100 Must-Do Things to Get Your House Ready for Fall
Don’t let these crucial fall tasks fall by the wayside.
Your plumber’s snake is a great tool for pulling clumps of wet leaves out of clogged downspouts. Check out more gutter-cleaning tips here.
To make ample room for winter storage, and to make the most of your space, an overhead storage system, like this one, is an invaluable addition to your fall garage projects.
If you use your garage as a workshop or storage all year round, you may want to consider insulating your garage door for maximum heat retention. Follow our guide, which tells you exactly how to properly insulate your garage door, here.
Protect the Floor
When it comes to garage flooring, there’s no shortage of options available to meet your lifestyle. A secure floor can help prevent damage, slips and fall—and it looks pretty good, too.
Sharpen Snow Shovel
Sharpen your snow shovel now while the weather is mild. A sharper shovel will break through ice and slush easily in the winter months. Here’s how to accomplish this fall task.
Take some time this fall to rotate your bins and other storage for easy access throughout the season. Move summer items to the back and pull forward any Halloween or winter holiday items. If you store winter sports gear in the garage, pull those bins to the front for easy access.
Store Summer Toys
Putting away big items such as bicycles, balls and hoops is a good way to start your fall garage preparation. Here are eight excellent bicycle storage ideas to help get you started.
Protect Wood From Moisture
Insects and other small pests need to draw life-sustaining moisture from their surroundings, so they avoid dry places and are attracted to moist ones. If the soil around your house, the foundation and the walls is dry, it’ll be less attractive to insects, spiders and centipedes. Rake moisture-wicking soil and mulch away from the window frames and low wood. Turn your mulch periodically to help keep dampness down, and keep bushes trimmed back as well.
Guard Your Chimney
Install a chimney cap and screen to keep out pests like rodents and birds. Not only can they do damage, but they often bring in smaller bugs that will take up residence in your home.
Check Seasonal Clothing for Pests
Do you have seasonal clothes or bedding that you are bringing out of storing? Wash and dry it all thoroughly to kill any waiting bug eggs, and inspect everything for signs of an infestation before you pack it away—or start wearing it.
Trim Plants Against Your House
Once you kill the ants in your house and yard, take steps to ensure they don’t come back. Trim back bushes, shrubs and trees that brush against your siding or roof and provide a bridge for ants to reach your house. Keep a 3-in. to 6-in. clearance space between the soil around the foundation and the bottom row of siding to prevent ants from nesting in the siding (and make sure the soil slopes away from the house). Avoid stacking firewood next to the house. Firewood makes a perfect retreat for ants. Ants like bare spots in the yard and they like to build nests under layers of thatch. Maintaining a healthy lawn is one way to discourage ants. If anthills pop up in bare areas, spray the mound with insecticide and plant grass in the bare spots. Rake the lawn or bag the grass when you mow to eliminate thatch.
Check Your Crawl Spaces
Take a flashlight and protective clothing into your crawlspaces and/or basement and have a look around. Look for large, obvious nests of shredded material, which indicate rodents. Watch for smaller signs too, like lines of ants or scrambling cockroaches looking for a home. And remove these pests and find out how they gained entry to stop future incursions.
Use a Humidifier
A humidifier may take up some space and require regular cleaning, but the moisture it adds to your home will be a welcome relief. And humidifiers can help cut down on static electricity, especially if you have carpet and/or rugs in your home.
Simple Spider Solution
You can virtually eliminate spiders in your basement by using a dehumidifier to maintain a 40 percent humidity level and vigilantly sweeping down cobwebs whenever they appear. Keep the basement windowsills brushed clean too. In a matter of weeks, the spider population will die down significantly.
Plug Holes with Copper Mesh
Find a hole where pests can enter your home? Stuff in a generous amount of copper mesh with a screwdriver, leaving about half an inch of space for expanding foam sealant. Seal gaps with foam.
Repair Torn Screens
Windows screens, mosquito nets and similar barriers protect against inquisitive summer pests, but only if they provide complete protection. And as long as the frame is in good shape repairs are easy and can be done in a few minutes. Here’s how to make your screen door or window look good as new.
Store Firewood Away from the House
While firewood may be an important summer staple for your backyard fire pit, it’s also a magnet for pests that will happily make the jump into the house. So store firewood at least 20 feet away from the house.
Look not only for larger gaps in your attic or garage, but watch for small, unsealed gaps where electrical lines and pipes enter your house. Bugs, mice and other pests love these small gaps. So caulk them closed or use expanding foam insulation to deny entry.
Falling leaves and debris can do more than clog pumps and filters. They can encourage algae growth in your otherwise pristine pond. Get your pond fall ready by draining and cleaning your ponds and waterfalls to prevent damage.
Inspect Your Fence
Fall is an ideal time to inspect fences and take care of any rot or structural issues before they become problematic. Ground frost can cause weakened fence posts to heave and shift over winter. This will result in damage all along the fence line.
For the skinny on how to take care of any fence maintenance and make it fall ready, you may need to do, check out our guide here.
Clean and Store Garden Tools
Act now to protect your garden tools from rust, wear and tear. Be sure to give your tools a good cleaning, sharpen blades as necessary and be sure they’re dry before you store them. After all of this prep they will be fall ready.
Protect the A/C Compressor or Risk Damage From a Falling Icicle
There’s no reason to wrap your entire air conditioner for the winter, and many manufacturers advise against it because it can invite rodents and cause condensation, which can lead to early corrosion. But it’s not a bad idea to set a piece of plywood on top of the unit to protect it from falling icicles. And see our maintenance guide to learn how to clean your air conditioners in the spring.
Hibernate Outdoor AC Units
Switch Your Ceiling Fan Direction
Now is the time to tackle weeds. Apply a herbicide and the weeds should stay away once spring comes. Be sure to read the label before applying, as most herbicide manufactures recommend applying weed killer during the fall when daytime temperatures are consistently above 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
Protect Tender Perennials
If you have a favorite perennial you feel needs a little protection from the harsh winter, try wrapping the plant in burlap. Wrap the material around the plant a couple times, being careful to avoid breakage. Once the plant is covered, a loop or two of twine will hold everything in place.
Want more hardy plants in your yard? These hardy plants grow well in a boulevard.
Plant Shrubs and Bushes
By planting more hardy plants (such as shrubs and bushes) in fall, it helps the plant’s roots to get established before winter.
Not sure what kind of shrubs to plant? Here are 11 Sparkling Shrubs for Today’s Yard.
Mulch Your Leaves
Instead of raking your leaves into bags this fall, mow them with a mulching mower (a mower with a specially designed high deck). This will chop the leaves into confetti which will act as a natural fertilizer and weed control agent when left to decompose.
Aerate the Soil
‘Aerating’ simply means making holes in the ground by removing plugs of soil. And it’s the single most important task you can perform to maintain a healthy, good-looking lawn. Nothing else comes close! It relieves compaction caused by foot traffic and creates extra pore space in the soil, allowing air, nutrients and water to enter. All of that helps roots to thrive.
Aerate your lawn at least once a year, preferably in the fall. Do it two or even three times each year if you can. The more, the better. You can rent a lawn aerator at any equipment rental store. Get one that will remove plugs of soil rather than one that pokes holes in the ground.
Clean Weep Holes
Reseed Late in the Growing Season
Get Your Gutters Ready
Check Exterior Caulking and Weatherstripping
Fall is the perfect time to make sure your house is properly caulked and your weatherstripping is in good shape. Inspect around windows, doors and anywhere else two materials meet to make sure the caulk is in good shape. Check weatherstripping around doors and replace if it’s broken or missing – it’s super easy to do.
Fix Driveway and Sidewalks Before They Get Worse
Changing temperatures and moisture can turn a small concrete problem into a big one. Take some time to repair broken concrete and get some more time out of your sidewalk, driveway and steps before they’re in need of full replacement.
Install Frost-Proof Outdoor Faucets
New outdoor faucets are frost-proof and also prevent unsanitary water from contaminating your water system. Installing a new outdoor faucet takes just a few hours and will give you peace of mind all winter long. These other fall to-dos are a little less work and a lot more fun.
Winterize Your Gas Grill
If you’re not a winter griller, now’s the time to pack away your grill before it’s covered with a foot of snow. In addition to giving your grill a thorough cleaning to remove grease and food scraps, take these steps to help prevent any unpleasant surprises when you fire up your grill again next spring.
Shut off the gas at the LP tank, unfasten the burner, slip the gas tubes off the gas lines and lift out the unit. Coat the burners and other metal parts with cooking oil to repel moisture that can build up over the winter and to prevent rust. Then wrap the burner unit in a plastic bag to keep spiders and insects from nesting in the gas tubes during the winter. This is a common problem that can make for balky starts, uneven flames or even a one-alarm fire the next time you light your grill.
If you’re storing your grill outside during the winter, just keep the propane tank connected (but shut off) and put a protective cover over the entire grill when you’re done cleaning it. If you’re storing the grill indoors, don’t bring the tank inside, even into the garage or a storage shed. A small gas leak can cause a huge explosion if the tank is stored in an enclosed space. Instead, disconnect the tank and store it outside in an upright position away from dryer and furnace vents and children’s play areas. Tape a plastic bag over the grill’s gas line opening to prevent insects from nesting.
Winterize Your Sprinkler System
If you like number crunching and you have the original irrigation layout showing the gallons per minute (gpm) of each sprinkler head, divide the gpm of each zone by 7.5. That’ll give you the cubic feet per minute (cfm) you need to blow it out. Otherwise, rent a 10-cfm compressor and hose from a tool rental center.
Set the compressor air pressure regulator to a maximum of 80 psi for rigid PVC pipe systems, or 50 psi for flexible black polyethylene pipe. Then turn off the water supply and set the system timer to open just one zone. Next, open the manual drain valve at the end of that zone (if equipped). Then, connect the air line to the blow-out port, as shown. Close off both valves on the backflow preventer. Then remove the plug on the blow-out port and screw in a quick-connect hose adapter. Snap on the air hose and connect the other end to the compressor. Now blow out the line. The heads should pop up and spit out water. Disconnect the hose as soon as they run dry. Don’t overdo the blow-out—without water cooling the plastic gears, they can melt in less than a minute. Move on to the next zone and allow the heads to cool. Then go back and blow out each zone a second time.
Seasonal Battery Storage
Batteries lose their charge when they sit idle, and when that happens, you could wind up with a worthless battery in the spring. To keep batteries healthy, they should be charged every six weeks. But leaving a standard battery charger connected for the whole season isn’t a good idea—that will overcharge the battery and shorten its life. Instead, invest in a ‘battery maintainer.’
Battery maintainers are designed to be left on for the entire offseason. They monitor battery voltage and automatically adjust the charge to avoid under- and over-charging. For more on how to winterize your inboard/outboard motorboat, check out our instructions which include an oil change, draining the engine block, lubing the lower unit and more.
Drain Garden Hoses or Waste Money on Replacements
Gary Wentz, Editor-in-Chief
Drain Mechanical Sprinklers or Buy a New One in the Spring
Change Your Furnace Filter
Changing your furnace filter is one of the easiest things you can do to keep your furnace in good shape. If you haven’t changed it in a while, make sure you have a fresh one before your turn your furnace on for the first time.
Check Your Chimney or Risk a Fire
Don’t remember the last time you had it cleaned by a pro? A quick way to tell if your chimney needs cleaning is to run the point of your fireplace poker along the inside of your chimney liner. If you find a 1/8-in. layer (or more) of buildup, call a chimney sweep. For additional expert chimney maintenance advice, check out what two certified professional chimney sweeps have to say.
Stop Airflow Up the Chimney
For fireplace chimneys that are seldom or never used, inflate a Chimney Balloon inside the chimney to stop the air leaks. Buy it directly from the company . Partially inflate the balloon by mouth or with a pump, then stick it into the chimney and blow it up the rest of the way.
Putting in and taking out the reusable balloon can be messy (here’s when to clean a chimney flue), so you don’t want to hassle with chimney balloons if you regularly use your fireplace. But that doesn’t mean you have to settle for energy loss. Instead, you can install a chimney-top damper system, like the Chim-a-lator, which seals the top of the flue when the chimney’s not in use. A lever in the fireplace controls the damper via a long cable.
Installation involves attaching the damper and screened-in cap to the chimney top, then mounting the lever in the fireplace. If you don’t feel comfortable working on the roof, hire a chimney sweep or mason, who can install the system for you.
Winterize Your Lawn Mower
Don’t just shut off your lawnmower and leave it until spring – that’s a bad idea. But winterizing your mower only takes an hour. Give the deck a thorough cleaning. Then, add fuel stabilizer and a few ounces of oil to make sure the engine will start right up without hesitation in the spring.
Store Outdoor Furniture
Don’t leave your outdoor furniture exposed to the elements all winter long. At the very least, give your furniture a thorough cleaning and cover it or bring it inside for the season.
Take Care of Those Leaves
Once leaves are on the ground, put aside some time to tackle that chore. Check out these great ways to make dealing with leaves easier!
Deep Clean Rugs and Carpeting
Take advantage of one of those beautiful fall afternoons to give your rugs a deep clean. Take area rugs outside and give them a good shake (or a good whack), then give them a thorough vacuum with your shop vac. Don’t forget our interior carpets—you can rent a carpet cleaner and give your carpet a deep clean before you start hosting holiday gatherings.
Get Your Snowblower Ready for Service
You’ll want to be sure your snowblower starts before the first big snowfall. Take some time to get your snowblower running and in good order so it’ll be spitting snow as soon as it hits the ground.
Get Your Property Ready for Snow
Before the snow flies, take a few minutes to inspect your property. Remove rocks, dog tie-out cable, extension cords, holiday light cords and garden hoses. Then stake out paths that run near gardens so you don’t accidentally suck up rocks and garden edging. Mark your walk and driveway perimeters by pounding in driveway markers. If the ground is frozen, just drill a hole using a masonry bit and your battery-powered drill.
Make a Winter Driving Kit
This kit is overkill for year-round driving, but it could be very useful during winter. It only takes a few minutes to put together and you probably already have most of the stuff!
Whether you have a source of wood on your property or need to purchase a cord or two, fall is a great time to spend cutting and chopping wood to burn in your fireplace all winter long. And if you’re using a chain saw, make sure to brush up on your safety knowledge before you hit the forest.
Cut Your Lawn Short
Keep mowing your grass until it stops growing. And your last mow of the season should cut your grass nice and short. This reduces the chance that your lawn will get snow mold and vole damage.
Fertilize Your Lawn
It’s important to apply fertilizer to your lawn during the fall – in fact, if you only apply fertilizer once a year, fall is the time to do it. Your lawn has spent all summer growing and it’s hungry.
Bring Paint Inside
Freezing can ruin latex paint and other finishes, so make sure to move your paint inside before the first frost. Some latex paint can survive a couple freeze/thaw cycles, but it’s better not to chance it.
Don’t Let Glue Freeze
Many adhesives–wood glue especially–can be ruined by just one freeze/thaw cycle, so it’s a good idea to store them in a heated space during cold months. Even glue just left overnight in a car can freeze and make it unusable.
Best Way to Water Lawn: Water in the Fall
Build a Mitten and Shoe Dryer
Drill pairs of 1/8-in. holes in a scrap of 2×4 and insert U-shaped pieces of galvanized 14-gauge wire. If you have forced-air heat, drill 1-in. holes between the pairs of 1/8-in. holes using a spade bit, and set the rack on a register for fast drying.
Bleed Hot Water Radiators
When trapped air clogs a hot water radiator, some or all of the ‘fins’ will stay cold. At the top of the radiator, look for a small valve like the one shown. Take a radiator key, 1/4-in. 12-point socket, or a flat screwdriver (depending on the valve type) and slowly turn the valve counter-clockwise until water starts dripping out. This releases the trapped air and lets hot water into the cold fins. While you’re at it, you might as well repeat the process on all of your radiators. Have a cup or dish handy to catch the water.
Clear Steam Radiator Vents
Steam radiators have an air vent like the one shown. Unfortunately, many of these vents get painted over, plugging the air hole. Clear the air hole in the top of the vent with a small wire or sewing needle. If you’re still worried about the air vents working properly, consult a hot water/steam heat specialist who can replace the vents.
Install Stovetop Fire Suppressors
Kitchen fires can quickly get out of hand, and with Thanksgiving on the horizon, you’ll likely be cooking more. Do yourself a favor and get a pair of fire suppressors. These magnetically-mounted cans live in your range hood and are activated when flames reach the fuze on the can. You find them for about $50, which may seem spendy, but they’re cheap insurance against something much worse.
Inspect and Fix Your Garage Door
Cold can wreak havoc on garage door tracks. Make sure your garage door is in good shape so you don’t find yourself stuck in the garage (or worse yet – stuck outside). Learn all you need to know about fixing your garage door here.
Check Your Detectors
Empty Pots and Planters
The water in soil left in flower pots and planters over winter can freeze and expand. Make sure to empty your clay and ceramic planters so they’ll survive for next season.
Pipes running through unheated basements and crawlspaces as well as exterior walls can be prone to freezing during winter (and causing bigger problems). Make sure it doesn’t happen to you. Check out these easy ways to insulate pipes.
How to Seal Outlets and Ceiling Boxes
The tiny gaps around outlets on exterior walls and ceiling boxes let cold air in (and warm air out). Sealing these areas takes just half a day and will help cut down on drafts (and your heating bill!).
Test for Radon
If you haven’t tested your house for radon, now is the time to do it. Sealing up your house for the winter also means you’re trapping potential cancer-causing radon gas. Get your house tested and take means to mitigate it if it’s a problem.
Clean Dryers and Vents
Thousands of dryer fires are caused by lint every year, yet they can be easily prevented with a few minutes of cleaning. With drier air and cooler temperatures approaching, make it a fall ritual to clean out your dryer and vent.
Fill Your Bird Feeders
If you’ve been feeding birds around your property, make sure to keep the bird feeders full through winter. They’ll come back to the area looking for food, and you want to make sure they don’t go hungry.
Don’t Prune Your Trees
While intuition might want to make you get out your chainsaw and start pruning after the leaves fall, you could do more harm than good. Most trees are still active in the fall and any pruning during fall will encourage new growth at the wrong time. Wait until your trees are truly dormant to do your tree trimming – during winter or early spring.
Save Your Tender Bulbs
Store Lawn Chairs
Here’s how to store your lawn and folding chairs so they’re out of your way. Take two pieces of 1×4 lumber (any scrap lumber will do) and create some simple, cheap and useful brackets on the wall. Cut each board 7-3/4 in. long with a 30-degree angle on both ends. Fasten pairs of these brackets with three 2-in. screws to the side of the exposed wall studs, directly across from each other, and you’ve got a perfect place to hang your chairs. Get more ideas for garage storage.
Add Garage Cabinets
The garage is so frequently used as a catch-all for home improvement projects and off-season gear, these easy cabinets will be well worth your time and dollar. We’ve come up with plans for an easy storage system that can be modified to suit any garage. The best part? An 8-foot tall unit clocks in at only about $27 per linear foot–less than what pre-assembled shelving at the home center would run you. The materials include melamine, selected for its reasonable cost and the fact that is needs no finish, plus pine 1x4s. Plan out your configuration with masking tape on the wall and floors, ensuring that each cabinet has at least on stud behind it so it can be securely fastened.
Garage Door Foul Line
Here’s the straight solution for keeping bikes, trikes, garden tools and car bumpers from being squashed by a descending garage door (or keep them from triggering the electric eye). Close the garage door and press down a strip of 2-in.-wide masking tape along the inside edge. Lay another strip of tape 1-1/2 in. to the outside of the first. Spray on the line, pull the tape and let dry. Now when you close the door, glance at the line to be sure the door will seal on concrete, not on a tool or the tail of your sleeping cat.
Preserve Lawn Supplies
Car Care Products Cabinet
Organize your auto lubricants, fluids and other items in this simple shelf/work table cabinet. You can mount a fold-up door on special hinges, but we’ll show you a faster method that requires just a couple of bucks’ worth of hardware. Find everything you need to know to build this cabinet here.
Recycling Bin Rack
Recycling bins tend to take up way too much floor space. Here’s an easy project that will get them up off the floor, out of the way, and it costs almost nothing. Find simple DIY instructions to build this project for your garage here to keep the clutter down and winter gunk away.
Heavy-Duty Utility Shelves
Store-bought shelving units are either hard to assemble and flimsy or awfully expensive. Here’s a better solution. These shelves are strong and easy to build and cost about $70. We sized this sturdy shelf unit to hold standard records storage boxes ($4 each). If you want deeper storage, build the shelves 24 in. deep and buy 24-in.-deep boxes. If you prefer to use plastic storage bins, measure the size of the containers and modify the shelf and upright spacing to fit.
Refer to the dimensions shown to mark the location of the horizontal 2×2 on the back of four 2x4s. Also mark the position of the 2×4 uprights on the 2x2s. Then simply line up the marks and screw the 2x2s to the 2x4s with pairs of 2-1/2-in. wood screws. Be sure to keep the 2x2s and 2x4s at right angles. Rip a 4 x 8-ft. sheet of 1/2-in. MDF, plywood or OSB into 16-in.-wide strips and screw it to the 2x2s to connect the two frames and form the shelving unit.
If you choose plastic bins rather than cardboard boxes, label the plastic with a wet-erase marker. When it’s time to relabel the bin, just wipe away the marks with a damp rag. No room for floor-standing shelves? Build this sliding storage system on the ceiling.
Check the Power
Make sure the power is on! The power switch for your furnace looks like a regular light switch and can get bumped and turned off accidentally. If the switch is off, just flip it back on. See more simple furnace fixes you can DIY.
Check the Thermostat
Be sure your thermostat is set to “heat” and at a temperature higher than the temperature inside the house. Thermostat still not working? Here’s how to adjust it.
Check the Gasline Shutoff
Check the ball valve on the pipe that supplies gas to your furnace and make sure it’s open all the way. (Here’s how to find the gas shutoff valve.) When the valve’s handle is parallel to the pipe, it’s open.
Check the Door Switch
Check the door switch. Whenever you remove the access door on the furnace, a little safety switch shuts everything off. Sometimes this switch will stay turned off if the door isn’t completely closed. Plus: Do you need a new furnace? You might not.
Check the Intake and Exhaust Pipes
Newer high-efficiency furnaces will shut off if something like a bird or ice buildup blocks either the fresh-air pipe or the exhaust pipe. You’ll need to go outside and peek inside the pipes to see. Sometimes a critter can get lodged in the pipe all the way back to the furnace and you won’t be able to see it without taking the pipe apart, a job best left to a pro.
Inspect the Burner Flames
Turn the power switch on and activate the burners by turning up your thermostat. Inspect the burner flames. The flames should be fairly even and blue. Yellow flames indicate dirty burners. (Don’t breathe on the flames because the extra oxygen will also make them turn yellow.) Don’t adjust the burners yourself. Call in a pro.
Vacuum the Burners
Turn off the power switch again and shut off the gas by giving the valve one-quarter turn (see Fig. A. for approximate gas shutoff valve location). Vacuum the burners and the furnace base. To get at the back of the burners, tape a 20-in. length of 1/2-in. drain line to your vacuum hose. Vacuum everywhere you see dust. While everything is open, use a flashlight to look for signs of soot (fine black powder), which often indicates poor combustion (see Symptom 5 in “Symptoms that call for a heating pro”). Lift off the lower door (blower door) and vacuum the blower compartment.
Clean the Pilot
Blow dust off the pilot. Direct air to the exact spot by blowing through a drinking straw. A dirty pilot can cause the flame sensor (or thermocouple) to get a false reading that the pilot isn’t lit. Some newer furnaces have hot surface igniters instead of pilots and electronic igniters. (Note: One burner was removed for clarity.)
Clean the Flame Sensor
The flame sensor occasionally becomes coated with residue and will prevent your furnace from lighting. Remove it by pulling it down out of its bracket. Lightly clean the surface with fine emery cloth and slip the sensor back into its bracket.
Clean Hot Surface Igniters
Hot surface igniters are the most common ignition system on furnaces being manufactured today. They take the place of standing pilot lights and electronic igniters. Clean the dust off the hot surface igniter by leaving the igniter in place and blowing air through a straw. This part breaks very easily; don’t even touch it. In fact, when you replace the furnace doors, do so gently to avoid breaking the igniter.
Some older furnaces have two motor bearings and two blower shaft bearings that require annual oiling. Clean the area around the oil caps, then remove the caps. Apply two to three drops of lightweight machine oil (like 3-In-One oil) and replace the caps. Don’t over lubricate!
If your furnace heating ducts also serve as air conditioning ducts, they may have dampers that require adjusting for seasonal changes. The seasonal settings should be marked. Two-story homes often have separate supply trunks to serve the upstairs and downstairs. To send more warm air downstairs (winter setting) or more cold air upstairs (summer setting), adjust the damper handle on each supply trunk.
Test Your Water Heater for Backdrafting
Test your gas water heater for backdrafting while your furnace is Off. Turn up the water heater thermostat until the water heater burner comes on. After a minute or more, hold a smoking stick of incense or match up to the exhaust stack. The smoke should be pulled into the stack. Conduct the test with all exterior doors and windows closed and bath and kitchen fans running. If the vent doesn’t draw, call in a heating specialist or plumber to find the problem. Turn the thermostat back down.