- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 2, 2004

Labor Day marks the unofficial end of summer and the beginning of that time of year many homeowners dread — heating season and maintenance projects to forestall cold-weather damage. Homeowners who consistently perform routine maintenance

on their homes at each change of season may find the tasks less daunting than those who continually procrastinate on the upkeep of their homes.

“The main thing people need to think about as the cooler weather approaches is the thaw-freeze cycle,” says Brian Koepf, a home inspector with Brian Koepf & Associates in Reston. “The Washington area is in one of the highest weathering zones, which means it goes above and below 32 degrees a lot. Homeowners need to check the areas of their home that can be hurt during this thaw-freeze cycle.”

Most people recognize what preventive medicine can do for their bodies, but not everyone realizes that a small amount of time and money spent in preventive maintenance can provide similar benefits for their homes.

The benefits will come in more safety and a lower cost in both fuel bills and home repairs.

Arthur S. Lazerow, president of Alban Home Inspection Service Inc. in Bethesda, recommends that homeowners conduct a biannual safety check on their homes along with a seasonal review of the property. Many homeowners forget that heating a home causes many safety concerns.

“Any home with a gas- or oil-burning appliance should have at least two carbon monoxide detectors, one near the appliance and one in the master bedroom,” Mr. Lazerow says. “Big spenders can also have one installed on every level not otherwise protected.” The detectors cost around $30 each.

Mr. Lazerow gives the same advice to his listeners on “Real Estate Today,” broadcast at 10 a.m. Saturdays on WMET-AM (1160).

Leslie Ruffin, a home inspector with Home Survey Co. in Washington, also recommends carbon monoxide detectors for homes in which a fireplace is used often and those with an attached garage.

“Carbon monoxide is heavier than the air, so it’s important to install the detectors on the walls and not on the ceiling,” Mr. Ruffin says.

Mr. Lazerow also says: “Every home should be tested for radon. Too many people are ignorant of the radon hazard or simply do not care, but if 15 years later, someone in the home develops lung cancer and no one is a smoker in the home, radon is quite possibly the cause.

“There are too many examples of the neighborhoods with both high radon concentrations and elevated numbers of lung-cancer cases to ignore radon,” Mr. Lazerow says. “Home test kits cost around $35, and professional testing costs around $175.”

Although homeowners are reminded to check their smoke alarms monthly and to check and change the batteries when the time changes in spring and fall, they may not know when they need to replace the alarms.

“Smoke detectors, including the hard-wired ones, should be replaced every five years,” Mr. Koepf says.

Other safety-related tasks around the house include having a fireplace inspection and cleaning by professionals. The chimney and flue should be checked for needed repairs. Homeowners should always use a fireplace screen to keep sparks from causing a fire.

In addition to protecting the residents of the home and preventing a fire, homeowners need to take care of other responsibilities to forestall water damage.

“One of the most important and obvious tasks each fall and spring is to clean out the gutters and downspouts and make sure that the water from the downspouts is directed away from the house,” says Jim Rooney, a home inspector with Free State Home Inspections in Annapolis.

“Most people know that they should turn off their outside water, but a lot of people forget to disconnect the hose as well. If water stays inside the hose and connected to the house, it could freeze and cause all sorts of problems,” Mr. Rooney says.

Depending on the height and style of the roof, some homeowners may want to hire a handyman to check on the gutters. At the same time, the roof should be inspected to make sure no shingles are missing and to be certain the flashing is sealed.

Mr. Koepf stresses that homeowners need to inspect all areas of their homes that can be damaged by the freeze-thaw cycle.

“Besides draining the pipes outside the house, owners need to check on pipes in the crawl space under the house and protect pipes in walls if they can with things like extra insulation under the kitchen,” Mr. Koepf says. “The water should be drained out of the lawn sprinkler system, too. People with an outdoor swimming pool or spa need to winterize these systems but should not take the water out completely.”

Mr. Koepf recommends inspecting bricks and masonry, including walls and sidewalks, which should be patched before winter comes because the freeze-thaw cycle can cause small cracks to widen significantly. Wood trim and decks also should be treated to avoid rotting and splinters caused by water damage.

“Every homeowner should turn the main water-service valves and the water heater’s cold-water shut-off valve at least every six months. Proper operation of these valves can prevent major water damage if a flood occurs or the water heater fails,” Mr. Lazerow says.

While water damage from storms and pipe bursts are major concerns, homeowners also fret about high energy bills during the heating season.

Plenty of small but practical steps can be taken to lower the bills, including changing the filter in the furnace to make sure it keeps working properly.

“It may seem obvious, but sometimes people forget when the weather changes to make sure all their windows are tightly closed,” Mr. Rooney says. “Homeowners should check the weather stripping around their windows, repaint and caulk, if necessary, and make sure the hatches in the attic are closed so cold air doesn’t seep into the house and warm air out of the house.”

Many homeowners choose to maintain a service contract on their heating and air-conditioning systems. As the equipment gets older, it becomes even more important to have at least a yearly service inspection. Heat pumps must be above the snow level and should be swept clear of debris, including snow.

“When winter comes, people should turn off the circuit breaker to the air conditioner because it can be damaged if it is accidentally turned on in winter,” Mr. Koepf says.

“[In] most homes which are vertical, such as a town house or almost any two- or three-level home, [systems] should be adjusted so that the heat goes to the lower level in the winter,” he says. “Many homes have a duct damper lever at the furnace to adjust this, or you can open and close the air-supply registers in different rooms for the same effect.”

Mr. Ruffin suggests that homeowners with concerns about energy costs and efficiency do an on-line energy audit or contract with someone to do an audit and then make minor repairs such as adding insulation, caulking and weather stripping.

Fall is also a good time to prepare the landscaping for spring and summer, trimming shrubs and tree branches, weeding, and aerating and seeding the lawn.


• Inspect roof, especially areas near flashing

• Clean and repair gutters

• Check walls, stairs and railings for needed repairs.

• Disconnect hoses, drain of water, shut off outside water.

• Winterize lawn equipment.

• Touch up landscaping, aerate the lawn and check grading.

• Pressure-clean and seal deck.

• Have heating system professionally inspected and serviced.

• Check that heat pump is above ground and 12 inches from any fences or walls.

• Change furnace filters.

• Have fireplace professionally inspected and cleaned.

• Turn off circuit breaker to air conditioning.

• Check smoke alarms; replace alarm batteries and possibly alarms.

• Check weather stripping and caulking around windows and doors; replace if needed.

• Make sure to close all hatches to the attic to keep heat in the house.

• Adjust duct damper or air-supply opening registers so that the warmest air is directed to the lower level of the home.

• Install carbon monoxide detectors.

• Install storm windows.

• Make sure you know how to shut off your water if the pipes freeze.

• Try the Home Energy Audit check list at www.homeenergysaver.lbl.gov

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