Whether it’s a one of our scenic lodges in the South Lake backwoods or a luxury cabin on the beautiful Tahoe coast, a vacation house can be the source of decades of good memories. If your getaway doesn’t see much use come winter, now is the time to button it up snugly so it will continue to offer years of hassle-free good times.
What you need to do depends, of course, on where your home sits. The colder the climate, the more you have to do. But don’t be daunted; you can do most of it yourself. With advice from the experts, here’s what to do:
Water, water everywhere
Turn the big knob. Even if you decide to leave the heat on, turn off the water coming into the house. Otherwise, if you lose power and it gets cold and the pipes freeze, when it gets warm you’re going to have water everywhere which translates to huge damage and a high repair bill.
How to do it? Where the water comes into the house, there’s going to be a shut-off. It’s usually a larger pipe coming in from the concrete wall or the ground. If you’re on a well system, which many vacation homes are, it’s in the pump room. Still can’t find it? Look near the water meter.
Many cabins and vacation cottages have unusual water supplies — wells, lakes, etc. — and an electric pump that brings the water into the house. Read the manufacturer’s instructions for how to drain and winterize the pump.
Turn the little knobs, too. Even if you don’t turn off the main water valve, you want to turn off the supply hoses to washing machines and at the valves that serve toilets and faucets. The valves are the obvious knobs under your sink or behind your toilet. Why turn them off? Those valves are under pressure and, while you are absent for an extended period, could burst — and then water could pour in unnoticed for a long time.
Drain those pipes. After you’ve shut off the water, drain all of the pipes in the house so there’s no water inside them that could freeze. Go to an exterior faucet at a low point of the house, such as a spigot outside, and open it. You may need to open a faucet higher in the house to allow the water to flow more freely.
Does the thought of monkeying with pipes and valves make you uncomfortable? You’re not alone. We highly recommend that a vacation property be winterized by a licensed plumber or licensed professional. It’s more cost-effective to have it winterized for a few hundred dollars by a professional than to have something go wrong and have freeze damage occur.
The water-heater dilemma. Here, have options, and both are easy for amateurs. If you’re leaving the power or gas on, many water heaters have a “vacation setting,” usually marked on the dial on the gas or propane water heater, that will conserve energy while keeping the pilot light going and thus keeping the water from freezing.
If you’re not going to use the home for a few months, drain the water heater. It’s easy. First, shut off the power to the heater. If it’s an electric heater, do it at the breaker box; if it’s a gas-fueled heater, there should be a valve near the heater. Next, attach a hose to the spigot at the bottom of the tank. Run it outside, open the spigot, and the tank will drain.
Before you switch off your water system is a great time to run some water through the tank and out the spigot, to flush out sediment and sand that can accumulate there.
Dealing with other appliances
Read the manufacturer’s instructions on winterizing other appliances that have water in them — washing machines, refrigerators, ice makers. Here is where a pro may be the ticket. A licensed plumber will disconnect the washing machine and blow out the line. The pro will do the same with the dishwasher, which has water in the pump, and the fridge if it has an icemaker. These jobs can be tricky for an average homeowner to tackle because they require plumbing fittings to be taken apart.
You can, of course, empty and defrost the fridge yourself; leave it open with a big box of open baking soda in it.
Advanced winterizing: Grab the antifreeze. Toilets and shower and sink drain traps are hard-to-reach places that deserve some extra attention. Any place that there’s water, it can freeze, and if it freezes it can expand and can break drains or break the toilet. After you’ve turned off the water and flushed the toilet to empty the holding tank, place some antifreeze formulated for RVs (yes, that’s recreational vehicles) in the toilet bowl. Read the directions for the exact amount. You don’t want automobile antifreeze inside your home, because it’s very poisonous and caustic. Also put some into sink drain traps and shower drain traps.
Wrap that commode. But wait! You’re not done with that toilet: Finally, cover the toilet openings with plastic wrap to prevent sewer gases from rising up into the house while no water is in the pipes. They smell nasty and are toxic. Your whole house could smell like a sewer when you get back.
To heat or not to heat. Should you ever shut off the heat completely at your vacation home? Maybe — but only if it’s a pretty rustic log cabin. Most experts advise to never shut off your heat source, even when you winterize your cabin. Always turn your heat to the lowest setting, but keep it going. Why? Two reasons. First, in winter, what happens is that you get a lot of condensation, and that starts the dry-rot process, and mildew, and that’s not a good thing. Second, freeze-thaw cycles can put stress on a home and its foundation, cracking the latter.
Instead, buy a thermostat that can be set to 40 degrees. Most homes’ thermostats only go down to about 50 degrees.
Turn down the gas. Unless natural gas or propane is your heating fuel, shut the gas off as well. Usually right where the gas line comes into the house there’s going to be a shut-off valve.
If you do have gas heat, you can still shut off the gas flow to appliances, such as a gas stove. Usually, there’s a valve right near the appliance that you can shut off. As always when dealing with something as serious as gas, contact a professional or the gas company if you’re at all unsure.
Power down. If you need to leave some electricity on, throw the circuits breakers to “off” for what you don’t need. Remember not to cut the power for your heat. Or, go around the house and unplug all the electrical items you can, including clocks, televisions and microwaves. They use a small amount of power, but over the course of the winter, that costs a bit of money.
Other inside to-do’s
Your work inside isn’t quite done. The experts have a few more suggestions:
Keep interior doors open. This will help air circulate while all the exterior doors and windows are closed.
Jumble the place. Tilt all cushions and mattresses, if possible. This, too, will allow some airflow.
Strip it down. Remove heavy bedding such as quilts from beds. To keep mattresses from getting dusty, replace bedding with an old sheet.
Outside the house
Tend to your trees. Prune tree limbs away from the house if the potential for tree-limb damage is there. That also can minimize rodents by giving them one less way to access the house.
Install a chimney cap. Birds are known for nesting inside chimneys. Install a cap to keep out unwanted visitors, and close the flue.
Block the critters. Rodents will seek a warmer place in autumn. Stop them by sealing any possible entrances — even tiny ones you don’t think a mouse could enter — with steel wool, metal sheeting, caulk and/or hardware cloth.
Survey the gutters. Clean out all the gutters, and keeping the roof free of debris. When the gutters clog up, you can have ice dams that can cause havoc on the interior of the house — roof leaks, things like that.
Care for the sprinklers. Have an in-ground irrigation system? It will freeze. And when it does, it will crack those plastic pipes under your yard. What to do? Blow out the lines with an air compressor, or get a pro to do it for you.
Mind your dock. If you live on the water, secure your dock before winter. Just make sure all of your connections to your dock are secure. Also, remove your landing, the ramp that goes from the shoreline to the dock. That way, waves during winter storms won’t beat it up.
With second homes, security is always an issue. You can do a few things to ease your mind, though:
Bolt it. In the winter, break-ins are a problem. The first line of defense: Install deadbolts on all entry doors. If you don’t have them, get them installed. They’re not hard to install.
Light it up. Install motion-sensor lights at the front and rear of the house. Just make sure you leave on the power to those areas.
Tell the authorities. Notify local police and fire departments how long you’ll be gone.
Hire a plow. If you live in a snowy area, arrange for snowplow service for your driveway. You want the fire department to be able to access your home in event of a fire.
Take it or hide it. As for valuables, take what you can — the smaller, valuable stuff. Put the rest, such as TVs and desktop computers, in a lockable closet. Don’t leave anything out that looks enticing. Finally, leave the curtains open so anyone who is casing the joint can see that breaking in isn’t worth their trouble.
Spend an hour or two checking off this to-do list, and you’ll buy yourself some peace of mind all winter long, not to mention likely saving yourself the cost and hassle of an emergency.