Winterize Your Home - Canadian Woodworking Magazine

Home Improvement: DIY tips to make your house less drafty this winter

Winterize Your Home

Winterize Your Home



Illustrations by Len Churchill

They say there are only two sure things in life: death and taxes. We Canadians can count on a third: the dog days of summer will eventually be followed by some bitter winter nights. Before Old Man Winter envelops us, here’s a top-down look at some DIY tasks for winterizing your home so you have a more comfortable – and energy conserving – season.
 

Attic insulation

Your attic acts as a toque on top of your home. A thin hat with a few holes in it is fine in the early fall, but in the dead of winter you want a thick, tightly knit covering to keep your head warm. Same goes for your house. Depending on the age of your home, you could have little to no insulation in the attic. If it’s loose, blown insulation, there may be areas where it’s piled up high, and other shallow depressions where the insulation has settled.
 
The only way to know for sure is to pop your head up in the attic and check. If you do see highs and lows, grab some lumber or plywood to lay across the joists so you have a platform to work from, and use a rake to even things out.
 
When it comes to insulating attics, the more the merrier. The current Ontario Building Code, for example, calls for R-50 in newly constructed homes. Extra insulation will also help keep your home cooler in the summer, by blocking the heat, keeping it from radiating down into the house.
 
The easiest way to boost your existing insulation is to buy some bags of fiberglass or mineral wool insulation and lay the batts on top of what’s already there, fitting them snugly against each other so there are no air gaps. Anyone who’s ever handled insulation knows that it’s itchy, so you’ll want to wear long sleeves, gloves and a dust mask. (This is definitely not a mid-summer chore.)
 
Just make sure you don’t block the soffit vents along the very edge of the roofline. These allow air to flow in and out through the roof vents to prevent moisture and mold from building up in the attic.
 
If you’d rather spend less time in the tight confines of the attic, Owens Corning also has a DIY product for adding more blown insulation. You can rent an AttiCat insulation blower from most building supply stores, along with the bags of insulation that work with it.
 
If your attic access hatch is just a piece of thin wood, you should attach some insulation to the top side of that, and line the edges of the opening with weather stripping for a tight seal.
 
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Add Up Top – To add insulation to your attic you can first ensure the insulation that’s there is properly placed. Then, if need be, add more batts of insulation on top of the existing insulation. Ensure there are no gaps between the batts for the best protection from the cold.
 

Windows and doors

Along with light and views of your property, windows also let in a lot of cold air. If your windows are really old individual panes of glass, or newer ones where the thermal seals have failed (condensation between the glass panes is a common indicator of a broken seal), it might be best to install new windows. Depending on where you live, you may be eligible for a rebate (see “Rebate Rewards”).
 
If replacing your windows isn’t in the budget, there are a couple of low-cost, temporary options. The cheapest, and frankly, unsightliest, is to cover them for the winter with sheets of clear plastic film. Hardware stores sell kits with various sizes of plastic and the double-sided tape to affix it, that you then heat-shrink to fit. The other downside with these is that you can’t open the windows for fresh air during those mid-winter Chinooks without damaging them.
 
For something more permanent and reusable, you can add storm windows on the outside, or buy custom-fitted inserts that install on the inside. One of the most common areas for air leaks in a home are the gaps around window frames and doorframes. Here’s a tip for tracking down the drafty spots in your home: On a windy day, light an incense stick and go from room to room holding it close to windows and exterior doors (and baseboards, more on those in a minute). Any time the smoke billows, take note of the draft to be sealed.


Use colour-matched caulking to seal around all the edges of the window frame, inside and out. If you haven’t used a caulking gun before, practice laying down a few beads on some scrap material first so you get the hang of it. Cut the tip of the tube so that you get the narrowest bead possible to fill the gap. Once you reach the end of the area to be caulked, use a moistened finger to press it in and smooth out the finish.
 
Exterior doors should have an airtight seal within the frame. Before we finally broke down and replaced our front door, I could see daylight between the door and frame. Despite my best efforts to seal the gaps with weather stripping, the 50-plus-year-old wooden door was just too warped to fix. We bit the bullet and replaced it with a modern, airtight fibreglass door.
 
If you’re not ready to replace your old door, adding an exterior storm door in front of it can act as an effective air barrier. Otherwise, there are a variety of options for adding weather stripping around the door. The cheapest and easiest option is peel-and-stick foam strips, but be warned, they’ll likely only last a season or so before they start to come unstuck. A better option is a rubber compression strip mounted on a sturdy metal backing. This goes along the top and sides of the door. At the base, you’ll need a door sweep to seal the gap between the bottom of the door and the sill.
 
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Quick and Easy – Though it might not look the best, and it has to be repeated annually, adding plastic film to your windows provides protection from winter’s cold and wind. Double-sided tape is applied around the perimeter of your window’s interior, the plastic film is applied to the tape, the film is trimmed flush, and then you can use a hair dryer to shrink the film so it’s less visible.
 
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Fill the Gaps – Even small gaps around the perimeter of your windows can let a lot of cold in. Applying caulking around the exterior of your windows is an easy and quick way to keep your home warmer next winter.
 
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Weather Stripping – Weather stripping that seals the sides and tops of your exterior doors will go a long way toward keeping the cold and wind out, especially in older homes where gaps have appeared around the doors. Cheap weather stripping is easy to apply, though it will likely only last for one season. Weather stripping with a metal backing is harder to apply but lasts much longer.
 

Fresh Air

As wasteful as a drafty home is, the leaks do provide one beneficial side effect: fresh air circulation. That’s why modern homes with continuous air barriers on the exterior, and code-rated or higher insulation need to have a heat-recovery ventilator (HRV). These units work in conjunction with your furnace, using the stale air circulating through the house to pre-heat fresh air drawn from outside before running it through the furnace. In order to qualify for government grants and rebates (see “Rebate Rewards”), you usually have to have a home energy audit. The auditor will be able to tell you if all the energy conservation measures you’ve undertaken warrant adding an HRV to your home.

Walls and ceilings

In a really drafty home, you may be able to see dust bunnies rolling along the floor like tumbleweeds. While today’s building code calls for a continuous air barrier around the exterior of the home (thus the house wraps such as Tyvek that you see on new construction projects), most homes were built prior to this requirement. The older the home, the more likely there are gaps for air to filter in through the walls. All these gaps add up. You may recall a commercial starring David Suzuki a few years ago where he made the point that the cumulative drafts in an older home are, on average, the equivalent of a basketball-sized hole in your wall.
 
A bead of caulking along the top and bottom of all the baseboards helps seal off the room from drafts. The idea is to seal off each room so any air that does filter in through the exterior wall gets trapped in the cavity behind your interior walls instead of seeping into your living space. If you feel a draft coming out of the electrical receptacles, there are foam inserts that fit behind the cover.
 
Next, walk around the outside of your home and inspect the areas where the pipes for natural gas and wiring for cable or phone lines enter the home. Odds are, the caulking around those has dried out, leaving gaps. If the gaps are larger than about 1/4" wide, you’re best to back fill them using a can of spray foam insulation. Once that dries, cut away the excess and cover up with caulking.
 
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Tiny Openings – There are times when sealing gaps above and below your trim help to seal the interior of your home from the elements. Wind has a way of working itself into the tiniest of openings and will bring with it cold air.
 
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Seal Up the Pipes – Any utility pipes that enter the home have to be sealed properly to keep the cold out. Gaps larger than 1/4" can be filled with spray foam, while smaller gaps can be closed up with caulking.
 

Rebate Rewards

Depending on where you live, you could be eligible for rebates from various levels of government, your utility company, or building material manufacturers for installing energy conserving products. Environment Canada’s Office of Energy Efficiency has a searchable online database of current rebate programs at oee.nrcan.gc.ca.

Basement

A home with an unfinished, uninsulated basement is like going through winter without boots: cold will radiate from the ground up, chilling you to your bones. If your basement walls are uninsulated or only partially insulated, that’s step one. Framing a wall is a fairly easy task for an experienced woodworker. Fill the gaps between the studs with insulation, install a sealed vapour barrier (the poly goes on the inside/warm side of the studs), then cover with drywall.
 
Even if the basement is mainly used for laundry and storage, a raised subfloor keeps your feet off the bare concrete and blocks the cold from radiating up from the ground and into your home.
 
Note that if the floor is unfinished dirt or a cracked concrete slab, your family could be at risk of radon exposure. Radon is a naturally occurring, odourless, radioactive gas that seeps up from uranium deposits in the soil. You can buy a disposable radon testing kit to find out if you’re at risk. A properly sealed basement floor is the best protection against exposure.
 
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The Basement – Adding insulation to your basement walls will go a long way toward keeping your basement, and the floor of your main level, feeling warmer.
 
ALLAN BRITNELL
allan_britnell

abritnell@sympatico.ca
Allan has bumped up the insulation and sealed drafty windows and doors at each of the three homes he’s lived in.
 








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