Q: Our home is on an island in upstate New York, between the U.S. and Canadian borders. Due to weather conditions, it must sit vacant from November through April. How should I go about winterizing this 112-year-old house? — Keith, Carlton Island, New York

A: Steve Thomas replies : I face a similar situation with a small house my family owns on an island in Maine. In my opinion, the best strategy is to let the building "go cold." If you're on a well, run the pressure tank dry. I have a submersible pump at the bottom of my well, which, of course, doesn't freeze. If you have an above-ground jet pump, you'll want to make sure no water is left in the mechanism. Drain the water heater and all toilets, toilet tanks, and pipes, making sure there is no water left standing in low-lying loops of pipe. Put non-toxic antifreeze (used in boats and RVs) in the toilet bowls (a third to a half gallon each will do) to keep the liquid sealed between the sewer or septic system and the air in the house. Same for the P traps in the sinks, and drains, which will require only two cups or so of antifreeze. Run the dishwasher dry and put a third gallon of antifreeze in it, then run it for part of a cycle to circulate the antifreeze through the pump. I put a bit more in the dishwasher for good measure, and use the same procedure for the washing machine.

If you have a hydronic heating system, you'll either have to drain the water out of the system or fill it with antifreeze. The folks I know who regularly let their house go cold have gone for the latter option, even though it is initially expensive due to the cost of antifreeze. This is something you might want a plumber to do. Other than the plumbing system, I take in all chairs, tables, and other objects that might get damaged or fly around in a strong wind. I close the damper to the fireplace. I believe a house should be ventilated rather than shut up tight, so I drop the storm windows down to their lowest open position, then drop the screens so no insects can get in, and crack the top of the regular sash an inch or so. I do this on all the windows. This way no snow or rain can get in, but the house is able to breathe.

As I walk out the door for the last time each season, I flip off the main breaker, cutting all power to the house. Come spring, all we have to do is fire up the pump, flush the toilets, run the washer and dishwasher empty for one cycle, wash the sheets, and the house is back in action.
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