QUESTION: We have purchased a home for summer use for the next few years. However, it is actually a year-round home built in 1995, and we may move there full time after retirement. The first owner lived there year-round for 10 years. We think the second owner lived there seasonally and drained the water from a pump system from the lake and turned off the heat, but we are not certain. We are getting conflicting advice. Some say to drain the water system, using a compressor to blow it out, and turn off the heat to save costs. Others say the heat should stay on low for the sake of the plaster walls, and that would mean the water could stay on. The latter has the advantage of allowing occasional winter use.
What do you suggest? Thanks, Eva Whitmore
ANSWER: You have identified the two most common options many cottage owners face every year in the fall -- to heat or not to heat. Your decision should be one based on practical and economic considerations specific to your needs.
When deciding whether to close up your summer home for the winter, or maintain heating it through the long winter, primary consideration should be given to the amount of projected use. If you plan to use it regularly, perhaps every second or third weekend, then it may be worth heating it to allow full use. If you only plan on use for one or two trips over the entire winter, shutting it down makes more sense. This advice is primarily based on economic considerations but also takes into account another more practical reality.
To prevent the water from freezing in the pipes and fixtures in your summer home, you may only have to heat the building to slightly above freezing, theoretically. The difficulty with this theory is it is based on the presumption you will have even and uninterrupted heat distribution throughout the building. This is rarely the case in a home or cottage, so heating the entire building to a higher temperature may be necessary to prevent isolated cold spots that may allow pipes to freeze. Also complicating the issue is the real possibility of a power failure during a winter storm, which may allow the electric heat source to fail, ensuring water damage from freezing. Both of these issues may be minimized by the use of electric heating cables attached to the outside of the waterlines with a battery backup system, but failure is always a possibility when the building is vacant and unmonitored.
Shutting of the heat completely, draining the water supply system, filling the drain traps with RV antifreeze, and other winterizing procedures may be more practical unless you are planning frequent use of the cottage. Because of the age of the home, the wall finishes should be drywall or panelling and major damage from lack of heat is normally only a serious issue if they are plaster. In fact, heating a seasonal building to a low temperature may draw moisture from the crawl space, increasing the chance of condensation and moisture damage inside. Unless you have some form of mechanical ventilation, you could create warm and cold spots where excess condensation could form inside the windows and walls. Turning off the heat completely should cool then entire building, and the soil beneath it, preventing this issue.
The main thing to remember when shutting off the heat and water for the winter is to completely drain the water supply to prevent freezing and damage to the fixtures or pipes. Blowing out the lines with an air compressor should be an effective way to achieve this, but may be tricky to accomplish unless you have a system to fit the compressor hose to one or more of your faucets. If the water-supply pipes are properly sloped, with limited elbows and turns, blowing them out may not be critical. This may also apply if you have newer PEX piping as opposed to copper. You may also be able to install more than one set of drain valves in problem areas in your crawl space to prevent trapping water in hard to reach areas. This may involve additional crawling around under the building, but has worked for me in one problem area in my own cottage.
The alternative to draining the water and shutting down completely is to leave the heat on, normally between 5 C and 10 C to allow easy use when you come out. As previously stated, some sort of battery backup is a good idea to prevent a real problem, but another simple task may also help prevent disaster. There is no reason you could not drain the majority of the water supply pipes and the water heater each time you leave the building vacant, even with the heat on low. This will take some time and some effort in planning, but combined with shutting off the pump may prevent a problem if the heat should fail. This will also require extra some effort when reoccupying the home, but that will be similar to start-up in the spring if a total shutdown is done.
There is one final alternative, which may the most practical overall and save money and energy if limited winter use is desired. This would include a complete draining of the water supply, winterizing drains and turning the heat off to minimize potential problems. When you do venture out to use the building for short periods in the winter, leave the water supply off, bring your own water in refillable containers for drinking and washing, and a portable commode or garbage bags to use in the existing ones. In this last scenario, it may take a while for the building to heat up for occupancy, but you will not have the expense and waste of heating a vacant building and worries about freezing pipes from a power failure or other event.
Ari Marantz is the owner of Trained Eye Home Inspection Ltd. and the President of the Canadian Association of Home & Property Inspectors -- Manitoba (www.cahpi.mb.ca). Questions can be emailed to the address below. Ari can be reached at (204) 291-5358 or check out his website at www.trainedeye.ca.