A man cleaning out the gutters of a home. White text says 'Consumers' Checkbook' in the bottom right corner.

Time To Winterize: Fall Projects That Save Money

As fall arrives, it’s time to prep our homes for colder, wetter conditions. In this guest post, our friends at Consumers’ Checkbook help us prioritize projects so our homes are ready to safely and efficiently weather the winter.

With winter coming, it pays to know which household projects to take on. From improving energy efficiency to keeping rain and snow outside where they belong, home maintenance can save you money on utility bills and costly repairs. But it can be tough to know where to start, so we selected a few fall projects to help you protect your home and save money.

Note: In the interest of brevity, we don't always include safety precautions for DIYing these tasks. So, general rules: Be careful out there, especially on ladders; wear eye protection; wear a mask when crawling around dusty attics or crawlspaces; unplug or shut off the circuit breaker to anything that uses electricity before you mess with it; lift with your legs; and follow instructions, owner's manuals and warning labels.

Check Your Detectors

Some simple tasks can help you protect yourself and your property. You'll probably be turning the heat up soon, so it's important to test all your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. If you have water-leak detectors, now is a good time to check those, too. Test and reset outlets equipped with ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) and arc-fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs). While you're at it, you can make sure any home security devices are working properly.

Replace Air Filters

Replacing air filters is the most important maintenance task for heating and cooling air systems. Check your filter monthly until you see how quickly it gets dirty at different times of the year. When a filter has a matting of dirt — i.e., it's difficult to see through when you hold it up to a light — it's time to replace it (usually at least four times a year).

Clear Floor Drains

Pour water into indoor drains to make sure they, well, drain. Make sure outdoor drains aren't covered or clogged up with leaves and other debris.

Clean Your Gutters

It's a messy job, but someone should do it: Stopped-up gutters can cause major problems, including wet basements and crawlspaces, ruined siding and trim, and damaged interior walls. You'll need to clean less often if your gutters are covered with guards, but these devices won't nab everything.

Important safety tip: When moving your ladder and while working, make sure to give power lines a wide berth: They may not be properly insulated; touching one, particularly with a metal ladder or while standing on a metal ladder, might bring a quick and permanent end to your gutter-cleaning responsibilities. Many workers and homeowners die this way each year. Electricity can also arc or spark from a high-voltage line to a metal ladder that gets too close. A dry, fiberglass ladder is safer but still may not prevent shocks.

Have a Backup Plan for Your Sump Pump

If you have a sump pump protecting your finished basement, or your sump pump often activates, consider adding a second sump pump to your system plus a moisture alarm to the top of the sump pit to avoid surprise floods.

Seek Leaks

After heavy rain, check your attic for wet or water-discolored wood. Pay extra attention around your chimney, which is typically the most vulnerable spot for seepage. Then examine your basement, cellar or crawl space to look for moisture problems. Throughout your home, regularly inspect all ceilings and walls for discoloration and blistering/bubbling paint, wallpaper or plaster — sure signs of plumbing or roofing leaks above. Moisture meters are handy for finding hidden headaches behind walls and tile.

Double-Check Ductwork

Check for holes or gaps in exposed ductwork, and seal them with mastic tape or heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) foil tape. Leaky ducts can waste 20% or more of your home heating energy bill.

Deal With Drafts

A few easy-to-do and inexpensive tasks can significantly cut your utility bills. Look for leaks by turning off your furnace on a cool, very windy day; shutting all windows and doors; turning on all exhaust fans that blow air outside, such as bathroom fans or stove vents; and then lighting an incense stick and moving around your house and noticing where smoke is blown to find sources of drafts. Focus on inspecting areas where different materials meet — brick and wood siding, foundation and walls, and between the chimney and siding. Then turn off any lights in your attic and look for spots where daylight sneaks in. Use caulk to seal any cracks or gaps measuring less than 1/4-inch wide. For larger cracks, use polyurethane foam sealant. To minimize leakage around doors and windows, install weather stripping, and replace it every few years. Finally, check insulation levels in your attic: Most homes in the U.S. have less-than-ideal attic insulation; the cost of improving insulation is usually eventually recovered by energy savings.

Program Your Thermostat

Reset your thermostat for cool weather. Programmable thermostats easily save you a lot of energy. If your home is unoccupied during the day, you can save 5% to 15% per year on energy bills by dialing down temps by 10 degrees to 15 degrees while you are away. Unfortunately, many homeowners who have programmable thermostats don't use them, but new models make programming a snap.

Reverse Your Ceiling Fan

Flip the directional switch on your ceiling fans to make the blades spin clockwise for winter. That pulls cooler air up to the ceiling, which pushes the warmer air down the walls to you.

Check Your Chimney

Check for excessive buildup of soot and creosote, which is flammable black stuff that can coat the insides of chimneys and create a fire hazard. There is no set timeframe for how often to have chimneys swept. It all depends on its design and how often you use it.

The Chimney Safety Institute of America recommends cleaning when masonry fireplaces accumulate 1/8 inch of sooty buildup — sooner for factory-built fireplaces. While you definitely don't want a chimney fire, beware of companies that use inspect-and-sweep opportunities to recommend expensive, unneeded work. Proceed cautiously if a chimney service says yours will be unsafe unless you pay thousands for a new liner or similar expensive repairs.

Remove the Rot

Inspect, repair and correct damage from the rainy season. Check roof, siding, flashing and caulking around windows, doors and siding joints. Look for rotting wood, peeling paint and deteriorated seals. Inspect fences, decks or other wooden structures to determine if they need to be resealed, repaired or replaced.

Watch the Water

Stroll around your home's perimeter while it's raining and make sure runoff is flowing away from, not toward, the walls. Make sure water from gutters splashes at least three or four feet away from your home. If you spot problems, consider hiring a drainage company for regrading work.

Trim the Trees

Trim back shrubs and any landscaping that touches your house. Remove dead or dying trees or large limbs. Prune branches that might rub against or fall on your house. To prevent stripping off bark, stub-cut branches that are too large to be supported by hand, making a final cut that leaves behind a smooth trunk. Keep in mind that pruning coniferous trees — those with cones and needles, such as pines, spruces, firs and yews — is different from pruning other trees and shrubs since they don't replace growth. If you prune them for shape or size, you'll have to live with the results.

About Puget Sound Consumers' Checkbook

Puget Sound Consumers' Checkbook and Checkbook.org are a nonprofit organization with a mission to educate and help consumers. Checkbook also evaluates local service providers — home improvement contractors, doctors, dentists, veterinarians, stores and more. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the companies it evaluates. BECU members can try Consumers' Checkbook for 30 days for free and can get 50% off their annual subscription.