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Fri, Feb. 21

The difference between a cozy and chilly winter is home maintenance

It's November! It was 70 degrees the day I wrote this, and I was working outside in a T-shirt. But winter is coming, and by the time this is published there could be snow on the ground. I never watch or check weather reports. I get up and look to the West - that's my weather forecast. I tell my clients that are new to the area that the only thing predictable about our weather is that it will be unpredictable. I have a coat in my truck all summer, and a T-shirt all winter, just in case. I remember Halloweens with a foot of snow on the ground, and I remember riding a motorcycle with no coat on Christmas day. As I've heard many times in Prescott: "If you don't like the weather, just wait 15 minutes."

But, of course, long-range weather forecasting is much easier: It will be colder in the winter than in the summer, and we may get snow. See, I'm more accurate than any other forecast. So here's some advice for the coming winter, especially if this is your first winter in a cold climate.

Heating system: Most homes have a gas furnace. I recommend having gas furnaces serviced yearly, ideally just before the heating season. A minor malfunction in a furnace can run up more in heating costs than a service call will cost, and can be a safety concern.

Whatever kind of heating system you have, turn it on now (if you haven't already). It's better to find a problem now than on that first frosty morning.

Most fireplaces are not very efficient heating devices. But they also go all summer unused and should be checked carefully before using the first time in the winter. Chimneys for woodburning stoves or fireplaces should be checked and cleaned. Gas fireplaces are more common now, and many of these vent through an exterior wall rather than up to the roof. Check fireplace vents on exterior walls carefully. These seem to be very attractive to birds - I have found nests in dozens of these vents.

A carbon monoxide detector is a good idea in any home with any type of woodburning or gas appliance (including a gas water heater, range, etc.). I have two carbon monoxide detectors in my home, one in the bedroom hall and one in the living room with the gas fireplace. These detectors are inexpensive and easy to install. Mine are battery operated and screw to the ceiling like a smoke detector. Speaking of that, check your smoke detectors too.

Water Heater: Water heaters should not require any winter maintenance, unless you live in a 1930s cabin and the water heater is out back by the outhouse. You may want to adjust the water heater thermostat in the winter. Most plumbing pipes are underground (under a concrete slab floor) or in the crawlspace under a home, and are colder in the winter. And the cold water coming in will be colder, so it will take more hot water to make the same temperature water at the tub or shower.

Hose faucets: Most hose faucets are freeze resistant, unless your home was built before the '80s. There is an easy way to check for freeze resistant faucets - water will drain from these faucets for several seconds after you close the valve. This is water draining from the pipe, which is what prevents the faucet (or pipe) from freezing. If you have freeze resistant hose faucets you should not have to cover or insulate them. But, you must disconnect hoses and adapters during the winter. Anything connected to the hose faucet will prevent the faucet from draining properly and could allow the faucet to freeze.

Most irrigation systems should be should be shut off during the winter. Some irrigation systems have a drain valve. This is usually a hose faucet in a pipe or box in the ground. This may be near the zone valves, but can also be anywhere (e.g. at a low area to allow more water to drain). If you are connected to a city water system you likely have an anti-siphon valve. These are usually large brass valves. The anti-siphon valve can be in a ground box, but more often is above ground and covered with an insulated cover (or the occasional fake rock). Anti-siphon valves are pricey and should be turned off and/or drained in the winter. If you are not familiar with your irrigation system you should consult with a landscaper.

I get calls every winter saying the overhead garage door opener has stopped working correctly. The most common call is that the door will no longer close - it reverses and returns to the open position. Sometimes overhead doors do need adjustment after a change in the weather. Even if your overhead door is operating normally, you should check the automatic reverse feature. Most doors have a beam at the bottom and the door will reverse if this beam is interrupted. The doors should also reverse if they hit an obstruction -follow the manufacturer's instructions for this test. You should release the door from the opener and operate it manually to make sure you can open and close it (e.g. if the power fails). The door should be easy to operate manually and should stay in the fully open position. The overhead door is the largest and heaviest moving object in most homes (insert mother-in-law joke here), and the springs are under a lot of tension. If you are unsure of how to test the door, or if the door needs any type of adjusting, you should consult with an overhead door installer/contractor.

I have to go - time to put the Sorrel boots and insulated gloves in my truck.

Randy West owns Professional Building Consultants in Prescott. He is state-certified and has performed more than 6,000 home inspections in the Prescott area. West serves on the Home Inspector Rules and Standards Committee for the Arizona Board of Technical Registration. Contact him at

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