Seasonal Reminder-Extended Winter Vacation

November 8, 2010

On a recent visit to my brother in laws cabin in Michigan, I was reminded of the importance of winterizing a home for extended periods.  If you have a property that you leave for extended periods (greater than 2 weeks), you should have a good documented plan on how to perform  the shutdown of the major components of  the home. I would give my brother-in-law an A+ as he had tags and numbered instructions on what to do and in what order. He even had an emergency generator and the instruction on how to disconnect from the utility as well as the connection steps to bring the electrical circuits back on-line. All these items are of great help, not only for the owner but for friends that might visit on their own.

Winterizing Plumbing: This post is a good general overview of what condition the plumbing should be in, at both your primary and secondary residence. Following this guide will ensure you don’t have any surprises.

Inspection and Testing  Natural Gas Fired Water Heaters and Appliances:

Unless you plan to drain your hot water heater each time you visit, leaving the pilot light on or keeping the system in “vacation mode” will save some water and time. You may choose to do the same with the forced air heating system,  gas stoves or water boilers. With all these appliances, it is important to know the safety switches will operate as designed in the event the pilot goes out or the service in interrupted. This safety feature is intended to automatically turn off the gas (at the appliance) when this happens, known as fail-safe.  As a mater of building  code compliance, appliances designed for residential construction in the last 30  plus years that include pilot lights should be equipped with a “fail safe” type pilot light.  You should test the fail-safe feature at least once a year. Before you start this test, ensure there is no other open flame in the same room. WARNING: This procedure has its risks as unburned natural gas can start a fire, be extremely carefull in the use of this test. If you are inexperienced with dealing with natural gas, contact a plumber to perform this test. 

  1. Inspect the pilot light; it should have a strong blue flame that is washing the thermocoupler with the flame. (Note: In the last 5-10 years, some appliance manufacturers have been using electronic pilots, if that is the case, you will not have a pilot light to test, no need to proceed any further in this inspection.)
  2. Locate the natural gas shut off in the event it has to be turned off.
  3. Blow out the pilot light, you will begin to smell gas. You should also be able to hear the flow of gas at the orifice. Back away from the appliance.
  4. Within 30 seconds to 2 minutes the gas valve should automatically shut down stopping any flow of natural gas. You may hear a click from the appliance.
  5. Air out the room if the smells of gas is apparent. Assuming the gas valve worked properly, you should not hear or smell any gas.
  6. With the gas valve in the same position as in the beginning of the test, use a butane stick lighter to  attempt to relight the flame. It should not light. If the pilot re-lights the gas valve may be bad and should be replaced.
  7. Assuming the valve worked properly and it shut down as expected, follow the manufacturers procedure for relighting the pilot light.


System Shutdown Procedure for Extended Vacations: Here are the key items to address as part of your shutdown procedure.

  • Water Heater:
  • HVAC: Depending on the circumstances you may choose to leave heaters active in the house while you are away. There may be exceptions, but overall, if you will not be back for more than two weeks, ts a better decision to shut it all down. The ambient temperatures and the duration of non-occupancy should be included in your decision. If your circumstances make it a better choice to leave the system active, reduce the temperature to somewhere between 50-60F. HomeownerBOB would highly recommend having a full time resident or care taker type person make periodic visits once a week or so just to make sure everything is okay. Unfortunately, if the weather gets real bad, they may not have access to the property either. If the utilities fail and you have left your water on, you may find a terrible mess on your next visit. For this reason, system shut-down is attractive. If you choose to shut the system down and the heater includes a pilot light, turn the system off (at the Thermostat) and leave the pilot light on. 
  • Plumbing: Shut off the water:    The first choice to cut off the water is at the house. If you have a basement, it will probably be there. If you live in the southern portion of the US, look at the Water Cut-off post for greater understanding. If you have to use the meter see City Water Cut-off.  In many cases you may find a drain valve at the cut-off. If you do, open to start draining the system. Now go to all the plumbing fixtures ( kitchen sink, bathroom, showers and tubs), open both the cold and hot valves about one turn. Now go outside and open any exterior faucets. By inducing air in the line any remaining water that may freeze has room to expand and should not cause any harm. Dont be surprised to see water draining out of a faucet that is the lowest in the system. Water follows gravity and will seek the lowest open valve.
  • Toilets: Flush all the toilets, this will open the valves to drain back any water
  • Drains and P-Traps: Pour a cup of RV-AntiFreeze in every drain. DO NOT USE AUTOMOTIVE ANTIFREEZE. This is not mandatory, but HomeownerBOB highly recommends this if you plan to leave for the entire season.
  • Connected Exterior Water Hoses: Disconnect and store any exterior water hoses. If they are covered with snow and ice, they can be a tripping hazard as well as they become frozen they will be prone to breaking.
  • Sprinkler System Shutdown: There should be a master cut-off for the sprinkler system. Shut off the water. If there is a bleed or drain valve at the cut-off, open it up. With the water off, run each section about 3 minutes. This will  allow the (normally) pressurize line to take on air. To avoid damage, it is important to depressurize the system.
  • Electrical Services: No changes, leave the service active, no harm done here. This will keep your clocks correct and if the house is equipped with an electric water heater, it will allow it to run as necessary to keep the water warm. Hopefully you also have some security lighting and possibly a security system that will need to be powered.

If this is a regular routine for you, consider writing up a check off list (or print this post) to ensure you cover everything. This last thing you want to do is to get home and wonder if you really did everything or not. Good Luck.

For those of you who regularly read my post, you have recognized that I have not been writing a lot lately. Here in Texas, the Fall is a great time to get out, vacation, ride motorcycles and do home projects all of which I have been doing. Look for my next series on “Cutting the Cord” Giving up subscription Cable Television.