Here are some preventive maintenance tips for roofs, gutters, walks and driveways.
Clearing gutters. It's the most obvious, but often neglected, pre-winter job: clearing twigs and leaves from the gutters so water and melting ice won't be blocked. It's a tough, grimy job. But after it's done, take the extra time to flood the system using a garden hose to be sure it drains freely.
Clearing downspouts. There are many gutter gadgets designed to prevent blockages, such as wire baskets and gutter screens. Wet leaves are supposed to pile up on them, dry out, and blow away. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they create a clog themselves. Slat systems do a better job because there are no more gutters to clog. But slat systems deposit roof water along the foundation instead of carrying it away from the house. This kind of installation simply trades one problem for another: clogged and overflowing gutters for foundation leaks and a wet basement. What if you stick with real gutters and they won't drain freely, even after cleaning? Look for hidden blockages in the S-shaped fitting commonly used to channel water from the roof overhang back to a house-mounted downspout.
Preventing ice dams. These damaging blockages form along the roof overhang. Here's how. Rising heat gradually melts a blanket of snow on the main roof from the bottom up. Protected from cold air, the water trickles down the roof. Then it reaches the cold overhang where there is no heated living space below, and freezes. The ice traps more water and migrates up and under the shingles, expanding as it freezes. There are two good ways to prevent damage. First, add ceiling insulation to keep heat from rising to the roof. Second, increase under-roof ventilation to keep the roof cool. (This also helps control condensation and other problems year round.) If you're repairing or replacing a roof, take the extra step of installing a leak-proof backup membrane on the overhang. This fail-safe system is a self-adhering rubbery sheet (such as W.R. Grace's Ice and Water Shield) that sticks to the plywood roof decking. It is also self-sealing, and closes tightly around nails driven through covering layers of shingles. Ice still may get through shingles on the overhang. But when it melts, water runs down the sheet and into the gutter.
Yards, walks, and drives. There are two main ways to prevent winter weather problems in the yard: drain water away from the house, and patch cracks in drives and walks so that water doesn't seep in, freeze, and break them apart.
Yard drainage. To guide water away from the foundation, start by filling in gullies that form near the building where water drips off the roof.
The ground should slope away from the foundation for at least a foot or two before leveling out. To deal with roof water economically, add an elbow fitting and a few feet of straight pipe to the bottom of downspouts.
The idea is to deposit water where it can't flow back to the foundation. The more permanent (and less noticeable) approach is to fit downspouts into underground pipes that empty into a low spot (maybe a dry well) far from the house. In case all else fails, the best back up is a sump pump that collects leaking water and sends it outdoors.
Patching drives and walks. On either concrete or asphalt, start by sweeping the surface, and cleaning grease and oil with a household detergent. Fill large cracks in asphalt with cold-mix, a malleable, ready-to-use material that you can mound and compact on existing drives and walks.
Follow the same basic sequence on concrete—with a cement-based patch, of course. On chronic cracks, try using a cold chisel and hammer (wearing eye protection) to undercut the edges of the fault.
Then fill with hydraulic cement, which swells as it sets to fill every crevice and keep out water.