How to prepare your home for winter

Keep your family cozy.
Scarf around a miniature green house - conceptual view of protecting or isolating house Ilka Erika Szasz-Fabian

A few winters ago, it snowed in my apartment. And there wasn’t even a blizzard raging outside—instead, a few small snowflakes had drifting down through gaps in the skylight. The droplets of frozen water didn’t actually chill me that much, but the wind blowing through those same drafty holes did. The flakes had been annoying, but the real issue was that my apartment was far from ready for the coldest season of the year. Don’t be like me. Winterize your home and stay cozy.

Check your heating system

The first thing to look at is the heating system. According to Bruce Snead, Director of the Engineering Extension at Kansas State University, “That’s the thing that provides comfort, and that’s where the dollars are spent.” Whatever system you rely on—depending on where you live, it might be wood furnaces, heating oil, or another source of heat—you don’t want it to conk out in the middle of the winter, forcing you to pay for emergency repairs. So make sure it’s in working order as the cold weather sets in.

In all cases, Snead recommends checking your heating unit to make sure that all filters are changed and servicing is up to date. To avoid the buildup of any combustible byproducts in your home, ensure the unit is venting properly. While you’re at it, install your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Finally, servicing your furnace for winter might mean having someone come out in the fall. While paying for maintenance can be annoying, it’s better than having your heating system die and leave your family shivering.

Install a programmable thermostat

Once your furnace is working properly, your next step is to efficiently control the heat that comes out of it. Heating costs can add up quickly, especially if you’re keeping your home at a high temperature while you’re not there. Avoid this problem, and save energy, by installing a programmable thermostat.

You can set this smart device to run your heating system at different temperatures during the day. For example, set it to go low while you’re at the office, turn up the temp when you get home, and turn down again when you’re cuddled under the covers at night. While you could make these adjustments manually, a programmable device will be more reliable.

“I think the attractiveness of a thermostat is that if you forget or get distracted, it will still adjust,” Snead says. “With the low cost of these programmable thermostats, it’s well worth it.” Utilities recognize the advantages of this system, and some will even offer their customers discounts on these gadgets.

Seal up leaks

To help out your thermostat and heating system, make sure the heat stays in: Seal up any drafts like the ones that plagued my old apartment. You’ll mostly find these around your windows and doors.

For windows, you can seal them up with temporary caulk or an inexpensive plastic window insulation film. During cold winters in Boston, that thin film kept my apartment much warmer than it would have been without the seal. While sticking it into place can be a little tricky, the process is straightforward and requires only a hair dryer. Best of all, it just costs a few dollars.

While you’re looking at places cold can enter, don’t forget your air conditioner. Remove your window units or cover them up for the season so they won’t accidentally cool the house when you want it to stay nice and warm.

If this sounds like a little too much work, try a less intensive solution: Place draft blockers at the base of windows and doors alike to cover those places where the warmth can leak out.

Tackling other drafts, like those around pipes, might take a few more tools. Snead advises that you go around your home and check all potential leak points. “Seal around utility penetrations, lights, plumbing, open framing, spaces in the attic where heat might escape,” he says. “Those gaps are easier to seal up during construction of a home, but it’s really cost effective to make sure they’re blocked off now.”

Take advantage of the sun

While the windows can let heat out, they also let warm sunlight in. Snead suggests that people with south-facing windows open their curtains or blinds during the day to let the sun’s light and heat ease the burden on the furnace. But after the sun goes down, don’t forget to close those drapes again, allowing the extra barrier of fabric or wood to help insulate the home.

Cover your water heater

You aren’t the only one affected by the chill—it also saps energy from your hot-water heater. To prevent this, Snead recommends covering your heater with an insulating blanket during the winter. With this extra layer, your morning shower will warm up faster and stay hotter for a longer amount of time.

Check your pipes

If you live in an area where pipes freeze frequently, avoid a costly repair bill by checking whether your pipes are insulated against the cold. In addition, avoid burst pipes by keeping the heat on inside the house (at a low setting), even when you’re not there.

For outside pipes, like sprinklers, call a service company and ask them to drain the system of water before the first big freeze. While you’re preparing your home’s exterior, clean your gutters to free them of leaves and debris. This will prevent ice dams from forming and help get rid of heavy snow on your roof.

Fan yourself

And last but not least, ceiling fans keep you cool in the summer—but they can also help you stay warm in the winter. Simply reverse the direction in which the fan turns, from counterclockwise in the summer to clockwise in the winter. When it spins clockwise, instead of blowing cool air around the room, a fan can draw frigid air up to the ceiling and push heated air—remember, hot air rises—down toward you and your family.

Some of these winterization techniques might cost money up front. But in the long term, being energy efficient could help you cut down on heating costs. And ultimately, you’ll be glad to have a safe and cozy home all winter long.