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HOME IMPROVEMENT : 'Winterizing' the House to Keep Out the Orange County Chill : An efficient furnace, a clean chimney and good insulation can help homeowners keep the heat in and heating costs down.


If you're one of those new Orange County residents who've just moved from a place like Buffalo where winter is a bitter, painfully cold experience, don't think you're in for a season of hammocks and palm trees.

While it's true that we have no snow, sleet, ice or wind chill, we do get rain, Santa Ana winds, frost and the occasional hailstorm. We may have easier winters than our friends and relatives to the east, but we can't just treat our house like we do in the summer. There is such a thing as "winterizing" a home in Southern California.

Before you turn the furnace on during the first cold morning, it's probably a good idea to give it a once over.

"The first thing to do is service the filter," says Joel Gwartz of B.J. Discount Plumbing and Heating in Garden Grove. "If it's a renewable filter you've got to clean it, otherwise you have to throw away the old one and replace it."

A dirty filter will make your furnace work harder and use up more energy. There's also the possibility that dirt and dust can get into the blower motor and shorten its life.

"Look inside the furnace with a flashlight to see if you can get a look at the motor. If it needs to be cleaned, you'll have to call someone in; it's not a job for the do-it-yourselfer," Gwartz says.

If your gas furnace is continually having a problem with a pilot light that won't stay lit, have a technician or Southern California Gas Co. technician come out to check for a cracked firebox.

"I usually recommend that after a furnace turns 15 years old; you should check for cracks in the firebox yearly. The problem is that a crack can allow carbon monoxide fumes into the house which are odorless and deadly," Gwartz warns.

Winter is also when we start using fireplaces, and if your fireplace hasn't been used for a while or hasn't been cleaned, inspect it.

"Take a sharp object like a screwdriver, poke your hand up the chimney and scrape part of the wall," says Diana Cook of AaronsChimney & Fireplace Cleaners in Anaheim. "If loose creosote comes down, that's a sign that you need to clean your chimney."

Creosote is often created by the burning of new wood. By using wood that is fully dry, you can keep your chimney safe and clean.

Because the nature of chimney cleaning is both extremely dirty and dangerous, it's probably best to call in a specialist. "A good chimney sweep will check for any loose bricks or mortar," Cook says. "They'll also make sure your damper is working properly and the spark arrester is clean. Expect to pay around $60 per chimney for a cleaning."

In an older home, poor insulation around a window or door could make your furnace work twice as hard.

"Make sure the window closes tightly," says Laurie Green of Green's Discount Glass & Screen in Garden Grove. "There should be weatherstripping or mohair where metal meets metal to protect against drafts."

Doors should be checked to make sure there's some type of "sweep" at the bottom that will seal it when it's closed.

If your home's windows are old, drafty and in need of replacement, one way to save on the costs of installing new windows is to use a "quiet window," which is a 1/4-inch glass pane with a PVC frame that fits inside the house around the window. "It keeps heat from escaping and it deadens outside noise," Green says.

Your roof is your first defense against the elements, and it might be a good idea to take a look at it now. But before pulling out the ladder and climbing around up there, "try to check in late morning or early afternoon after any moisture is dried," says Dan Davis, a roofer from Seal Beach. "It can be very slippery, and very dangerous. And remember that with an older roof, you're doing damage just by walking on it."

With any type of roof, Davis recommends checking for loose shingles or tiles and looking for any exposed tar paper. "Take a stick and poke at the shingle or shake you think may be loose, then grab it with your hand."

On a built-up or flat roof, Davis suggests checking the seams and looking for areas that are bubbled or bald. "The loose rock you see on flat roofs serves a purpose. It radiates heat from the membrane underneath and you need to have an adequate rock cover."

While you're outside, don't forget that your pool needs attention in the fall and winter as well. "One of the common mistakes people make when they have a pool is forgetting it's out there," says Pam Tipton of ABC Pool Service in Los Alamitos. "In winter, it's out of sight, out of mind."

The problems start when homeowners stop using the pool. "They let the maintenance go on it and figure that since no one's using it, they don't have to keep it up. Or, worse, they'll cover the pool and forget it. In the spring when they take the cover off, they've got a swamp."

Tipton recommends keeping up with weekly pool maintenance as a way of preventing problems later on.

"We get storm and winds that allow more debris into the pool than you usually find. By keeping it clean now, it's ready whenever you want to use it."

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