How to winterize your home

Updated January 17, 2024

No matter how much we hope, wish and pray otherwise, it’s inevitable — winter is coming. Freezing temperatures, heavy snow, and all sorts of unpredictable weather make Canadian winter challenging for everyone.

When the weather is turning colder, and the leaves are starting to fall, it’s time to start preparing for winter. What can you do to winterize your home? Here, we’ll cover some basic tips to keep your home safe through the winter, and a few home insurance tidbits as well.


Thumbnail of the Winterizing Your Home video

How to properly winterize your home

1. Check your fireplaces

Family with red socks on in front of a fireplace

Everyone loves a blazing fire, but the truth is: open fires indoors are a hazard. There’s always the possibility that they may spread and become uncontrollable.

Make sure the flue is open for proper ventilation when you build a fire in the fireplace, and place a screen around the fireplace to keep sparks from flying out into the room. Burn hardwoods, such as maple or oak, that don’t create as much ash as softer woods. Avoid burning paper, cardboard or trash for the same reason.

2. Chimney maintenance and cleaning

A fire in the fireplace helps to bring warmth and light to a room in the dark of winter. However, if you don’t maintain your chimney, you could have problems. A chimney that hasn’t been cleaned before seasonal fires are lit may mean smoke that wafts back into the house, creating a breathing hazard.

In addition, an unclean chimney will have creosote — the sticky residue from burning wood — built up inside, which can potentially lead to a chimney fire. On top of that, chimneys can clutter up with leaves and birds’ nests, causing dangerous blockages that can lead to smoke and fire.

Also, be sure that your flue closes tightly when the fireplace isn’t in use, or you may feel unpleasant drafts that cause your furnace to work harder. If you’re not planning to use the fireplace much at all, you might consider capping the top. This will keep out both drafts and animals.

3. Check your roof, gutters, and downspouts

Winter weather can wreak havoc with roofs. Constant battering by the elements decays the supports, the shingles, and the insulation, leading to leaks.

Ice dams are also a potential roof-related threat during cold weather. Especially on pitched roofs, falling snow can slide down the slope of the roof and accumulate at the edges, causing icicles or blockages to form on the eaves. This accumulation prevents moisture from running off the roof properly and it may leak into the attic.

Replace worn shingles or tiles. Check flashing to make sure water can’t enter the home. Clean out the gutters with a scraper or spatula, and rinse with a hose. Consider installing leaf guards or adding extensions on the downspouts to direct water away from the home.

4. How do you prevent frozen pipes?

Indoors or outdoors, your pipes are vulnerable when the temperature dips too low. Water freezes inside the pipes, and its expansion may cause the pipes to burst, leaving you to clean up the mess.

Rather than waiting for trouble to find you, track down any pipes that may be exposed to cold air, especially those in the basement or attic, and wrap them with insulation. If a pipe does freeze, take action: open the tap fully and use a hairdryer to warm the pipe. Work your way along it and you’ll find the frozen spot; when you melt the ice, water will gush from your tap.

If you have water pipes running through unheated areas of the house, wrap them with foam rubber sleeves or fiberglass insulation. Shut off the water to your hose bibs with a turnoff valve inside your house, and drain the lines.

Another option is adding heat tape to vulnerable pipes. Heat tape is essentially an electrical cable installed directly onto pipes, that gently warms them when the temperature drops.

5. How to winterize windows

Person works on windows on exterior of a house
  • Check your windows. Replace old or inefficient ones to prevent heat from escaping, or seal drafty windows with clear plastic. Hanging thermal curtains can also help to prevent drafts.

  • Install your storm windows to add an extra layer of insulation, or consider coating your windows with clear film that helps keep out the cold but not the light.

  • Keep the curtains and blinds open during the day to let sunlight warm the rooms; close them at night to keep the heat from escaping the room.

  • Fix the cracks. Ten per cent of home air leaks occur around your windows. Prevent leakage by applying weather stripping and caulking or getting an insulation kit. Your energy bill will thank you.

  • Remove air conditioners that are set in windows so that you can close the windows tightly.

  • If drafts come in under the doors, use rubber strips to prevent them.

6. Check your heating and furnaces

  • Check your furnace. Turn it on to make sure it’s working properly. The best time to contact a professional to get your furnace cleaned and tuned is before the weather gets cold. Filters should be changed often during the winter, as dirty filters reduce air flow and can cause fires. And if your furnace is more than ten years old, you may want to consider upgrading to a new energy-efficient model.

  • Reduce the temperature when you leave the house and when you go to bed to save on heating costs. You can save up to three per cent on your heating bill for every degree you lower the temperature over time. It will also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Buy a programmable thermostat (or a smart thermostat) that can raise and lower temperatures on a schedule. Place your thermostat where it won’t be affected by light, drafts, etc.

  • Make sure all vents and baseboard heaters are clean so air can circulate efficiently.

  • Insulate places where heat is lost easily, such as attics, basements and crawl spaces. If insulation anywhere is less than 20 centimetres thick, it’s time to add some.

  • Close closet doors. There’s no need to heat storage space, unless it contains pipes.

  • If you use space heaters, clean them prior to winter usage. Dust and debris that build up on your heating coils could cause a fire.

7. Check for other leaks

An easy way to find out where heat is leaking out, and cold is seeping in, is to walk around inside your house on a windy day, with a lit incense stick. Hold it near the usual leaky areas, such as window and door frames, and electrical outlets. When you find the leaks, you may want to install weather stripping, or caulking to seal the gaps. Foam insulators can be installed behind light switches and electrical outlets.

8. Check your ducts

Homes with central heating can lose heated air before it reaches the vents if the ductwork is not properly connected or insulated, especially if it has to pass through any unheated spaces. And remember to have the ducts cleaned every few years to get rid of built up dust and hair.

9. Check your ceiling fans

During the winter, switch your ceiling fans to spin clockwise. This way, they will gently pull air up from the floor, pushing the warmer air at the ceiling out and down. And close your closet doors. Keeping them closed means you’re not heating any unnecessary space.

10. Check your foundation

Rake away any debris, and seal up cracks or other entry points for water or mice.

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Keeping your sidewalks safe

People clearing the sidewalks of ice and snow in a city

Winter brings with it the holiday season, when we all tend to have more visitors than usual. Have you considered what might happen if one of them were to slip on your icy step? If a visitor injures themselves on your property, you could be on the receiving end of a lawsuit. It’s important to make sure your sidewalks, steps, and anywhere else visitors may walk are kept clean, well-lit, and clear of anything anyone might slip on or trip over.

If someone comes onto your property, it’s your responsibility to make sure they’re not at risk of being injured.

Even if you haven’t actually invited them onto your property, you still must take all reasonable precautions to ensure there are no hazards present. That’s doubly true if you actually have invited someone over.

Keep in mind as well: if you operate a home-based business, you have a responsibility to make it safe for any customers that might visit.

How do you de-ice your driveways and walkways?

Eavestroughs aren’t the only place where ice can accumulate and cause winter problems. Sidewalks and driveways freeze over quickly when snow and sleet falls.

Many municipalities have bylaws that require you to shovel your sidewalks within hours after a snowfall to prevent others from slipping and injuring themselves, but even without that incentive, keep your own family safe by clearing your driveway and walkways.

Salt, sand, and kitty litter can help to melt precipitation and offer some extra traction to pedestrians. If you’re worried about falling on someone else’s property, add some winter cleats to your wardrobe.

Does home insurance cover liability risks?

Most home insurance policies include both protection for damage to your property and liability insurance. Liability insurance is designed to protect you if you are sued as a result of unintentional bodily injury or property damage arising out of your ownership, use, or occupancy of your premises.

In other words, if someone slips on your icy sidewalk and sues you, your insurance policy will cover your defense costs. It will also pay up to the coverage limit (which usually starts at $1 million) if you’re found liable for the unintentional bodily injury. It’s important to make sure that any rental or vacation properties you own also have liability insurance.

If you operate a business out of your home, this liability coverage likely won’t extend to your business activities. That is to say, if you have customers coming over and they slip and fall on your icy walkways, your home insurance’s liability coverage likely wouldn’t cover the situation. So, not only is it important to keep your sidewalks safe, it’s important to have the proper home business insurance if you have a home-based business. Always keep your insurance provider informed of any business activities taking place at your home.

So remember, keep your walks clear of ice and snow this winter! And make sure you have enough liability insurance, just in case.

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