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As temperatures drop, it’s time to think about how you you and your family will feel inside your home this winter — comfortable and cozy or shivering and cranky? Your heating system is the star of the show, but there are other items on every high-performing home’s fall checklist: Air leaks need to be controlled and essential systems need to be checked. Here’s the list of things to consider as Old Man Winter starts heading toward town.

  • Tighten the building envelope — you can think of it as the doors, windows, basement, walls, and attic — via air sealing and insulation.

  • Check outdoor heat pumps, compressors, and furnaces to make sure they are operating correctly.

  • Check indoor components, including air handlers, mini splits, boilers, and furnaces to make sure they are operating correctly.

  • Check support systems indoors and out to guard against trouble.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these tasks.

Seal the Envelope

The building envelope is your first and most important line of defense — it’s what separates you from the outdoors. As the temperature starts to drop, close or install storm windows. Opt for ones with low-emissivity coating, which can save you up to 30% on your heating and cooling costs (and are a cheaper alternative to replacing windows outright).

If you haven’t taken a close look at your windows, now is a good time. Multiple panes of glass mean better insulation. If you’re thinking about replacing your windows and doors, new ones come with efficiency ratings from the Department of Energy (DOE).

“They measure the insulative capability of the window to keep cold out,” says Casey Murphy, SVP, Business Incubation, Pearl Certification. “They are also rated to prevent solar heat gain in summertime. But it’s not enough to have a good window; they must be properly installed. That means insulating around the framing, making sure the drainage plane is protected so you don’t have water infiltration to the house.”

If your exterior door has a combination screen/storm door and it’s getting chilly outside, close the storm window. The same applies to the back door and any side doors.

Finished basements typically have insulated walls. If yours isn’t finished, think about taking the next step, especially if you have HVAC equipment down there. They will perform better in a warmer conditioned space. “Insulate the perimeter,” says Murphy. “It’s critical before you finish a basement. Most people want the basement inside the building envelope.”

Most heat loss in a home goes through the roof, which is why attic insulation is so important. Check the DOE’s chart to see how much attic insulation is recommended for your geographic location. If you have easy access to the attic, compare the chart to what you see. Keep in mind that older homes were subject to less stringent building codes and may not have the recommended amount of insulation.

“If you have a home older than the mid-2000s, and the insulation has never been upgraded, you probably need insulation,” says Murphy. “Even new homes can benefit from more insulation unless it was built to the most modern energy code.”

Walls are the last element of the building envelope. Wall and attic insulation have evolved over the years. Depending on its age, your home’s walls are lined by a blanket of fiberglass, rock wool, cellulose, polystyrene boards, or a combination of materials. To find out how well your home is insulated without cutting holes in the walls, trained energy professionals in the Pearl Network can perform an energy audit, which typically includes a blower door test.

“The techs set up a big, calibrated fan that they place in the front door; they run the fan and get a reading as to how leaky the home is,” says Murphy. “They can walk with the homeowner and identify where there are leaks to help identify areas within the home that need improvement. It’s foundational to doing an energy audit.”

The fan can suck air out of the house or blow air in to get the readings needed to determine if and where your house may be leaking. Getting your building envelope as tight as possible is the first step on your autumn checklist, but not the last.

Going Outdoors

If your home is equipped with a heat pump system, the compressor may be located outside the house. Some central air systems also include outdoor compressors. There are even some types of furnaces that are placed outside the home. There typically isn’t anything on an outdoor heating or cooling unit designed to be serviced by a homeowner.

You will want to inspect the area around the units to make sure they aren’t getting buried in leaves, twigs, or other products of Mother Nature. Rake around the units and make sure nothing is impeding air flow into or out of intake or exhaust vents. Many HVAC techs in the Pearl Network offer fall maintenance specials to make sure everything is working correctly.

“These techs measure air flow and amp draw, which is how much electricity the system is using,” says Murphy. “We find that 60% HVAC systems are operating correctly; 40% are not. They might look like they are, but a good HVAC contractor will take the performance measurements, document that, and then make necessary adjustments based on those test results.”

If your home is equipped with window-unit air conditioners, consider removing them for the winter. If they are too large or cumbersome to remove, close the vents to the outside as temperatures drop.

Moving Indoors

Most homes in the U.S. include an indoor furnace that’s powered by natural gas. Boiler systems are also typically housed indoors in a utility room or the basement. Mini-split systems units hang on interior walls. Once again, there are no serviceable components in these systems for homeowners to be monkeying with; leave that to the pros. You can change air filters, making sure you are using the correct replacement.

“You can hurt the HVAC system if you put in a filter that isn’t appropriate for that HVAC system,” says Murphy. There is nothing for homeowners to do with radiators or the duct system, other than keep an eye on them for anything unusual, including strange noises or overly dirty ducts.

“Ducts can be leaky,” says Murphy. “They run through crawl spaces and attics, and they can draw everything in the attic and crawlspace into your living environment. Cleaning the ducts may be a way of avoiding polluting your conditioned air.”

Support Your Support Systems

All types of HVAC systems require electricity to operate. Thermostats, switches, pumps, compressors, and evaporators are useless without the juice. The winds, rain, and snow of autumn are threats to overhead power lines. Check your trees and make sure a loose branch isn’t going to take out the power. Natural gas, oil, and propane lines run mostly underground and generally aren’t affected by cold weather.

Boilers are hooked up to water lines, which run underground and are naturally protected from freezing. Outdoor spigots may or may not be protected from freezing. If a water pipe bursts in the basement where the furnace is located, there is potential for bigger problems. Check in with a professional plumber if you’re not sure about your faucet situation.

To help keep track of all your home maintenance efforts, create a Green Door account. Generate customized recommendations for home performance upgrades, connect with contractors who can help with maintenance or repairs, and set up your own monthly and seasonal maintenance reminders to ensure you and your family stay cozy (and your energy bills stay low) this winter.

Create a Maintenance Plan in Green Door

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