A home without water: aka camping.
November 23, 2010 5:43 PM   Subscribe

Is it possible to set up a lightly-used house so that it's still usable in wintertime without keeping the heat on all the time?

I'm responsible for a wonderful second home that's not used much in the wintertime (it's a summer locale). This year, the old oil furnace finally gave up the ghost. I haven't made any decisions about replacing it yet, and so tomorrow the plumber will be coming by to help me drain the pipes.

Here's the thing: This is the first time in 20 years the house hasn't been open during the wintertime, and I'm finding myself extremely bummed about it. The house is a ton of fun in the winter, when we actually make it out here. But I find it extremely wasteful to keep a furnace running just to keep the pipes warm when the house gets used infrequently in the wintertime. The house has a second heat-source - a fantastic wood-burning stove that heats the house itself just fine.

So here's my question: Is it possible to configure a house to be usable in wintertime without keeping the heat on all the time? Here's what I do know:
  • Being able to use water (both hot & cold) is a requirement, or noone will join me out here, and I'll be all alone with a roaring fire and a bottle of good scotch. Not so bad, but I like company.
  • I can replace the hot water tank with a point-of-source heater.
  • Apparently the water pump can be replaced with a pump that's easier to drain and more resistant to freezing
Both the pump & the hot water tank are ancient & replacing them is in the future regardless, so I'm willing to entertain those, especially if it means saving money on not replacing the furnace at this time.

Any insights or suggestions before my conversation tomorrow would be a huge help.

Thank you!
posted by swngnmonk to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Does it get cold enough so that the pipes would freeze? If so, I'm having trouble figuring out how you would balance "must have running water" with "no regular heat".
posted by leahwrenn at 6:08 PM on November 23, 2010

Response by poster: Yes, it gets cold enough for the pipes to freeze.

I realize the tl;dr summary to my post is:

Is it possible to set up a house so that the pipes can be easily drained and refilled so that the house can still be used infrequently during the wintertime? And does anyone have experience with this that they'd care to share?
posted by swngnmonk at 6:12 PM on November 23, 2010

There isn't really a magic bullet that will solve this problem for you. You need to drain the pipes and your pump and you need to do something about your sewage pipes. So, you'll find out how long it takes to drain the pipes tomorrow. Your plumber might have some suggestions about ways to make it easier and quicker, but it will still be a lot of work. For the sewer pipes, you could use some antifreeze to fill the traps, but that would be annoying and expensive to do on a regular basis.

Yes, an on-demand water heater is pretty much going to be required (and will need to be drained).
posted by ssg at 6:34 PM on November 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

If, by some chance, all of the water and sewage pipes are in a small area of the house, like the kitchen is adjacent to the bathroom, you could just insulate those rooms really well and keep them heated to 45 degrees fahrenheit.
posted by mareli at 6:41 PM on November 23, 2010

in our camp we always had a busted pipe due to freezing. even when we blew the pipes out with an air compressor. so i would say no.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 6:44 PM on November 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seems kind of like the waste pipes is going to be your problem- add up the cost of the antifreeze required versus the price of keeping the thermostat at 35 degrees.
posted by gjc at 7:17 PM on November 23, 2010

Oh hi welcome to my world. I have a house that is often empty in the winter and I've tried many variations on this theme.

1. drain the crap out of everything and hope nothing freezes
2. keep the heat at 50 all winter and hope nothing freezes
3. have a renter and tell them to make sure nothing freezes

I've had the worst luck with the renter [though not lately] and the best luck sucking it up with the heat and keeping the house pretty well attended to and just figuring it's going to cost a big chunk of money to keep a second house through the winter in New England. Draining the pipes works but it's labor intensive and usually best if you're not using the place all winter [because septic lines may freeze] not to use it and not use it.

However, there are things you can do increase your chances.

- heat tape on the pipes into the house can keep them from totally freezing, as can good insulation and keeping a light bulb on in the space where the water input it
- having as much of your piping redone in PEX which is the least likely to freeze
- having someone look in on the place and/or an alarm light that neighbors can see [which is useful if you're using the furnace to heat but don't trust it] if the temp drops below 40 or something.

You might be best off keeping it running [and getting a furnace, I got one recently and it was less than I expected it would be] and having some sort of renter to offset the fuel costs who would take off for a weekend or something when you wanted to use the place. This is a problem with no cheap and easy solution as you have found.
posted by jessamyn at 7:24 PM on November 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

As mentioned, there's no easy solution, especially if this is an older house/cottage/cabin that wasn't designed with all of this in mind.

I've got a 2nd house right now, I'm keeping the heat at about 55 degrees when it is empty, and this is a newer house with super insulation and hot water boiler heat that is very even and efficient...

my suggestion, until you can redo the plumbing, keep the heat on...
posted by HuronBob at 7:40 PM on November 23, 2010

I wonder if you could install some sort of water recirculation system to keep the water in the supply lines constantly above freezing? These systems are normally used in areas where water is precious (avoiding wastage in hot water lines, running the cold water out), but maybe your plumber could devise something on both the hot and cold sides.

You'd still need to drain out the toilet tanks and put anti-freeze in all the drain traps, though, even if you got it working perfectly on the supply lines.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:15 PM on November 23, 2010

Sorry if you said this and I missed it but what kind of hear do you have in the house? Would you consider a caretaker?
posted by fshgrl at 11:04 PM on November 23, 2010

An important part of keeping pipes from freezing that many, many people forget is that you must leave at least one, if not all, faucets open. Remembering to close them before turning the water back ON is another issue.

It's also important to note that unlived-in houses fall apart FAST. Plaster will separate from lathe, paint will peel from walls, very cold drywall joints (and real plaster too) will crack as they expand and contract. Wild creatures will move in quickly, etc etc etc.

Depending on how much time and money you have, I would consider a passive solar heating concept. There should be enough gain, even this late in the season, that the house should be able to maintain + freezing temperature, and if you do it right, you'll have the hottest hot water you can imagine...lots of people forget to put a pressure release/automatic shut-off on even winter systems and accidentally explode lines when hot water turns to steam.
posted by TomMelee at 7:57 AM on November 24, 2010

My parents have a cabin which they visit off and on during the winter which, like the house you're talking about, is heated only by a fireplace and a woodstove, so when they leave, there is no heat. The house is in an area where winter temperatures are consistently below freezing.

When they are leaving the house during the winter, my dad drains the water from the pipes and the well pump (they have an on-demand HW heater). He also adds something to the drains (antifreeze?) to keep any water left from freezing. They have never had trouble with burst pipes. The house is relatively recent construction, though (about 20 years old), and was built with the plan that it would be left unheated in the winter much of the time.

MeMail me if you want more information about the specific procedures - I can ask my dad about it.
posted by periscope at 2:37 PM on November 24, 2010

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