How to Winterize a Vacant House - Volunteer Energy
house covered in snow to depict the importance of how to winterize a vacant house

How to Winterize a Vacant House

Wintertime is tough on houses. The extra cold and wet test its structural integrity. Heavy snow stresses the roof and walls. The cold winds blow down fences and shingles from the roof. It’s a fantastic idea to prepare your house for the winter during the fall. This process is called winterizing, and in this post you’ll learn how to winterize a vacant house.

While this post covers what to do to prepare your home for being vacant over the winter period, we recommend you also read and save the full post on how to prepare a house for winter. It gives you more general guidance for winterizing any house.

When and Why You Need to Winterize Your Vacant Home

If you are leaving the house vacant for an extended period over the winter, you have a few extra things to do before you go. These extra tasks ensure you leave the house secure and safe. You have minimized the chance of fire, flood, or pest infestation.

You will also have checked the structural integrity of the house, yard, and garden. This is all to minimize the risk of damage and to ensure you still have a lovely home to return to in the spring.

Two Approaches To Winterize Your Vacant House – Utilities Off and Utilities On

The age-old question when winterizing a vacant house is whether to leave the utilities on or to turn them off. There are pros and cons to each.

If you leave the utilities on, then you’ll have an energy bill on your return for what was used. This will include the power for heating used to keep the water pipes in the house from freezing. It also includes the power used to light the house and maintain the security system.

Turning the utilities off means no bill. It also reduces the chance of a water leak or an electrical fault. However, it leaves the house at risk from dampness and without security.

Utilities Off

If you decide to turn the utilities off, you need to drain down the water system to prevent it from freezing and bursting pipes.

Begin by turning the water off, open all the faucets and drain all the pipework. If you have a well or borehole, you need to turn off the pump and drain the pump pipework. You may have to use a compressor to ensure the pipes are fully clear of water. A local plumber might prove useful here. Leaving the faucets on will allow any water trapped in the pipes to expand should it freeze.

Empty all header and heating tanks. Also, remember to drain the toilet cisterns. Do not forget any expansion or header tanks in the attic. Shut down the water heater and drain it. It might be a prudent time to have it descaled and cleaned out ready for next season.

Turn off the heating system, drain any radiators and make sure the inside of the furnace or boiler is completely dry. Leave the cover open to ensure good airflow around the inner workings.

Turn off the gas at the main valve. Turn off all gas appliances to prevent accidents when you switch it back on next season.

Utilities On

If you are going to leave the utilities on over the winter, then there are still a few things you need to do.

You need to leave on the electricity and possibly the water. If you have a modern remote operated alarm system you might need to keep the internet working. If you have a gas heating system you need to also leave this on.

The main objective is to turn absolutely everything non-essential off.  Unplug all appliances and turn off all non-security lights.

Turn the thermostat down to 60 degrees. This will keep the house above freezing and help maintain a dry and happy house.

If you use the gas for heating, then you must, of course, leave it switched on. If you only use gas for cooking, then you should switch it off at the mains (or bottle if you use LPG).

Winterizing Plumbing for Either Option

Whatever you decide, you still must do the following tasks to protect the rest of your plumbing system.

Empty all appliances of any water, including the washing machine and dishwasher drain pump. Also check any water tank in the tumble dryer. All have residual water trapped in them after use. It will start to go moldy and start to smell if you leave the water trapped in the appliance for too long. If it freezes it will damage the appliance.

Put RV antifreeze into all “u bend” style water traps. These include toilets, washbasins, bathtubs and utility and wet room drains. This will prevent it freezing and damaging the pipework. RV antifreeze is normally eco-friendly so you can safely flush it away when you return home.

Remove and drain any water filters. Store canister filters upside down to prevent dust ingress. Leave a gap at the bottom to let any water drain out and air to circulate. This will prevent mold.

If you have a cellar sump pump, then make sure the pump and pipework is drained and dry.

Turn off and drain any fountains or other ornamental water features.

Prepare the Kitchen

The kitchen is heaven for all types of pests. It has endless food, warmth, and bedding. Make sure you leave the kitchen in a secure condition to minimize the chances of a pest infestation.

If you are going to leave food in the kitchen while you’re away, then it needs to be stored in a sealed metal or sturdy plastic container. Canned and jarred food should be fine. Think about flour, pasta, and other dried food. These need a pest proof container.

Remove all other food from the pantry or larder and give it a clean.

Clean everything well. Wash out the trash bins and store soap, candles, and other rodent food away.

Clean out the refrigerator and freezer. Clean out under and behind the units and appliances to remove the last of the escaped breadcrumbs.

Unplug all appliances leaving their doors open to prevent mold build up inside. Take the trash out and turn the lights off before you leave.

Prepare the Rest of the Home

Like the kitchen, you want the rest of the house to be pest-free on your return. Vacuum under and behind all the furniture to remove any escaped food crumbs. Remember under the cushions on the couch. wash all the bedding and make sure it is dried well before storing (consider mothballing if appropriate).

Remove all fire hazards from the house. Move any left-over firewood back to the woodpile. Unplug all appliances to save electricity and prevent faults and fires. Close the chimney and flue dampers to prevent pest and weather ingress.

Collect all the trash and throw it out. Do this before your last trash collection to make sure it is properly collected and not left out all winter.

Arrange for someone to water any house and garden plants while you’re away.

Protect the Yard and Garden

The inside is only part of how to winterize a vacant house. Think about weatherproofing and security of your yard and garden. Clean, maintain and stow any outdoor furniture securely. Now is a good time for a coat of linseed oil on the wood and a drop of oil on the metal parts.

Lock away all of your vehicles. If you’re leaving a car and it has an alarm system, it will need a trickle charger to prevent the car battery from dying. These plug into the mains and keep the battery in good condition over the winter. Padlock all cycles together and to something solid.

Close the windows and lock all outhouses, greenhouses, hutches, gates, hatches, and cat flaps.

Security Measures

The biggest burglar deterrent is a house that looks obviously occupied by more than one person. If you are leaving your services on, then think about timed lights and other things to make it look like someone is in. A radio on a timer switch creates a sound deterrent. A dark looking house at dusk is an easy target for a thief. A big pile of mail and papers on the doorstep is a sure sign no one is in. Cancel your papers and have your mail redirected. Arrange mail collection by a neighbor if needed.

Make sure all your doors and windows are secure from the outside. If you have shutters or security grilles, then use them. Do a walk around security check. Ask yourself how you would get in if you were locked out.

Keep any valuables hidden out of sight of the windows and doors.

Set your alarm and check it is working properly. If you are in a remote area, then consider remote monitoring or a link to the police station.

Security lighting and CCTV are also good deterrents.

Arrange for someone to make regular security checks. They can collect any post and water the plants at the same time!

Other Things to Consider

Leave a note about your winterized house. List all of the things you have done to winterize it. Also, list all of the things you need to do on your return to make the house functional again. It might be hard to remember exactly what you did after a few months away in the sun! It could be a disaster to power up the water heater before turning the water supply back on!

Make sure that your insurance coverage is adequate. Some policies require the property to be lived in for a certain number of days per year. Make sure your policy covers you when it comes to vacating for winter.

Think about animals such as fish in ponds. Will they be able to survive or do they need rehoming for the winter? Maybe a neighbor can look after them.

In Summary

Winterizing a vacant house can be hard work. It does, however, give your home a fighting chance of riding out the depths of winter without sustaining damage. On your return, you should be able to follow the checklist you left and turn everything back on. The house will once again be a safe, warm, and dry home for the coming summer.

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