Vacation homes are wonderful during the warm summer months but what do you do when it gets cold? Vacation and vacant homes need to have the heat kept on with someone checking the house weekly to make sure everything is fine, or you have to drain the plumbing to prevent freezing pipes and the damage they cause.
Keeping the heat on is challenging where power outages are common. You might need to add a generator or alarm to notify someone if the temperature gets too low. Deciding on the best strategy takes time or when you don't have time, as is the case with vacation homes affected by Hurricane Sandy, the safest choice for any vacant home is to winterize it …
Vacation Homes: Pros and Cons of Winterizing
Some vacation homes just weren't built for winter. When there's exposed plumbing in the crawlspace, little or no insulation and no central heat, the safest solution is going to be winterizing your home to avoid worrying about the weather and unnecessary repair bills. There are considerations when doing this.
- Extreme winter temperatures and low humidity affect your home's interior. Wood trim (and furniture) dry out each winter so there's more touch up caulking and painting than your primary home.
- Appliances don't last as long as seals dry and crack. In vacation homes we've managed, we've had to replace the refrigerator, washing machine and dryers every 6 to 8 years, where their normal life (see Replacing Interior Home Components) is twice as long.
- If you're trying to sell your home, a cold house isn't going to show well and you're going to have to de-winterize the house for the home inspection.
Steps to Winterize Vacation Homes
This checklist can be used to winterize vacation homes or homes that are vacant for any reason, i.e. this is what the banks do on homes in foreclosure. When it's time to de-winterize vacation homes, you'll want to follow these steps in the reverse order, i.e. turning off faucets before you turn the water supply or well pump back on.
- Turn the water off at the main water shut off valve, preferably one that is outside. When there's a well, you also want to turn off the breaker to the pump system.
- Turn off and drain the water heater. With gas water heaters, you want to set to the off position and close the gas valve. With electric water, you'll shut them off at the breaker. Watch this video on how to drain your water heater.
- Drain all water supply lines in the house, leaving faucets and shut off valves open. If your house has a well, the pressure tank must also be drained.
- Blow out the water supply lines (use an air compressor) to make sure there's no standing water remaining in the pipes. This will insure there's nothing to freeze and strain plumbing fittings as PVC can crack under pressure.
- Drain other home components that contain water. Water softeners (brine tank usually doesn't need to be drained), filters and water treatment systems, washing machines, dishwashers and the water supply line to the ice-maker in the refrigerator, all need to be drained.
- Completely empty toilets and fill with anti-freeze. Use a special non-toxic, RV type antifreeze solution (pink) and be sure to fill the drain traps in addition to the toilets.
- Turn off all electrical breakers to appliances as well as other unnecessary breakers. Put a reminder note on the panel to make sure the electric water heater and other appliances aren’t turned on before the water is turned on.
- Check heating systems for drains to remove water from condensation. Vacation homes with more complicated heating systems like a boiler, heat pump or radiant floor heat, need an experience HVAC professional familiar with the right way to turn these systems off, i.e. some circulate water instead of a freeze-resistant fluid, or may interconnect with the plumbing system and/or hot water heater.
- Leave signs warning any visitors not to use the plumbing.
As you can see, winterizing vacation homes requires knowledge, skill and patience. When we've bought vacation homes, we have been fortunate to keep the same plumbers who have experience maintaining the homes, and in many cases installed the original system. These home professionals who live near vacation homes, have experience from maintaining and winterizing many homes in the area, experience homeowners can benefit from.