Tricky Slip-ups of Winterizing A House


4 “Rules of Plum” For Burst-Proof Protection

By David Plum

Many vacation-home owners on Cape Cod associate fall and spring with the longtime tradition of “closing” and “opening” their houses. Of course, closing a house refers to properly preparing it for a cold vacancy through winter. One critical part of winterizing an unheated house is to ensure that the water won’t freeze in the pipes and cause them to burst. To do this, the plumbing system should be completely drained of water. The theory behind draining down a house is simple—pull all the plugs in the system and let the water drain out. For a typical ranch-style house with two bathrooms, doing a “gravity drain,” can work well. However, even time-honored traditions aren’t straightforward nowadays, and overlooking vital details can mean costly damage to your home and appliances.

Effectively winterizing a house comes down to four key best practices. Whether you do it yourself or want to double check your current plumber, incorporating these critical action steps into your seasonal routine brings valuable peace of mind.

Water May Flow Down But Not Out

Gravity drains can work on straightforward plumbing, but unless you have an intimate knowledge of your house’s system, don’t assume anything. Over the years, a plumbing system can be altered many times for reasons ranging from repair and maintenance to expansion into remodeled additions, to system upgrades, and much more. If any given pipe isn’t pitched correctly, water may pool. Even brand-new plumbing systems can have a fitting or other oddity that collects water. Although the shut-off system isn’t under pressure, residual water can freeze and stress the pipes. It is very important to blow out a plumbing system to ensure it is completely free of water. To clear all remnants of moisture, the system is pressurized with air and, systematically, each faucet is opened.

Understanding a house’s fixtures is also important. Bathtubs with a shower can be drained through the spout. But, shower-only setups can only be drained by disassembling the valve to empty the valve body in the wall.

Convenient Appliances Are So Complex

Experienced DIY plumbers know dishwashers, washing machines, and refrigerators with ice and water-dispensing features require special draining procedures to clear out internal pipes and reservoirs. It’s advisable to put -50°F non-toxic antifreeze (the same kind you pour into your toilets and drains) into such appliances as dishwashers to further protect against freezing. Complete drains get more complicated with the newer-model appliances. Many of these appliances use electronic components that require more-specialized attention. One such device, called a solenoid, regulates the flow of water. Disconnecting the hose on the inlet side of the solenoid will partially drain it. However, the solenoid also has an outlet side to drain, which often gets overlooked. What’s more, depending on how many water sources are coming in, (e.g., hot and cold water), there may be more than one solenoid valve.

How Late Is Too Late?

This best practice may be the hardest to implement because it involves predicting the weather. How late can outdoor showers stay on? Until the first frost. When should I drain my house? Before the first frost. Simple advice but not straightforward. Weather is unpredictable and our lives are fluid. I’ve seen a few rogue snowstorms hit in October, and I’ve met a lot of people who “meant to come down” but didn’t until it was too late. The Old Farmer’s Almanac online provides a frost date by zip code with 50% probability. The National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) gives operational forecasts and observations on its freeze and frost webpage. Still, whatever oracle you use to make your weather-related decisions isn’t going to be right all the time. Either play it safe and close up early, or think ahead and have a contingency plan in place to protect your house from the unexpected. Keep in mind, most plumbers you call during the busy seasons may not be able to fit you in immediately.

Hydronic Heat Can Freeze

If a house is heated by forced hot water running through the baseboards, antifreeze must be added to protect the system. If you winterize your own heating system, you are an exceptional DIY plumber. For everyone else, stay on top of the maintenance schedule. The freeze protection and pH of the heating liquid should be checked annually, a boost should be given every three years, and a complete flush should occur every ten years.

What Does Peace Of Mind Cost?

If you want to manage your property, not run it, you can find a reliable plumber to close and open your house for a reasonable price. The first drain will typically be more expensive because the heating system should get a super shot of antifreeze with lower-temperature burst protection. On Cape Cod, an initial service ranges from $200–$400. Afterwards, an annual service typically ranges between $100–$250. From a risk-management standpoint, it’s affordable insurance to protect your house and appliances.

David Plum is a master plumber and head of Cape Associate’s plumbing division.

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