Monday, January 25, 2010

Winterizing your windows

Last week, I went over to help winterize a friend's apartment. We started by sealing some drafts under the sink and installing a new threshold on the front door. Then came the windows.

In any home, windows are a major heat loser. Paul Fisette did a really good job of explaining windows and heat loss in an article on the Fine Homebuilding website, so I'll let you enjoy his piece rather than writing yet another explanation. Suffice to say, an insulated wall is always a better heat trap than even the best window. But we like sunlight, so what do we do?

Sensible homeowners with a bit of cash will get new windows. They pay themselves off in only a few years, thanks to savings on heating bills. But tenants can't do that.

Seal the leaks
Start by spraying a minimally expanding foam insulation into any big gaps around the window frame. It will expand to fill the space, but not so much that it'll buckle the window frame, as a regular expanding foam insulation might.

Then go outside and caulk any gaps or cracks around the window. Remove any old caulking and clean the area first. There are a few tips on caulking in the first post in my winterizing series.

Shrink-wrap the windows
Plastic film is a good way for tenants to cut heat loss through windows. Heat-shrinking films are cheap enough to pay for themselves in one winter, and will likely make a room more comfortable. Small kits start at about $5 at most hardware stores and will do one or two windows. Bigger kits exist for patio doors. The best option is to buy a roll of the film, which will likely cost $10-25, depending on the size, and will come with a few rolls of two-sided tape. It will do quite a few windows (we've done four so far and have plenty left).

How to properly install plastic film on windows
1. Clean the frames
Start by choosing an area on the frame that will allow a continuous cover. It may be on the metal or vinyl window frame, or even onto the wooden trim around it, depending on how the window was installed. I've done both with success.

Then clean the frame. Any dust will prevent the tape from sticking properly. Also, make sure you remove any toys or vases from the window sill. You'll feel mighty silly if you seal them in. I know. I've done it.

2. Heat it and tape it
Not all kits suggest heating the frame first, but it does seem to help. Use a blow dryer to warm the frame where you'll apply the tape.

Then start applying the tape. I suggest going across the top first, then down the sides and across the bottom. Start at one end, with the tape edge butting up to the tape or frame edge above it, then work your way across (or down), smoothing it with your finger and avoiding any ripples. Let the tape rest for a little while (some kits suggest 15 minutes, but I've done fine with less time).

Don't peel the backing off the tape until you're ready to put the plastic up.

3. Hang it
Rough cut a piece of plastic. Unroll enough that it will easily cover the window with a good inch or two on every side. On the rolls, the film is often folded in two, so unfold it before trying to hang it.

Next, peel off the backing on the tape. This should be easy to do, getting it started with a thumbnail or the tip of your knife.

Start by pressing one of the top corners into place. Then stretch the film across to the other top corner. Work your way down one side, then the other, gently pressing the film into place. As you go, try to get it taut, but don't worry about making it wrinkle free at this stage. Do avoid any major sagging or wrinkles on the taped edges themselves. After you've gone across the bottom, run your thumbs across the tape, all the way around the frame to ensure a good seal.

4. Heat-shrink your window
Starting in a top corner, use a hair dryer to shrink the film. You'll see the change. Work your way around the edges, until they're smooth. Then move toward the middle. You're done when the film is taut and smooth all over. If you've done a good job, then the film should barely be noticeable.

5. Cut to fit
Using a sharp knife, such as an Olfa knife, slice off the excess film. Go all the way around, and make sure the plastic is cut through. You don't want to have to tug at the ends to get them off, as this could undo your good work up to this point.

Handy Tip: I inevitably nick the plastic with my knife. This is bad. if it's off in a corner, or on a window that you don't tend to look out, the solution is easy. Cut off a piece of the two-sided tape and use it to cover the hole (as long as it's a tiny one). Heat it, wait a while, then come back and peel off the backing. It's a minimally visible repair that, in my experience, will hold for at least one year.

Now you've got a cozier home, and probably a lower heating bill as a result. Congratulations!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Winterizing for Tenants

Every sensible homeowner has a checklist of things to do before winter comes. But for tenants, winterizing doesn't always get done. Some tasks they can't do, either because the landlord won't allow it, or because they don't have access to, for example, the basement. In other cases, they don't pay for heat and so winterizing isn't an economic priority.

A friend rents two floors of an older house in Toronto and has a problem with the upstairs bedrooms getting very hot while the main floor can be cold. Green Tenant spent an evening helping fix the problem.

Diagnose the problem
Before doing anything, try and figure out the problem and solutions. The house has a central boiler with water heat serving more than one apartment. The thermostat is in the apartment, but the landlord has asked that it not be set below a certain point or the basement will freeze (he has been working on the basement).

Part of the problem is the radiators. The main floor only has two large rads, and one does not seem to be working properly, while the second floor has three in smaller rooms. Turning off a rad upstairs may help, but the placement of them makes that difficult. Fixing the downstairs rad is something to get the landlord working on.

Heat also escapes the main floor up the stairwell. A ceiling fan would help, but the wiring isn't there for it, making it more than a tenant t

Find the drafts
We decided to seal drafts on the main floor in order to keep more heat from escaping. We identified three areas that were worth working on:
  1. Front door. A major draft underneath and smaller leaks around sides.
  2. Under the sink. The kitchen floor is always icy, and there was a noticeable draft coming from the plumbing under the sink.
  3. Windows. No matter how new they are, windows let a lot of heat out. Closing curtains helps, and clear plastic can reduce drafts and create another air barrier.
Door draft
The front door was a problem because there was only an old, wooden threshold and the weather stripping on the sides had worn out. I installed an aluminum and rubber threshold on the
bottom, which got rid of the draft. Using a measuring tape, hacksaw and cordless drill/screwdriver, it took about ten minutes to install.

The ten
ant will also apply foam weather stripping to cut drafts on the sides. I don't like this stuff because it doesn't stick very well. I'll be doing my own front door next week, so check back for instructions and tips on installing weather stripping and door sweeps.

Heat-shrink plastic films are a great way to deal with drafts around windows. I've used them in my own apartment, and next week will post instruction and tips. In the meantime, here's a post on using them in my opwn apartment.

Sealing drafts
Under the sink there were two problems requiring two solutions. The easy one was a draft around a drain pipe coming through the wall. The solution was to seal it with a bit of caulking.

Before caulking, make sure the surfaces are clean and that you've removed any old caulking. Use a kitchen/bathroom caulk, as it will likely be exposed to moisture at some point. Latex caulk is also fairly easy to work with and cleans up easily.
Before you start, get a small container of water with a lot of dish soap in it. The solution should feel slippery on your fingers.

Luckily, caulking now comes in squeezable tubes. I had one left over from a couple small jobs, including the grey water barrel project. Tubes are not as good as caulk guns for big jobs, where you want long, smooth, even lines. But they're less expensive for a small job, and are easier to work with in an under-sink cabinet. When you open the caulk, cut the tip to a width appropriate to the gap you're trying to fill. As you squeeze out the caulk, try to keep a nice, even flow and leave no gaps.

Next, wet your index finger in the soapy water. Use it to smooth the caulk. Again, try to get it done in one long, smooth stroke. If it's a long line of caulk, you'll need to clean off your finger a few times as you work along. This soapy smoothing is the key to a nice, clean caulking job. It takes practice, and is harder to do around a pipe than along the edge of a bathtub. But nobody looks under the sink, so it's a good place to get some experience.

The other draft was coming from the basement, through the gap around the water pipes. My first thought was to pop the base cover off the cabinet and use some spray foam to seal the hole. Easy to do on Ikea-style cabinets. Sadly, not easy on these ones.

Instead, I used some spray foam to seal the hole from inside the cabinet. It's not a perfect solution, but the best that came to mind. We used a minimally expanding foam, and are crossing our fingers that it will hold up to the temperature of the hot water pipe, as we couldn't find a high-temperature spray foam insulation anywhere in the neighbourhood. If it holds up, that's great. If not, it will be a small cleaning job to get it out.

Watch for more apartment winterizing tips from Green Tenant in coming days!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Gardening, canning, how the season ended

My first year with a full garden was 2009. Before that I'd had a single bed (mostly spinach) at my flat in London, and started with one good bed (tomatoes, salad greens) at the Green Tenancy here in Toronto. This year I expanded it to four beds totalling about 400 square feet.

A lot of things worked well. I gave a preliminary report here, and since then have, obviously, finished the final harvest.

One of the biggest hits were the purple carrots, shown above. My son loves bringing them to school for lunch, cut into "coins." The other kids don't know quite what to make of them. They're lower-yield than some other varieties, but I harvested several pounds of carrots and gave lots away.


At the end of the season, I began canning and freezing. This is all new territory to me. I blanched and froze a big bag of royal purple beans, and a mountain of beet greens. I meant to do the chard, but kept eating it up until the first snowfall killed it off. Chard, I must say, is extremely hardy and it survived many frosts, some light and some pretty heavy. Good thing I like the stuff.

Local fruit is also a wonder of late summer. Because Toronto is close to the Niagara Peninsula, there's an abundance of inexpensive, fresh and delicious tender fruit in late summer. The baskets are often too big for my son and I to get through in short order, so canning makes sense.

First came the currants. Graham and I stopped at a farm fruit stand on the way home from visiting his grandparents one day, and he was curious about the red currants. We bought a basked. They were, not surprisingly, rather tart. So I made jam. Currant jam is delicious and deliciously simple. Currants are high in natural pectin, so all it takes is the addition of water and sugar. A basket, however, yielded only two small jars of jam. They're a sticky fruit to deal with, and a lot of labour for a low yield. All the same, it was good enough that I'll do it again next year.

Then came a great buy on late-season strawberries (lots are grown around here) and, my personal favourite, peach season. I followed a recipe that claimed added pectin would not be required. That was simply untrue. I now have six jars of peach jam that is delicious, but a bit runny for use on toast. I added a bit of pectin to the strawberries, but clearly not enough, and the consistency is similar to that of the peach jam. Not perfect, but very yummy and, as it turns out, versatile, as they work adequately on bread, but superbly as an ice cream topping.

I also canned peaches, pears and beets. The pears went well, and look like they'll be good for compotes. The peaches should have been riper, and seem to mostly be firmer than I'd like. I'll try making a peach crumble this week and see how it goes.

Beets normally thrill me. But this season they came out strangely shaped and often fibrous, and with odd colours, sometimes white. I don't know what happened. I canned about 3 L of them (boiled, then packed in vinegar). I'll open a jar this week and see. They look pretty enough, though.

Now winter is here and I'm indoors. I did some winterizing, have finished a couple of end tables I built last year, and am ready to get on with new projects. Check back soon for new Green Tenant projects, tips and updates on some ongoing projects.