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Winterizing a vacant home in a cold climate?

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Winterizing a vacant home in a cold climate?

Unread postby KaiserJeep » Fri 25 Aug 2017, 11:11:21

The wife's Mother passed away earlier this year and probate on her house is dragging on forever. The house is a 960 sq ft, 2-bed, 2-bath single story home on Nantucket Island, Mass. My wife has not yet officially inherited, we are unwilling to sink a lot of cash into the place until it is officially ours, and all the relatives mentioned in the will have taken a step back.

We will make one more visit before Winter, and need to Winterize the home. The heat is hot water baseboard and both heat and domestic hot water depend upon a single 20+ year old oil burner, with an oil tank in the unheated basement which appears to be almost full. The last visit was consumed in dealing with a plumbing disaster, the membrane on the well pump pressure tank ruptured and flooded the basement. We disposed of boxes of old business records from my Father-In-Law's trucking business, and (mostly) got the place cleaned out. We plan one more visit this year, and must Winterize the place for the (often brutally cold) Nantucket Winter. Not having the time (because of the basement flood) to install WiFi, security system, cameras, etc. we have for at least the first Winter hired an experienced caretaker.

At first I assumed that we would drain the pipes, turn off the well pump and oil burner, and wait for Spring. But the caretaker is telling us that he strongly reccomends leaving the thermostat set at 50 degrees all Winter. He says this will prevent unpleasent odors and the deterioration of the structure. He further says that if we don't do this, we can find a new caretaker.

Speaking of the structure, it is 20+ years old, a conventional 2x4 framed house with too little insulation and (from what I can tell) little in the way of vapor barriers, either. The fiberglass batts have a permeable craft paper facing the heated space under the drywall, the exterior walls have felt paper underneath white cedar shingles. They have been building such structures on Nantucket for a long time, and obviously they have a formula that works.

I am loathe to leave the heat on all Winter in an empty house, but the caretaker insists upon it. He will make weekly visits to check on the home and also to look for signs of intruders. We will make energy efficiency improvements beginning next year. Anybody have any experience to share about vacant homes in cold climates?
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Re: Winterizing a vacant home in a cold climate?

Unread postby Cog » Fri 25 Aug 2017, 12:12:26

If this hadn't been a hot water system, I would have recommended draining the water lines and running either electric or gas set at 50 degrees. But since you can't do that, I would do what the caretaker suggests and go ahead and run the system at 50 degrees. It should not run a lot at at 50 degrees, if you get some sunny days there.
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Re: Winterizing a vacant home in a cold climate?

Unread postby vtsnowedin » Fri 25 Aug 2017, 12:19:02

Your care taker is spot on. Draining pipes never works as condensation accumulates in low spots which freeze and split during cold spells and cause a massive leak when the water is turned back on. The leak is of course in the worst possible location and causes the most possible damage and the highest repair cost.
The structure you describe is typical for all of Massachusetts and is cost effective out on the island surrounded by the relatively warm ocean.
You didn't mention storm windows or shutters but be sure they are all in their winter position with drapes closed. You might add another layer of plastic inside each window and all but one exterior door to reduce infiltration leaving just the one the care taker will use functional.
Hope this helps, probate is always a hassle. :evil:
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Re: Winterizing a vacant home in a cold climate?

Unread postby Cog » Fri 25 Aug 2017, 12:23:58

You did not mention whether the wife is the executor or not, but maintaining a home during the probate process is the responsibility of the executor and funds can be used from the estate(if there are any) to pay for it. Inheritors always come last in the payment line.
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Re: Winterizing a vacant home in a cold climate?

Unread postby KaiserJeep » Fri 25 Aug 2017, 13:28:36

Yes, the wife is the executor. We will be keeping the house, and hopefully will not need to rent it out in Summer. This has thrown a monkey wrench into the plans to build/buy in Wisconsin. Life simply shows no respect for your personal plans sometimes. But you can't complain about inheriting a property on Nantucket.
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Re: Winterizing a vacant home in a cold climate?

Unread postby Plantagenet » Fri 25 Aug 2017, 13:36:32

(1) Nantucket is not in an especially cold climate---Nantucket is temperate and maritime. Chances are there will only be a few days or weeks where freezing is a concern.

(2) You should immediately add anti-freeze to the heating loops----they are sealed. This will protect them from severe damage if the power goes out or something else screws up and the house does freeze.

(3) Invest in new "WIFI" access thermostats like the NEST system. You can check the temp in the house at any time from anywhere in the world and you can adjust the heating accordingly. Thats what I've got here in Alaska, so I can check on things when I'm in Europe or elsewhere. When its -50° in Alaska, I can go on the internet and connect to my house and see that everything's OK and my house sitter in on the job.

Using a NEST or similar thermostat system you can turn the heat off entirely and save some bucks if the sun is keeping the house warm, or turn it up to 50° on the day the housekeeper comes, or turn it up to 70° just before you come in for a visit to beautiful Nantucket, you lucky dog you.

Good LUCK!

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Re: Winterizing a vacant home in a cold climate?

Unread postby Outcast_Searcher » Fri 25 Aug 2017, 14:00:11

KaiserJeep wrote:I am loathe to leave the heat on all Winter in an empty house, but the caretaker insists upon it. He will make weekly visits to check on the home and also to look for signs of intruders. We will make energy efficiency improvements beginning next year. Anybody have any experience to share about vacant homes in cold climates?

My mother died in the fall of 2010, and I was the executor, and dealt with the vacant old house over the first winter, so I have some experience with this. Not as brutal as Nantucket, but enough snow, freezing cold, etc. to need to deal with the winter issues.

First, if you keep the house at something like 50 degrees (I used 55 to help ensure against any freezing pipes), it helps a LOT on the heating bill. Since the heat is leaking out roughly proportionally to the delta between inside and outside temp (at least according to the book I just looked at online to check), that 20 degree plus delta reduction saves a lot. My mom was keeping the house near 80 F with my blessing to help prevent chills/illness, since she was so thin, so I'd estimate the NG heating bills dropped by 65% during the coldest two months. The house was poorly insulated -- so the heating bills were significant.

In case you haven't checked -- check on the house insurance. For a vacant house, they may recommend or demand extra insurance for a vacant house, or they might not cover vandalism. (I think I paid roughly $50 for a year of window breakage insurance -- it was worth the peace of mind to know the insurance company was on board with me if there were problems). They might only want to insure it for one year while vacant. This was the case for me, even though I was checking on the house at least weekly, and sometimes working on estate paperwork at the house for hours at a time. The insurance company didn't care -- State Farm's criteria was whether someone is living there full time -- period. YMMV with other companies.

I don't know about odors, but as far as structure, I'd agree with going with what the caretaker says, to reduce the risk of significant unpleasant maintenance surprises. All kinds of things like plumbing don't like being unused over time. You might have your maint. guy run the water in each sink for a couple/few minutes when he does the visit. That could save later plumber bills, for example. (I ended up living in the house, so I'm aware of various consequences based on what I did and didn't do, in hindsight).

I hope this helps. I can only relay info. from my experience.
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Re: Winterizing a vacant home in a cold climate?

Unread postby KaiserJeep » Fri 25 Aug 2017, 22:18:58

Thank you all for your inputs.
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Re: Winterizing a vacant home in a cold climate?

Unread postby EdwinSm » Mon 28 Aug 2017, 04:02:46

Here in Finland some friends emigrated (following jobs) before they could sell their house and were told to keep the house at 15 (59F), so I think the caretaker recommending 50F is being very reasonable.

One reason to heat the house is to try and avoid mold (which would make the house unsellable).
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Re: Winterizing a vacant home in a cold climate?

Unread postby Shaved Monkey » Mon 28 Aug 2017, 04:18:12

Ive left my place vacant for 6 months over winter.
Doesnt get below 20C/ 68F here
All I did was lock the doors and turn off the water pump and the solar hot water pump.

Ive worked on holiday houses in temperate zones were the pipes have burst in the ceiling on a cold morning (it doesnt get that cold maybe -1C / 30 F)
The damage was massive doors, skirting board, plaster, tiles,carpets,kitchen, laundry, bathrooms everything.
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Re: Winterizing a vacant home in a cold climate?

Unread postby GHung » Mon 28 Aug 2017, 08:19:40

My brother and I had a side business winterizing vacation homes in the mountains of NC. Whether or not some heat was to be left on, we pumped propylene glycol (RV antifreeze) through all the water pipes. We used a small electric pump hooked to the drain valve on the well pressure tank and a 5 gallon bucket to push the antifreeze to each fixture (hot and cold, and don't forget the outside spigots) until the fluid ran pink. Also, pour RV antifreeze into the toilets, toilet tanks, and other drain p-traps. Leave the well pump turned off and slightly pressurize the well tank bladder with the antifreeze.
Draining the water lines generally doesn't work, and if the power goes out, a 50 degree house can cool below freezing pretty fast. It only takes 10-20 gallons of RV antifreeze to treat a medium size home. Cheap insurance. Walmart usually has pallets of the stuff in the fall.

BTW: Pouring RV antifreeze into the p-traps (drains) not only protects them from freezing but prevents them from drying out and allowing sewer gases from entering the home.
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Re: Winterizing a vacant home in a cold climate?

Unread postby Outcast_Searcher » Mon 28 Aug 2017, 16:50:36

GHung wrote:BTW: Pouring RV antifreeze into the p-traps (drains) not only protects them from freezing but prevents them from drying out and allowing sewer gases from entering the home.

And those sewer gases can be a nastier business than might be intuitively obvious. I lived in a two bedroom bottom floor apartment, and only used one bathroom 99% of the time. One time the toilet line dried out enough to let the sewer gases in while I slept one night.

I awoke the next day assuming I was sick. Bad sore throat, coughing, etc. It wasn't until I got up and moved around that I noticed an unpleasant odor through my semi-plugged sinuses at the time.

Once I realized what was wrong I flushed the toilet and aired out the place and I was fine within a few hours, but I hate to think what that stuff could do to some untended place over a month or three.

Oh, And I now routinely flush any toilets or run some water in any seldomly used sinks (to ensure there's water in the traps) once a month, just as a precaution.
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Re: Winterizing a vacant home in a cold climate?

Unread postby Shaved Monkey » Tue 29 Aug 2017, 05:23:34

I had 60 serviced apartments in a past life
Had to go through and pour water into the floor drains if they weren't occupied for a while to stop the smell
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Re: Winterizing a vacant home in a cold climate?

Unread postby rockdoc123 » Tue 29 Aug 2017, 09:38:59

A possible cheaper solution than leaving heat on in the house may be to identify the key freezing points....pipe inlets, drains etc and use heat tape around those elements. You could find some efficient way to supply power to the heat tape perhaps through a wind turbine or a power spout if you are close to a flowing water source. The issue may be that some of those key potential freezing spots may be behind walls and not easily accessible.
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Re: Winterizing a vacant home in a cold climate?

Unread postby toolpush » Thu 31 Aug 2017, 04:31:36

A couple of fairly low tech aids I found while winterizing the mother-in-laws house in Wisconsin were,
1/A floating heater to place in the septic tank, to stop freezing. They are actually designed to keep cattle water from freezing.
2/A strobe light hooked up to a thermostat set at 45 deg F from memory. Place light in a road side window, and if the heater malfunctions and the temp drops, a clear visible sign can be seen from the road. Both these items were in the range of $30-$40 ea.
The year we didn't heat and drained all the plumbing, displaced with anti freeze, a pipe froze and you know the rest. Good luck
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