Question: We plan to be away from our Winnipeg home for the next eight weeks and were planning to turn off our water. Would the furnace or electric hot water tank be negatively impacted? Thank you. — Diane
Answer: Leaving a home unoccupied for several weeks is a common concern for many homeowners, especially during the heating season. Turning off your water at the main valve is a good idea, but a few precautions need to be taken, especially with your electric water heater.
Many Canadians will leave their homes vacant for a week to several months in the cold winter, while they travel to warmer climates. This can be the result of typical annual vacations or longer extended stays for many "snowbirds."
The main concerns with vacant homes are potential problems while the house remains unoccupied. These may go undetected for days or weeks, causing damage and expensive repairs which may increase the longer they remain stagnant.
The worst of these, as with most home issues, are related to moisture. If there is a moisture-related issue during a winter holiday, getting it attended to right away can save significant money and headaches later on.
So, the most important thing to do when away for an extended period of time is to ensure that someone checks the home regularly. This may be a neighbour, family member, friend or other acquaintance who can be trusted to detect a problem and have the knowledge of who to call if something untoward does occur.
Having someone "housesit" while away may be the easiest way to achieve this goal. Otherwise, hiring a professional, bonded company that does regular checks should ensure your home is adequately protected. Many insurance providers now require this to be done on a regular basis, otherwise a damage claim may be rejected if it is shown that the homeowner has been negligent on this point.
While there may be little required to personally do during these periods, turning off the water supply may be the most prudent task. This is important, because the water supply in our homes is under constant pressure. While this will not be a problem if the supply piping and fixtures are in good condition, one small leak or malfunction can cause significant flooding and water damage.
This could happen due to corrosion or normal wear at the pipes or fixtures in any portion of the home. Especially if you have older faucets, toilets, sinks or shower enclosures, sudden leakage is a real concern. If you have any of these items that currently have slow drips or leaks, the chances go up exponentially.
The solution to preventing a major water damage occurrence is quite simple. Since the water inside the supply pipes is under pressure, eliminating that pressure will reduce or eliminate the potential for a catastrophic leak. This can be accomplished by shutting of the main valve for the water supply in the home. The valve is normally located right beside the water meter and can be closed by simply turning a round handle or pushing a straight bar for a ball valve.
Once done, the water from the municipal supply source will not be able to enter the pipes in your home. If you have a well and pump system, shutting off the valve may also work, but turning off the power supply to the pump is an even better solution.
While this easy task will prevent most water-related issues in your vacant home, there may be one or two additional, straightforward chores that need to be done.
Since the water in your pipes may still be under pressure, even with the main valve shut, relieving some of that pressure is the next step. This can be done by opening a faucet, often at the lowest point in the home, to allow the water in the pipes to partially drain from the pipes. This will reduce the water pressure to a very low level, ensuring any leaks that form will only allow a small amount of water to leave the supply piping. This should ensure that any breach will cause minimal to no damage to the other components in your home.
To answer your question, shutting off the water supply should have no effect whatsoever on your furnace or heating system. Unless you have a boiler and/or a hydronic heating system, there should no connection between the furnace and water supply.
But the water heater does need some attention before turning the water supply off for your winter holiday.
Because your water heater is electric, the water inside is heated with electric elements. If the water temperature inside the tank drops below the setting of the thermostats, these elements will turn on, slowly heating the surrounding water. If there is no water in contact with the elements, they will overheat and burn out within a matter of seconds or minutes.
If this occurs, the water heater will no longer function properly and the elements will have to be replaced. To avoid this, the power supply for the water heater must be turned off before the water supply. This is accomplished in most modern homes by switching off the circuit breaker in the electrical panel. If this is not properly labelled, or the panel is inaccessible, hire a licensed electrician to fix that problem before leaving town.
Additionally, shutting the water-supply valve for the water heater itself, is also a good idea. Just remember to reverse both of these procedures, after the water supply is turned back on and the pipes are refilled.
Shutting off the water supply to your home prior to leaving for an extended vacation is a great idea, which should have no negative effects on your heating system or water heater, as long as you take the necessary precaution to shut the power to the water heater before the main valve is closed.
Ari Marantz is the owner of Trained Eye Home Inspection Ltd. and the past president of the Canadian Association of Home & Property Inspectors — Manitoba (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 trainedeye.ca.