"Need to close up the house for the winter"
Column #877 12/17/11
On The Level
Q. We are leaving before the Holidays and plan not to return until spring so the house will be empty. I was told that I should have a plumber winterize the pipes and that it would cost around $300. Then I would need the plumber to come back in the spring before we come back and put the plumbing back into working order.
What needs to be done to a house to be left for the winter? Is it possible to turn off the water, drain the pipes, turn off the heat and have it be OK for the winter? Does this do damage to the heating/air conditioning system and the water heater tank, which would not be working. Should the water heater tank be drained? Could the tank possibly freeze and burst? Thank you for any help you can give me on preparing for winter.
A. Whether or not the house will be OK for the winter with everything turned off and drained down depends upon your definition of OK. When you hire a plumber to come into the house and winterize it in the old-fashioned way the water will be shut completely off, whether itís well water or municipal water. The water heater will be shut off from its power supply, electric or gas, then drained down to empty and the temperature/pressure relief valve tripped open. The house water pipes will be drained down as well.
Then the plumber will drain the tanks of the toilets and will place anti-freeze into each bowl to fill the trap that is formed into the porcelain base of the toilet so it wonít freeze and split the toilet apart should the house become cold enough. The plumber will then do the same for all the other traps in the house beneath sinks, in bath tubs and showers etc.
Professionals then place warning tape over the toilet seats in the down position and a big label on all water heaters and anything else in the house that uses water to warn anyone who may come upon the fixture not to use it until the house has been de-winterized. And $300 is about right for that-- in fact, thatís cheap. Then someone usually comes along after the plumber leaves and throws the main circuit breaker switch into the off position, cutting off all electricity from the panel to the house and walks out the door, locking it behind them, declaring the house ďwinterizedĒ. That's essentially what banks do to foreclosed properties and itís not good for them.
What worries me about this exercise is not so much just the draining down of all the water in the plumbing system. Sure, seals and gaskets can dry out over the down period requiring some repairs when the water goes back on and I am concerned about what might start growing in the bottom of a drained water heater between the time itís emptied and refilled. Itís everything else that can go wrong in an empty house that can really damage things and run up repair costs.
What I see happening to modern houses that get shuttered up and de-powered with heat off is that there is a period during which the house becomes very cold-- not necessarily frozen but just cold. All the building materials get cold-- the framing, the insulation, the drywall, the woodwork-- everything comes into a basic equilibrium with the average outside temperatures. It isnít good for them and they can react somewhat to this shock by splitting, warping etc. Then along comes a warm day-- the January thaw-- and warm moist air creeps into the house in the natural ways and condensation sets up on the walls, ceilings and floors.
You walk into a closed-up, modern house on that warm day and you go from a balmy outside to a frigid inside. I was called into such a house once and the walls looked like they had been weeping. Then guess what? Mold. Now everyone freaks out. Donít even think about the sump pump being unable to work because the powerís off and should there be a big rain or a snow-melt the basement will flood. Your insurance company doesnít want to hear about it and now you are into a huge clean-up job and, yes, youíll need to call the plumber to get the water back on.
I donít care that the house is empty-- keep the heat on to least 50ļF and electricity to the house. Itís money well spent. A house is a huge asset and it only makes sense to take steps to preserve it. In the snowy winter of 1986 while building a house on the water on the Eastern Shore I performed an experiment. The house was insulated and closed in to all weather but not heated beyond the solar gain during the day through the south facing windows. I placed a bucket of water in middle of the living room and checked it from time to time. It never froze. Weíre not Vermont or in the frigid mountains down here near the Bay but we have been known to have cold winters.
There is now available a framing clip designed to stabilize interior walls to the truss bottom that allows the truss to move up and down without dragging the walls along with it. I have never seen it used in the field. When I see the inevitable nail pop associated with this condition I recommend that the nail be pulled and the hole patched. That usually takes care of it. If the cracks are small and recurring then I recommend using an elastomeric caulk, such as tub and tile caulk, that will move along with the drywall and not split open.
If the spaces are such that they really bother you and are moving then attach a piece of trim only nailing one side allowing the trim to slide up and down in response. Beyond that there isnít much you can do short of pulling things apart and rebuilding them with movement in mind. As for creaking, thatís the house talking to you but itís not calling for help.
Drain the water heater and pipes down to be on the safe side. A monitored security system in this house can be worth its weight in gold. It will not only guard against criminal entry but these systems have fire alarms and they can be customized to include cold temperature and water alerts also. The security company will call you should anything trigger the system. Leave a house key with a trusted neighbor. You wont regret it.
Keep the mail coming. If you've got a question, tip, or comment let me know. Write "On The Level," c/o The Capital, P.O. Box 3407, Annapolis, MD 21403 or e-mail me at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.