Be prepared for the cold winter ahead

Stash the mower, get out the blower, and other ways to get ready

Last updated: October 21, 2014 01:30 PM

This fall, before temperatures plummet, is a good time to get ready for the transition from good weather to bad by trading your mower for your blower and doing some outdoor chores without the threat of frostbite. Then turn your attention inside. When the first snowflake falls and you're indoors sipping hot chocolate after a successful run with the snow blower, you'll be glad you did.

The upside of outside spruce-ups

Getting ready for winter requires a lot of outdoor tasks such as clearing leaves from your property and gutters, putting away your grill and your lawn mower, and testing your snow blower. Fortunately, with the cool autumn weather you can perform most of these jobs without breaking a sweat.

Turn off water to hoses and lawn sprinklers. When temperatures fall below freezing, water in the faucet can freeze and burst pipes. Remember it's not enough to shut off the water outside; turn off water from the indoor supply valve so that no water is in the faucet. Then drain residual water from outdoor faucets, spray nozzles, and systems and disconnect hoses and accessories.

Move piles of leaves, compost, or wood away from house or other structures. Rodents and small animals like to nest in debris. Wood attracts termites, which may then migrate into your home for the winter.

Turn off power to outdoor compressor on your central AC. Rodents are attracted to residual heat generated by the power running through the compressor, even when it isn't running. You should also protect your unit from the build-up of leaves and other debris, which can affect performance and efficiency. Clean it with a vent brush, power blower, garden hose, or your vacuum cleaner's brush attachment. Be careful not to bend exposed cooling fins. If your yard has lots of trees and plants, wrap fiberglass mesh around the condenser coil to capture leaves.

Cover outdoor furniture. Or store it in your garage or shed if there's space.

Clean out gutters after the leaves have fallen. Clogged gutters can lead to ice dams, which can create leaks along the roof edge. Roofing experts emphasize that the best way to handle ice dams is to insulate and ventilate your attic to minimize the differences in temperature that cause the dams to form. You may want to consult a weatherization contractor who can help you locate the areas of greatest heat loss and recommend how to fix them.

Wash windows. You'll appreciate the extra sunlight that streams through cleaned windows and the residual heat will save you energy too.

Replacement window Ratings and recommendations

Put away your lawn mower

Stashing your mower in the shed without cleaning it or draining the gas is a recipe for failure and means it may not start when you need it again next spring. But give your mower a little TLC now and it'll be ready for the first mow after the snow melts. The needs of larger cutting gear differ from those of walk-behind mowers in only a few ways. Changing spark plugs and sharpening blades, for example, is standard practice across walk-behind and riding mowers.

Check the gas. Buy some fuel stabilizer, which is available at home centers and gas stations, and add the appropriate amount to the existing fuel. If you keep your mower in a heated garage, run the engine until it's dry. If you store it in an unheated garage or shed, condensation is a concern. Once you've completed other maintenance, mix the proper amount of fuel stabilizer with fresh gas in a gas can and fill the tank to the top.

Clean the underside. Many new mowers have a washout port, which can prevent buildup of grass clippings. Whether or not you've been cleaning the deck, you'll need to spray or scrape off any remaining clippings to prevent rusting. (An old bristled pot scrubber might do.) Spraying the cleaned, dried deck with silicone spray can help prevent future build-up.
Change the oil. Chances are you'll need to flip a walk-behind mower (with the gas tank empty) to drain the oil. Look for the designated mark on the dipstick while refilling, as too much oil can be as bad for the engine as too little. You can take used oil to a local service station or recycling center for disposal. Flipping isn't necessary on riding mowers; every lawn tractor and zero-turn-radius mower has a way to drain oil.

Charge the battery.
If you have an electric mower, or even just a battery-powered starter system in a gas mower, you'll need to periodically charge the battery throughout the winter. Otherwise, its ability to fully recharge will diminish gradually before failing altogether—and sooner than you expected. The batteries for some electric mowers can and should be brought indoors over the winter; check the manual for temperature specifics.

Air filter. On riding mowers, if your carburetor's air filter is paper, replace it. If it's foam, wash it in soap and water. Rinse and squeeze it dry. Check your owner's manual. Some suggest that you also oil a foam filter with engine oil. If so, squeeze the filter dry again before you reinstall it.
Electrical. For tractors, remove the battery, and keep it charged over the winter using a trickle charger.
And don't forget. Spark plugs don't need replacing every year—typically, it's every 100 hours of operation. But most of us don't keep track. Fall is a good time to get your blade sharpened, since repairmen aren't yet fixing snow throwers. Also, check your owner's manual for how often to replace the air filter and, if your mower has one (few do), the fuel filter.

Lawn mower Ratings and recommendations

Put away your gas grill

Cleaning up a greasy grill is no picnic but your guests will appreciate the hard work come Memorial Day, when you have your next family barbecue. Even if you grill all year long, you should take the time to give your grill a tune-up so it'll be ready for that tailgate or Super Bowl party.

Bubbles mean trouble. Open the valve on your propane cylinder and brush soapy water on the hose leading to the burners. If bubbles appear, replace the hose right away. Heavy rust, dents, or greenish-orange corrosion are other signs that you need a new tank.

One last burn-off. Heat up the grill one last time according to the manufacturer's instructions to burn as much dried grease as possible off the grates before the final cleaning. Check that the flame burns blue not yellow—the latter is a sign of clogged air inlets or burners that need adjusting.

Be gentle with exteriors. After the grill has cooled, use a soft cloth or sponge and mild dishwashing detergent on stainless steel exteriors and apply stainless polish afterward. For painted or enameled exteriors, use a nonscouring nylon brush and a 50-50 mix of water and white vinegar to remove stubborn stains, discoloration and corrosion.

Grate-cleaning ideas. Use a nylon-bristle brush for porcelain-coated cast-iron grates, and steel­­—not brass­—brushes to clean uncoated cast-iron grates. Soaking grates in a 50-50 mixture of water and vinegar can loosen gunk from hard-to-brush spots.

Wash flavorizer bars with soapy water and a nonabrasive pad. Rinse grates and bars thoroughly and towel dry so rust doesn't form. Don't wash grates in the dishwasher as the debris could clog the filter.

Don't overlook the burners or drip pan. Inspect the burners for cracks and holes and clean gently with a nylon brush. You can remove stubborn gunk by spraying with a garden hose or with a wire or awl. If the burners are damaged, check your owner's manual for replacement information. Also remove and the drip pan and clean it with a scraper followed by a mild detergent and a non-scouring pad.

Finish with the interior. Vacuum out the grill's interior with a wet/dry or hand vacuum. Then hose off the interior and dry it as best you can.

Cold storage. If you can't store the grill in a garage or shed, bring the grates and flavorizer bars indoors to avoid rusting. In coastal areas, cover grills to avoid the corrosive effects of salt air. Some manufacturers advise homeowners in rainy areas not to cover grills to avoid condensation buildup that can prompt rusting. Check your owner's manual or manufacturer's website.

Gas grill Ratings and recommendations

Get the snow blower ready

Nothing is more frustrating than getting out your snow blower after a storm only to have it sputter and stop. Like mowers, blowers need maintenance. While in some sections of the country it may seem premature to check it now, when the first snow flake flies, you'll be glad you did.

Check the gas. If your end-of-season maintenance didn't include adding a fuel stabilizer, this is a good time to drain the old fuel and put in stabilized, fresh gas, which can last up to a year. Also be sure to follow your manufacturers' recommendation for the proper fuel-oil mixture if your blower has a two-stroke engine.

Check the spark plug. Putting in a new one is another smart move if you didn't do that at the end of the snow season. Buy one that fits your snow blower's make and model, which you'll find on the machine. And remember that using too much oil in the fuel mix for a two-stroke engine can foul the spark plug and cause slow or no starts.

Check the shear pins. Got a two-stage snow blower? Besides driven wheels, yours has a snow-scooping auger driven by a transmission. Shear pins are those small, sacrificial bolts that protect the transmission by breaking if the auger ingests something too big or hard. If the auger freewheels, you have broken shear pins, which slide in and tighten down with a nut. Keep a few on hand just in case. And resist the temptation to use regular bolts, unless you're ready to pay hundreds to fix a broken transmission.

Buy a belt. The belts transmit power from the engine to the auger on smaller, single-stage snow blowers. Typical problems: Worn, frayed, or dry-rotted belts break as the snow thrower digs into heavy stuff. Glazed belts that have slipped under pressure also lose their grip. Removing a side cover is mostly what it takes to replace the belt. Keep at least one extra belt on hand; again, check your snow blower make and model (and bring your broken belt) to get the right replacement.

Inspect the starter cord. Snow blowers often fail to start when the pull-start ropes break or detach. These aren't easy to replace; check yours for fraying and other damage before you're left in the lurch.

Snow blower Ratings and recommendations

Insider tips for keeping cold at bay

After you've completed your yard work, put your feet up and enjoy the fruits of your labor. Once you've recharged your engine, you can tackle some indoor chores that'll keep you warm and safe during the cold and stormy winter.

Check windows and doors for air leaks. With windows and doors closed, turn on exhaust fans, then take an incense stick and hold it near windows and doors. If smoke blows horizontally, you have a leak. Seal small ones with caulk; larger ones with expanding foam or foam board. Add weatherstripping around doors.

Review the settings on your programmable thermostat. Schedules change from year to year, so make sure the ones you set last year still make sense. If you don't have a programmable thermostat, consider getting one.

Have a pro service your home heating system. A properly maintained heating system is likely to work better, run more efficiently, and last longer. Malfunctioning systems increase the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Replace furnace filters every month. Dirty filters can make your furnace work harder. Also be sure to vacuum heat registers frequently and make sure that furniture isn't blocking them.

Have your chimney inspected and cleaned. If you regularly burn wood, creosote can build up. A basic chimney inspection and sweeping will last up to 90 minutes and cost about $150 to $300. Beware of low bids or excessive proposals based on cursory inspections. The Chimney Safety Institute of America, a nonprofit group, lists certified sweeps on its website,

But skip duct cleaning services. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, there's no conclusive evidence that cleaning ducts prevents health problems, nor do studies conclusively show that dirty ducts raise a home's levels of airborne particulates.

Check detectors and fire extinguishers. You probably know that you should check the batteries in your detector when you change your clock, but did you know that smoke and CO detectors don't last forever. Smoke detectors should be replaced every 10 years and CO detectors every 5 years. If you have a combo smoke/CO alarm, replace it after 5 years. Manufacture dates are on the back of the detectors. Similarly, fire extinguishers should be replaced after 12 years or after you've used them.

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