Tips to ensure your home survives the big chill and other disasters

There’s always something isn’t there? Having a house is an open road to material dramas year round, but in winter, when it’s gloomy, wet and cold, even lesser mishaps take on a gothic perspective.

It’s time to protect you and yours with a few checks and changes before the worst of the long, dark howling season arrives.

Frozen pipes

This psychological chiller could take days of watch and wait, to safely undo. Keep out of trouble with a few inexpensive investments.

In a truly cold snap, run your cold taps regularly (not overnight), and drain the outside taps if you can isolate them. Keep the heating running at 12C-15C if outside temperatures fall to below freezing. Identify the most vulnerable pipe-work visible above ground and get it under wraps, but keep in mind that without warm water flowing, any pipe can freeze.

Split sided foam pipe insulation should be closely butted together and snugly sealed at all joins and bends — don’t forget the stop-cocks. Ensure the base of any water tank in the attic is not resting on insulation (preventing it stealing a little heat from downstairs).

An electrically heated ‘trace’ cable can be attached to outdoor or attic pipe-work with aluminium tape before insulating to prevent freezing in truly awful conditions. Try the website www.frostsolutions.ie  for more information. If the pipes do freeze despite your best efforts, only attempt gentle thawing methods such as warm wet towels reapplied to the suspect area. Don’t fire up a blow-torch.

Drowning by water bill

The first thing to know is what you are facing in terms of water usage. We appear to be politically becalmed on billing, so use this time well. If your water meter is in, take a 24-hour reading to estimate your litres per day — long before the first individually recorded bill thumps to the mat. According to a recent survey by Irish Water, 65% of those questioned had a power shower. In just seven to eight minutes at 25l per minute, this could fill two baths. Just shaving off a minute saves as much as 9,000lt. Buy a dedicated, waterproof digital shower timer. Regularly using the eco-cycle on the washing machine (otherwise a wash out of 50l or more per load). For more hints and information visit www.taptips.ie 

Electrifying power and gas bills

Here, we are onto a winner as competition is blazing through the utilities market, and with some cost comparison, switching, and a stiff change of sloppy habits, you can trim those shocking figures.

Do a survey with Electric Ireland to consider what you could do to smarten up behaviour around the appliances. Then stepping shamelessly away from our former single national provider and that standard rate, do a bit of comparison work on www.uswitch.ie  or another consumer site accredited by ComReg.

If you have gas, it’s worth investigating bundling your utilities for the best price on both electricity and gas supply, but check those T&Cs. Bord Gais is now in competition with Flogas and Energia, while Electric Ireland also has a gas/power bundle on offer. Paying online and by direct debit, will generally render the best deal and uswitch will handle the transition process for you, no matter the provider. Also check out www.moneyguideireland.com/discount-alerts , for the latest (and not always loudly trumpeted) discount codes and deals on utilities, shopping, insurance and more.

Precocious rodents

Warm with an available food supply? Once winter beckons mice will start looking for a delicious, squalid squat.

Given a gap, as small as 6mm around a pipe or service point, and they’ll be in. Close proximity to food placed in dark corners will delight an opportunist mouse who will soon be breeding up eight young a month. For less serious infestations, humane traps can be used: a traditional remedy, mint leaves are known to repel mice when placed in drawers and cupboards. Check for penetration routes around conduit and pipes and clean up your act. Ultrasonic devices may also help send the interlopers on their way.

Home fires burning

If you have a fireplace or flue and intend to use it this winter it must be swept at least once a year. Accumulating soot and debris can include creosote that could block the passage of smoke and/or ignite into a chimney fire. Clear the area around the surround, removing ornaments, and back up furnishings and rugs if possible. Everything should be covered before the sweeping starts as a falling bird-nest or other debris can really raise a cloud of rubbish. The flue to your gas/oil flue should also be checked when your boiler is serviced. A clean flue working against any fuel, will increase the efficiency of your fire, stove or boiler. If you have just moved into a second hand home, have the chimney swept. According to the Chimney Sweeps Association of Ireland, unseasoned wood is the main causes of chimney fires. Wood should have a moisture content of just 15-20%, something you can check with a commercial moisture metre if you’re sourcing wood from all over the place this year (from around €25 for an entry level model). Check out their website at www.csai.ie 

Darn damp

There are domestic troubles that loudly trumpet their hideous presence and there are those which quietly tune up into a major issue. Seeping, dripping, pooling moisture from neglected gutters and drains is a discreet cause of damp and water ingress, which, if left untreated, will reduce winter comfort levels, ruin interior decoration and potentially set you up for future structural problems.

If you have a head for heights, a good ladder and a sturdy friend to foot it, you can clean your gutters yourself, but take steps to stay safe and stable. A garden trowel can be used to scoop heavy muck into a bucket, with a final rinse with a hose played off the roof. Ensure outside wall vents are unobstructed and your DPC is free of creeping soil and leaf piles which can conduct moisture up outside walls. If you improve your insulation levels indoors, match it to adequate ventilation in the high humidity areas of the kitchen and bathroom.

Alarmed? Fire and CO

Kya deLongchamps stresses the importance of fire and smoke alarms

Every family home should have two alarm systems included on every floor – a fire alarm (or set of alarms) and a carbon monoxide (CO) detector (or set of detectors). This is to protect against deadly smoke, flames and carbon monoxide gas, which is potentially present where any type of heating fuel is burned.

If you are moving into a new house, there should be a CO alarm installed by the contractor, as they are now compulsory for new boilers, fires, heaters and stoves.

The CO alarm should be fitted close to the position of the appliance, with another detector sited outside or near bedrooms. As a householder you are legally required to install CO detectors after renovations too.

Site one near bedrooms and another in habitable rooms with an active chimney. Both fire and CO alarms can be mains powered (with battery backup) or solely battery powered, and start in the area of €25 for an ionisation fire alarm.

Perfect installation and bi-annual power checks are crucial to ensure your alarms are primed for performance. Fire alarms should be installed on the ceiling as close to the centre of the room as possible. When purchasing a carbon monoxide alarm, check that the alarm complies with the EN 50291 standard and choose a visual and audible alarm as you are vulnerable to CO poisoning when asleep. Ensure your family understand an agreed upon plan in the event of fire. Have your heating appliances serviced annually even with the protection of an alarm.

Heavenly heat-savers

* Heat the space you are in. Use those thermostatic radiator valves properly. TRVs can keep spare rooms slightly warmed, and lived-in rooms cosy. Essential for zoning a family house.

* Shop around if you are buying in domestic oil. Prices shift from week to week. Ask if your local supplier can match the price of the competitor. The tank should only be filled to 80%-90% of its capacity to avoid spillage. Re-order when the tank is ¼ full.

* One-fifth of your heating can escape through poorly insulated doors and windows. Brush and foam sealing strips can be tailored to render any structurally secure door or window relatively weather tight. Don’t forget the letter box which can pop open in the wind.

* Use insulating lining to curtains. If you can sew a straight line, the job is relatively simple with a decent sewing machine. Take curtains right to the floor and well over the top of the window recess, and consider using Velcro to seal them vertically to the wall as a full cloak.

* Foil backing boards put behind radiators will prevent the units heating the wall behind, help the system be more reactive, and will reflect more heat back into the room. A step up, ribbed metal Heatkeeper radiator panels start at €31.99 for a 5 pack from www.electicirelandstore.ie 

* 15% of your heat can be sucked straight down through slivers in any sort of suspended floor. Seal gaps in floorboards with a silicone-based sealant (this has some elasticity and can move with the board). Add rugs to further warm things up underfoot.

* Insulating the 50sq m attic space of a typical house costs around €254 (DIY), and will save in the area of €76 per year in fuel bills (SEAI), paying for itself in just three years. For more information on snuggling the house up further go to www.seai.ie 


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