Getting Your Home Ready for Winter

Get a free energy efficiency kit from the Los Alamos Department of Public Utilities to get started saving energy at home! Email to arrange a pick up time.
This Halloween, PEEC and the Department of Public Utilities want to remind you to weatherize your home so you don’t lose your head over high energy bills! (Graphic by Rachel Landman)

By Elizabeth Watts

With the cold weather finally arriving this week, and with us all at home much more than usual, it’s time to think about ways to conserve energy this winter. PEEC is teaming up with the Los Alamos Department of Public Utilities to bring you some tips on how to winterize your home so you can be comfortable while also saving energy and money. The Department of Public Utilities has free energy efficiency kits available to help save energy. If you are interested in getting one of these, email Elizabeth at to arrange a time to pick one up!

Winterization projects are usually quick fixes you can make to your home. Weatherization is bigger projects such as replacing your windows or improving the insulation in your home. These can make a big difference, but also take more time and money. The Department of Energy has a helpful list of things you can do in a day, in a week, in a month, and in a year.

For more tips on winterizing your home, watch this video from PEEC and the Department of Public Utilities.



A quick and easy place to start is at your thermostat. The recommended temperature for during the day is 68 degrees F. If this is a little chillier than your household is used to, start by reducing the temperature one degree from your normal. Give everyone a couple of weeks to adjust, and then reduce it another degree. If you have kids who complain about being cold, have them put on a hat or run around outside! 

A big difference you can make is by turning down the set temperature on your thermostat 7-10 degrees at night. This can save you up to 10% on your energy bills. If you have a programmable thermostat it is easy to set it to turn the furnace down automatically an hour before bedtime, and to come up again 30 minutes before you get up. If you leave your home for work or school, you can also program the thermostat to turn the furnace down when you leave and up before you get home. If you don’t have a programmable thermostat, you can still adjust the temperature manually. You just need to remember to do it! 

You might also consider upgrading to a smart thermostat. These adjust the temperature automatically to your schedule and preferences. Some of them come with sensors to tell when a room is occupied or what the temperature is in another room. This can be helpful if you have a room that is warmer or chillier than the one with the thermostat in it. Some of them also connect with your phone and turn on the furnace when you are driving home! There are many different models of smart thermostats, so be sure to check out your options before investing in one.

Windows and Doors

Rope caulk is a great way to seal small leaks around windows and comes in the energy efficiency kits.

Next, check your windows and doors. One very simple thing to do is open your window coverings when the sun is shining on your windows to take advantage of passive solar heating. Then close them at night to reduce any heat loss through the windows. 

The next step would be to seal any leaks around your windows or doors. If there is air coming in around the edges of the windows where the glass meets the frame, you want to seal them. The DPU energy efficiency kits have a roll of rope caulk that you can use to seal small leaks, or you can use regular caulk and a caulking gun. Just make sure the place you are sealing is clean and dry before applying the caulk.

If you have a leak where the window frame slides, you need to replace the weatherstripping. There are many different types of weatherstripping available so look carefully at what is already there so you can replace it with a similar type. Doors also have weatherstripping around them. Look around your door when the sun is shining directly on it and see if any sunlight is shining through. If it is, then you need to fix the weatherstripping. If you need to replace the weatherstripping, check out our local hardware stores before ordering online. They have a great variety of weatherstripping, and great people to give you advice!


You can insulate light switches and outlets on outdoor walls with these easy to install foam gaskets.

Another place cold air can leak into your home is through the outlets or light switches on any outside walls. The energy efficiency kits include foam gaskets that are easy to install with just a screwdriver. Also check any places where pipes come through the wall from the outside and insulate around these with the rope caulk or with expanding foam.



If you have an attic, you also want to check the attic access to make sure that warm air is not escaping through it. You can use weatherstripping around the edges, or you can buy a cover that goes inside your attic over the access point.


Furnaces and Fireplaces

Another important item to check is your furnace. Whether you have a forced-air system, or a hot water heat system, you want to maintain it so that it works efficiently. If you have a furnace filter, you should change it regularly. How often depends on several factors such as pets in the house, if any household member has allergies or asthma, the type of filter you use, and how many people are in the home. In the energy efficiency kits, there is a filter whistle that you can install on your filter. When the air flow drops, it will make noise to let you know it is time to change the filter. 

If you have radiators, make sure to keep them vacuumed and clean. You can bleed any extra air out of the radiator to make it work more efficiently. If you have a fireplace or wood burning stove, make sure it is clean and working properly. Keep the damper closed when you are not using the fireplace to reduce heat loss as well. Here are more tips to keep your wood-heating appliance working efficiently. 

Check smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors and put in fresh batteries and make sure the detectors are not expired. Carbon monoxide detectors only last 5-7 years and smoke detectors 10 years.

Light Bulbs

LED bulbs use less energy and last much longer than incandescent bulbs. If you’re replacing light bulbs inside or outside, look for LED bulbs to save energy!

If you need to replace any light bulbs around your home, look for LED bulbs. Although they cost a little more than incandescent bulbs, they last much longer, and use less energy. There is even one included in the energy efficiency kit! If you’ve been unhappy with LED bulbs in the past, be sure to check the color range on the box. The LED bulbs available now come in different ranges, so you can pick a warmer tone or a cooler tone depending on your preference.



Outside your home, make sure any irrigation systems are readied for winter. This can make restarting them in the spring much less of a hassle! Disconnect and drain any hoses. If you have any outside lights that need to be replaced, again try to use LED bulbs to save energy. You can also now buy outdoor LED light bulbs that include a sensor. As well as saving energy, these help with light pollution at night by only turning on when needed. 

There are solar powered outdoor lights that also turn on and off with sensors. These are great because you can put them in places where you don’t already have existing outlets. There are even a wide variety of holiday solar lights available now! Here is a video of our entry in the Holiday Light Parade last year that was decorated with lots of solar-powered lights!

PEEC and the DPU created this solar sleigh for last year’s Holiday Light Parade. It was decorated entirely with solar-powered lights!

We hope this gives you some ideas of ways to prepare for winter and save energy this year! For more ideas on how to make big changes to your insulation check out this information from the Department of Public Utilities. There is also a Conserve and Reduce page at the DPU site.

Finally if you are looking for Halloween inspiration, check out these pumpkin carving templates from the Energy Department!

Make some energy-themed pumpkins using these templates from the U.S. Department of Energy!

Storytelling – A Gift of Winter by Terry Foxx

Terry Foxx storytelling with the help of Eli the eagle.
Storyteller Terry Foxx getting help from Eli the eagle.

Winter! Words and images that come to mind are snow falling, chilly temperatures, crisp air, hugging yourself to keep warm.

Winter is a time of bundling up with mittens, boots, and hats to play in the snow or enjoy the out-of-doors.

Winter is a time of year to snuggle down before a fireplace, drink hot chocolate, read a book, and listen to music.

But winter is also a time of year when young and old used to gather together to tell stories. It was a time when people questioned why the world worked the way it did. The ancient ones told stories to explain the mysteries of life, how fire came to be, how animals survive the cold, and how the world was created. Our electronic world has changed this time of community, of coming together to listen and have fun.

This next Saturday, 11:00 AM, at the Nature Center, storytellers Terry Foxx and Kimberly Gotches will bring back the ancient practice of storytelling during the winter. Using wisdom of the ancients and modern-day science, they will explain how fire came into the world and how animals survive the cold in a fun and interactive program for both children and adults.

So how does science explain how animals survive the winter?

How animals survive has been a curiosity since the beginning and still is one of those marvels of nature that challenges scientists. Scientists are finding more and more about the interesting and complex ways animals survive through periods of cold.

Today we understand there are three basic ways animals survive the winter: migration, adaptation, and hibernation. Although we can categorize three basic forms, the survival of any one animal is sometimes a complicated mixture. Let’s explain a little of the science behind these three survival mechanisms and look at examples.

flight by Terry Foxx

Cranes over Bosque del Apache. Photo by Terry Foxx.


Migration is the movement of animals from one place to another. It can be a short distance to find a warmer niche or long distances to a warmer climate. Migration is stimulated by the changes in day length and temperature.

Some birds fly amazing distances. For example the artic tern nests near the north pole in the summer but in the autumn it flies all the way south to Antarctica, returning north in the spring. That is over 10,000 miles! Amazingly, they find their way to the same place each year. They seem to navigate using the sun moon and stars for direction and have an internal compass for using the Earth’s magnetic field.

A fun place to go in New Mexico is the Bosque del Apache near Socorro. Every year migrating Sandhill Cranes, Snow Geese, and other birds can be seen in the fields and ponds of the Wildlife Refuge. When you get up early in the morning, you can see thousands of birds waking up and flying off to their feeding grounds. It is a breathtaking experience. On their way to and from the Bosque, the Sandhill Cranes fly along the Rio Grande and White Rock Canyon. You can hear them calling as they fly over White Rock.

A fascinating way to record your observations about when birds appear in the spring and leave in the fall is to join the Nature Center’s on-line birders group (, press on the header “Learn.” From the pull down menu go Interest Groups and sign-up.). Someone has already heard cranes heading north—and it is February (we still think it is winter)! Other birds are of particular interest in their coming and going. Nature Center birders anxiously await the first hummingbird signaling summer.

When we think of migration we often think of birds, but other animals also migrate, sometimes not long distances. For example an earthworm can move farther down into the soil below the frost line to survive freezing. They have been found six feet beneath the soil surface (for an earthworm that probably is a really long way!). When the soil warms, they move back up toward the surface.

Insects also migrate. Most well-known is the migration of the Monarch Butterfly. Butterflies can migrate 2500 miles! Those butterflies that live in the East migrate to Mexico and hibernate in oxyamel fir trees. If the butterfly lives west of the Rockies, it heads for Southern California. Monarch butterflies are very important pollinators and are disappearing because of urbanization and agricultural practices. A fun citizen science project is to track the path of the Monarchs.

The Nature Center has an interest group called “Butterfly Watchers.” Sign up on the website and follow the directions above. You will learn about different butterflies and you can report when you see a Monarch.

Abert's squirrel with winter ear tassels. Photo by Beth Cortwright
Abert’s squirrel with winter ear tassels. Photo by Beth Cortright.


Adaptation is another way animals survive the winter. To keep warm some animals grow a thicker coat of fur. Examples include coyote, big horn sheep and deer. In some animals, the hairs are hollow, making them more insulating.

As a protective mechanism from predators, the new fur may be white to hide them in the snow. Examples are the Snowshoe Rabbit and Arctic Fox. Other animals gather extra food in the fall and store it. Animals like the fox may eat berries in the summer and small mammals in the winter, changing their food source. Rabbits and deer spend winter looking for moss, twigs, bark. and leaves to eat.

A variety of animals find winter shelter in holes in trees or logs, under rocks or leaves, or underground. These shelters are warmer and animals like mice, raccoons, and squirrels huddle together to stay warm.

Black bear in hibernation.
Sleeping black bear.


Hibernation is a complex and fascinating process. Heart rates drop sometimes as low as 4 four beats per minute and respiration drops to one breath every three to four minutes! Scientists distinguish between true hibernators and those who use torpidity as a mechanism. Regardless, many animals sleep for extended periods of time and spend a lot of time in the late summer and autumn finding food to increase their fat stores within their bodies. True hibernators don’t wake up until spring regardless of the stimuli. Examples of hibernators are chipmunks, ground squirrels, bats, and some mice. They have enough fat reserves to carry them through the winter.

Animals like raccoons and tree squirrels use torpidity to help them survive. Torpidity is a reduction of the metabolism which allows for lower body temperature and oxygen consumption. This is a special, very deep sleep. The animal’s body temperature drops, and its heartbeat and breathing slow down. It uses very little energy. These animals can sleep for weeks at a time and then wake up to eat and defecate. During their wake time they seek out their hidden caches of food collected during the summer and fall.

So what about bears? Are they true hibernators or not? Scientist disagree with terminology. But one thing is for sure, don’t disturb a bear in his sleepy state because he can wake up in an instant, attack, and then go right back to sleep!

We have mostly talked about warm-blooded animals, but cold-blooded animals such as frogs, snakes, and lizards must also survive through winter. They lack internal control over their metabolism. They depend on the warmth of the sun to keep them active. In the winter they would freeze if they did not seek shelter and undergo chemical changes to prevent freezing. They can burrow into the mud or congregate in small caves. Rattlesnakes, for example, congregate in rock crevices to hibernate for the winter. Those spots are known as “snake dens” and they are used every year.

If you want to learn more about how animals survive the winter, here are some books you can find in Mesa Public Library. Some are entertaining stories and others are informative non-fiction.

Hibernation by Anita Ganeri

The Mitten by Jan Brett

Bear Snores On by Karma Wilson

Time to Sleep by Denise Fleming

Animals Hibernating by Pamela Hickman

Do Not Disturb: The Mysteries of Animal Hibernation and Sleep by Margery Facklam

Amazing Snow by Teralene Foxx


SNOW! We love it and we grumble about it. We love it because it provides us recreation and a beautiful landscape. We grumble about it because of slick roads, slippery sidewalks, overloaded trees, and cold. After years of little or no snow, I have a sense of relief that snow is blanketing the mountain again and hopefully there will be fewer fires. Skiers are relishing snow-covered runs, exclaiming “It’s fabulous.” Snow is an amazing gift of nature and one we take for granted. But after years of drought, I discard my negative thoughts about snow and ask “What is the real importance of snow to an ecosystem?”

Ecologically in the Northern Hemisphere, snow is important. Rain can dampen the earth but snow provides for recharging underground aquifers and streamflow. The aquifers store trillions of gallons of freshwater used for drinking water. Streamflow in an arid environment is important to recreation, agriculture, and drinking water. In some western states snow can make up 80% of the annual precipitation.

I wonder and marvel at the dynamics of snow in our environment. Long ago in high school, my favorite biology teacher commented on the whiteness of now. It coats everything in a fresh white blanket. We yearn for “White Christmas” and the weatherman will call it the “white stuff.” So why is it white? She made me curious.

Here is the scientific explanation: “Snow reflects all the colors; no, it doesn’t absorb, transmit, or scatter any single color or wavelength more than any other. The color of all the light wavelengths combined equally is white.”

But as an ecologist, I really want to know how snow makes a difference to the ecosystem and all its creatures. Snow can be a harsh environment and lead to death. But for every negative in the environment there is a positive. So what is it?

Snow plays a role in temperature regulation. Snow cover reduces net radiation and acts as a heat sink. It inhibits soil warming until the snow melts but is a good insulator keeping the soil temperature near 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

We often think of winter as a time when everything is dormant or dead. But our coniferous forests still photosynthesize on warm days and life goes on beneath the snow cover. Insects, fungi, and mammals busily carry on their activities because of the insulating properties of snow. Plants covered with snow are protected from drying out.

Snowpack that accumulates throughout the winter insulates the soil, keeping it generally unfrozen. This allows the unfrozen soil to absorb water from melting snow. In the Eastern states, a ten-inch snowpack covering one acre can hold 30,000 gallons of water! ( The humidity of the snow/soil environment provides a “greenhouse” effect allowing plants to photosynthesize and grow even before the snow is melted.

The insulating power of snow is also important in other ways. Without snowpack, very cold temperatures can freeze the soil deeper and deeper. Root systems within the frozen zone can be damaged, weakening or killing the plant. The milder temperatures and sun warm the exposed and frozen soil, causing heaving and root breakage.

Studies done at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire found that forest productivity increased with snow cover. Without the insulating cover, deciduous trees didn’t take up nutrients or water as quickly as those with a good snow cover (Lynda Mapes, Snow: Winter’s Gift to the Forest).

snow in Valle Grande1

The temperature regulation provided by snow is important in the annual growing season and the reduced chances of fire during spring, summer, and fall. Wildfires can denude acres of land of trees, changing the dynamics of the ecosystem. No snow means higher temperatures to the soil and drying vegetation during the winter months, contributing to fire danger.

Studies have shown that there is a correlation between fire and drought. Within a dry environment, the downed woody and grass material can ignite and the fire can spread rapidly. But the spread of the fire will also depend on the dryness and density of the standing vegetation. The moisture of fuels can change some with rain; however, the slow percolation of snow melt better saturates the soils and vegetation. Using LANL’s Weather Machine, Figure 1 illustrates the snowfall the winter before our major fires. The average annual precipitation for the Los Alamos area is 18.86 inches of rainfall and 56 inches of snowfall. Note that during each of these periods the snowfall was significantly lower, creating a drier forest environment.

Another advantage to snowpack is for small animals. Voles, mice, and other critters are protected from severe temperatures. The zone between the snow and the soil is called the subnivean zone. This zone is not solid because vegetation creates air-pockets. The snow insulates and keeps the temperature around 32 degrees, even though the surface temperatures may be much lower. The small animals are not only protected from predators, biting wind, and cold temperatures, but can access their stored food. The subnivean zone allows them to make tunnels connecting the air pockets formed under the snow. Other animals, like foxes, are adapted to hear these small creatures in their tunnels and then find them.

Because of winter weather, some animals hibernate or migrate, but others adapt to the snowy environment. In our mountain area, pikas busily store food during the summer, but in the winter they are deep in tunnels beneath the snow and rocks, giving them access to their stored food.

Some facts about snow:

  • Glaciers cover 10% of the planet’s land area.
  • In the Northern Hemisphere, historically, snow falls each year on one square mile out of two.
  • In the west 75% of the water used for irrigation comes from snow.
  • Snow powers the great rivers: the Colorado, the Rio Grande, the Columbia, the Missouri
  • Snow forms around particulates in the atmosphere and drags them to the ground, cleansing the atmosphere.

Water—rain, snow, rivers, ponds are the lifeblood of the West and our semi-arid environments. John Wesley Powell, an early explorer, said: “In the whole region, land as mere land is of no value. What is really valuable is the water privilege.” Snow is water that powers our environment and keeps our ecosystem healthy.

So next time we grumble about shoveling snow or driving on slippery roads, let’s remember that snow is amazing and provides for diversity of life in this arid land.


Figure 1: The snowfall the winter prior to large fires on the Pajarito Plateau.


Nature Notes: The Importance of snow

20 Things You Didn’t Know About…Snow 

In Praise of Snow.