds up and dirt embeds itself into those sills, the weather stripping gets harder and it doesn’t perform as well,” he says. “If you didn’t do it in spring, do a good cleaning so you can extend the life of your windows. Take a rag and wipe them down. If your window doesn’t slide well, sometimes a dry silicone spray will help keep dirt away.”

If you have a traditional wood-burning fireplace, ensure you sweep and haul out any ashes or leftover residue after every use, says Benson. If you have a gas fireplace, turn it on before the cold weather arrives so you can do a quick checkup. Gas fireplaces have valves and pilots that may become faulty over the years, so it’s best to test the unit to avoid those mid-blizzard service calls.

For a furnace, the best thing a homeowner can do is make sure to regularly replace the air filter. Over time, furnace filters accumulate dust, dirt and debris. The more there is, the harder your system has to work to pull air through the system. The result is higher energy bills, inadequate airflow and more wear on your system. Technicians like Lea typically recommend using the cheaper air filters and replacing them monthly. If your system has washable filters, give them a quick rinse once a month or so.

“The biggest thing that prolongs the life of your furnace is the maintenance,” says Lea. “We see that people who keep up with maintenance at least twice a year tend to get a longer lifespan out of their system.”