How to Winterize a Vacation Home
Although I spent most of my life in California I grew up in northern Michigan and moved back here six years ago. I have owned a cottage on the Thunder Bay River for ten years and I have been a plumber my whole life. The extreme temperatures we often experience here can cause weird things to happen to a house. Primarily with frozen water. Even though I am plumber I have often opened up in the spring only to find a freeze leak. If you are going to leave the heat off it is important to winterize the home properly.
It is best to leave some heat in the house even if you completely drain the plumbing system. Mold and mildew will form from condensation; your upholstery will retain moisture and mold and mildew can form. I have noticed cracked windows from the expansion and contraction of the building when there is no heat at all in other homes. Expansion and contraction can cause other problems as well. Personally I do not heat my cottage at all in the winter because I do not want to pay for it.
Leaving the heat on at least 50 degrees will help eliminate this problem and the house will be much happier and so will you if you don’t mind the heating bill.
Another option is to install a low temperature thermostat and leave the heating system on so the extreme cold is not so hard on the house overall. Standard thermostats usually only go down to 55 degrees at the lowest. A low temperature thermostat will go down to 35 degrees. Keeping it at 35 or 40 is a good idea if you are willing to pay for the heat. I would still winterize the plumbing system completely because if the power goes out for any length of time you will get freeze leaks even if you shut the main valve off and opened all the other valves. Water will still be trapped in the pipes and sink supply lines and could freeze and break. There are smart devices and phone apps where you can monitor tempature and get warnings. Best if you have a neighbor who can check on things if you use those. If the power is out for days there is not much the neighbor can do but at least you will be aware of what is going on and can address it.
Most people can’t afford or don’t want to pay for heat all winter in a home that won’t be used. I own a cottage in northern Michigan and I do not supply any heat to it all winter. I have been a plumber my whole life and still I have opened up in the spring to find freeze leaks a number of times in my own place. Getting every bit of water out of the water system is key.
To drain and winterize the plumbing system follow the directions below. Every house has areas that may be difficult to drain. This is a basic description on the method to drain any house, but your house probably has some areas that may need additional attention. By the way even in the summer if you are not going to occupy a home for a period of time it is a very good idea to shut the water off at the main valve just in case the water heater or something else started leaking when you are not there.
Water and Drainage System
- Turn off electric supply to water system pump for well systems.
- Turn off electric to water heater if electric or Turn off gas supply if gas fired water heater. I recommend turning the gas off at the meter to the whole house just in case something were to happen and a gas flex or line were to break somewhere and leak all winter.
- Before shutting the water off it is a good idea to hook a garden hose to the water heater drain and open the valve and let it run for 5 or 10 minutes to flush out the salts and sediments that build up on the bottom of the water heater tank. You have to hook up the hose to drain it anyway later. This will extend the life of the water heater.
- Shut off water systems by shutting the main valve if on municipal water at meter.
- Drain the pressure tank.
- Open all faucets. Be sure to open straight up in the middle for single handle faucets so both hot and cold are open.
- Disconnect all hoses from exterior faucets.
- Open drain valve closest to the main shut off valve so water will drain out clear to the shut-off valve.
- Drain pressure tank on well systems by opening lowest drain valve.
- Flush toilets and hold handle down until the maximum amount of water is drained from the tank. Disconnect the supply line to the bottom of the toilet.
- Disconnect hoses at the wash machine. Leaving them connected to the valves in wall will help later when blowing out the system with air compressor.
- Be sure to drain flexible spray hoses in showers and sinks. Remove the spray wand from hose.
- Open diverter valve to shower head so water drains out. Remove shower heads to create an opening to blow with the compressor.
- Drain water softeners so water will drain back from soft water pipes and controls. Brine tank will probably not freeze.
- Drain any other water treatment equipment such as whole house filters, carbon filters, UV light filters, etc.
- Drain water heaters. Leave valve open to water heater. Using a 1/2 HP in-line utility pump connected to the drain valve with a wash machine hose (female hose x hose connection) can really help sucking the water out of the whole system as well as speeding up the process. Make sure faucets are open so it can suck air from the other end.
- Last step is to connect a compressor to the system and blow any remaining water out. You can purchase an inexpensive air compressor for this task. You will need to convert the air connector on the end of the compressors air hose to a water drain faucet fitting. This is easily done using plumbing fittings. I use the air blower fitting with a trigger and a tapered rubber tip on the end so you can push it to faucet supply lines, faucets with aerators taken off, and shower arms. You need to close your hand over the end on faucets and shower arms to create pressure since they are larger then the tip. You could also, with adapters, create a fitting that hooks directly to a hose faucet and other fittings in the system. See pictures below. If you are not going to provide any heat to the home all winter and the home is in northern Michigan you want to get every bit of water out of the system. The tiniest bit can cause a freeze leak. Start at the highest point and leave the lowest valve closest to the main open. Use common sense in blowing the system out by opening and closing faucets and showers as needed to direct the air flow the way you want it. Water drops to the lowest point and can get trapped. Toilet supply lines are always a problem since they are so low so I remove the flex line from the supply valve.
- When you are done make sure all the valves in the whole system are left open except for the main shut off valve with city water. With a well just leave the power to pump off and leave main valves open.
- For well pump remove drain plugs (if above ground). If any gate valves or ball valves in the system have little bleeder screws loosen those. Pour some RV antifreeze into the well pump until a little comes out of the lowest drain plug port. See below.
- For the drainage pipes by RV antifreeze (Propylene Glycol). It is totally non toxic, and pet safe. They actually use it in the food and drug industry. Do NOT use regular car antifreeze. In all the p-traps in the drainage system (tubs, showers, sinks, toilets, wash machine drain, floor drains) pour some antifreeze in the drain. For tubs, showers, and sinks two cups (16 oz.) is plenty. For toilet bowls be liberal and pour 1/2 gallon into the bowl. Pour about a 1/4 gallon (32 oz.) into the tank to protect the rubber parts in the tank and to keep the small amount of water remaining from freezing.
- If you have a sump pump and pit in the basement for your sewer system or lift the float on the pump until all the water is pumped out. Pour some propylene glycol antifreeze into the pit. If you have a sump pump for foundation rain water collection make sure the discharge piping outside is not subject to freezing as this can back up the system and cause the pump to run all the time and burn out.
Do the above steps and you will be sure to come back to your weekend home with an intact plumbing system.
Electric heating systems require no maintenance other than shutting off the power to the heating units. If you leave the heat on be sure to leave at least a 6” clearance between the heaters ands any combustible materials.
Forced air heating systems:
- Turn power off to furnace. Usually there is a switch right near the furnace or turn the breaker off. Normally there is a dedicated breaker for the furnace. Turn of the gas valve. I recommend turning the gas off at the meter to the whole house just in case something were to happen and a gas flex or line were to break somewhere and leak all winter.
- If it is a high efficiency furnace there may be a condensate drain, p-trap, or condensate pump. Take the p-trap assembly apart and drain if there is one.
Hot water (hydronic) base board, in floor heating systems with a boiler:
- I STRONGLY recommend that if your boiler heating system does not contain at least 50% propylene glycol that you have the system filled with 50/50 propylene glycol/ water solution. This way you will never have to worry about draining it or it freezing.
- If your system is filled with only water then the whole thing needs to be drained completely which is much more difficult than the plumbing system and in the spring it will need to be refilled and bled of all the air. Much much better to fill it with glycol and be done with it.
- Turn the main power switch to the pump and controls off. Turn the gas valve off. I recommend turning the gas off at the meter to the whole house just in case something were to happen and a gas flex or line were to break somewhere and leak all winter.
- If it is a high efficiency boiler there may be a condensate drain, p-trap, or condensate pump. Take the p-trap assembly apart and drain if there is one.
Wash machine and dishwasher:
- Water left in hoses and internal components can cause damage when it freezes. Shut off water supply to clothes washer. Remove and drain inlet hoses. Clear water valve by setting timer for fill cycle. Press warm water button and run machine a few seconds. Drain water from drain hose. Disconnect electrical supply.
- For a dishwasher, remove inlet and outlet connection to the valve. Operate valve to remove any water. Remove drain hose from the pump and drain. Disconnect electrical supply.
- Water Heater – Before shutting the water off it is a good idea to hook a garden hose to the water heater drain and open the valve and let it run for 5 or 10 minutes to flush out the salts and sediments that build up on the bottom of the water heater tank. You have to hook up the hose to drain it anyway later. This will extend the life of the water heater. Another thing that can greatly increase the life of a water heater is to replace the anode rod every 5 years. The anode rod prevents corrosion to the tank and they get eaten up rather quickly.
- Air Conditioning – If you have air conditioning as part of your forced air unit it will have a condensate drain and possibly a p-trap in it. If it has a p-trap blow through the end of the line to get the water out of the trap.
- Refrigerator – Completely empty refrigerator and freezer and clean. Turn temperature settings down. If you don’t want to pay for the electricity unplug the fridge and leave the doors open. Mold and mildew build up when the power is off and the doors are closed.
- Make sure there is no water in any dehumidifiers you may have.
- It is also a good idea to clean the equipment and to protect the finish with a coat of appliance polish.
- Remove food, cosmetics, or medicine containers that contain liquid that would freeze from shelves.
- Food in paper or plastic containers should be put in large metal containers to protect from mice or other rodents.
- Remove or hide articles in the house that can be sold and converted to cash such as guns, radios, TV sets, tools or other valuables.
Keep out animals
- Cover chimneys tightly so that raccoons cannot enter the house, or birds fall down the chimney.
- Stop up any places in the foundation or around the eaves where squirrels, chipmunks, mice or other small animals can enter.
Have someone check your house It is always best to have someone look after your home when you are gone. Possibly a neighbor can periodically check your home and notify you if anything is amiss. Enjoy your home knowing that you have done everything you can to protect your home when you are gone.