This week’s question comes from one of our readers, asking what to do with their house during the winter if they’re going to be gone for an extended period. That’s a great question! I’ll break up the answers into plumbing, heating, maintenance, and “no, duh” categories. And of course, I’m assuming we’re talking about a Minnesota winter, not a Florida winter.
Turn off the water to your house. This will lower the potential for a catastrophic flood if something goes wrong while you’re gone. The only downside is if you have a whole-house humidifier, it won’t run. If you have delicate hardwood floors, this could cause cracks to show up.
Pour RV antifreeze into the plumbing traps. The plumbing traps are there to prevent sewer gases from coming into your home. If the water evaporates while you’re gone, you could get sewer gas coming into your home. And you might even have pests get into your house through the sewer lines. This includes the toilets, sinks, bathtubs, showers, floor drain, and the washing machine standpipe.
Stuff to skip: What about periodically flushing toilets, so the seals don’t dry out? No need. That’s not a thing, but I bring it up because I’ve been asked about it. I’ve also heard of some people setting their water heater to vacation mode, but I’m not a fan of that setting. I don’t think you’ll save much money, and you’ll increase the potential for Legionella bacteria to grow in your water heater tank. Someday I may do a long-term experiment to see how much money I could save with the vacation setting on a water heater, but until I do, I’m not sold on that concept.
Dial the heat back if you’ll be gone. A good number is 55°, but there is no hard and fast rule. I have a friend who lived in a 1970s house with a poorly insulated exterior wall, and the water line to her dishwasher would freeze during especially cold weather. If you have a house on the edge of a cliff, turning down the temperature to 55° might cause problems. On the other hand, many houses can tolerate an even bigger drop without ill effects. But whatever you do, don’t turn the heat off, because your water lines will freeze.
I also recommend installing a “smart” thermostat. It’ll connect to your wifi, and you can have it send you alerts if the temperature or humidity are out of whack.
I’ve had good luck with the Ecobee, which is where the screenshot above came from.
The rest of my list falls into the common sense category. You’ll want to figure out a plan for snow removal, because nothing screams “abandoned house” louder than piled up snow with no tracks. Also, many cities have ordinances about keeping your walkways cleared of snow. While you’re at it, think about ice dams too. If your home is prone to ice dams and you need to rake your roof after heavy snowfall, make sure you’ve arranged for someone to take care of that for you.
And to help make it look like your house isn’t abandoned, it’s a good idea to use a few light timers in the evening. Be sure to cancel your mail delivery and newspaper delivery.
Don’t leave perishable food at your house, empty the trash, etc. And finally, consider having someone check on your house periodically.
February 26, 2023, 7:42 am
I recently bought a “smart” whole house water shutoff device to give me peace of mind while I’m away from the house. I can easily shut off my house’s water supply from my phone or manually by accessing the main valve. Or I can keep the water on so that the whole house humidifier and pet sitter can use water, but the device will automatically turn off the house’s water supply if it senses there’s a leak. An added bonus is that my home insurance company provides a discount for having this device so it will pay for itself in about 2 years.
February 26, 2023, 7:59 am
Hi Alex, which device did you purchase? Was it the Guardian? I put one of those in my own home many years ago after one of the inspectors on my team wrote a blog post about it https://structuretech.com/automatic-water-leak-protection/.
February 27, 2023, 3:15 pm
The Phyn generation 2.
February 27, 2023, 3:33 pm
Got it, thank you!
March 19, 2023, 12:29 am
To the structuretech.com owner, Thanks for the educational content!
March 21, 2023, 10:52 pm
If you shut off the water to the house shouldn’t you shut off the water heater?
March 22, 2023, 10:05 am
No, not as long as you leave water in the tank.