We want to winterize our house while we are away for several months. How do we go about such things as shutting off the water? Should the house be heated while we are away?
There are two basic approaches: a complete or a partial closing of the house.
In a complete closing, the heating system is turned off and the water is drained from all plumbing, including faucets, toilets, water heater and appliances such as dishwashers and clothes washers. If the house has hot-water heat, the radiators and boiler should also be drained; if there is a well, the pump and storage tank must be drained. Appliances such as refrigerators and freezers should be unplugged and emptied.
Since draining plumbing can be tricky, it should be done by a plumber -- at least the first time. Homeowners who expect to make regular winter closings can watch what the plumber, take notes, and drain the plumbing themselves next time.
One of the trickiest aspects of draining plumbing is protecting the traps in the drain pipes under sinks, toilets and similar fixtures. The traps must contain some liquid to prevent sewer gas from entering the house. The usual treatment is to pour a mixture of equal parts of water and automotive antifreeze into all traps and toilet bowls.
Some homeowners worry that leaving a house unheated will cause damage to walls, furniture and other parts of the house. There is some controversy about this, but most experts say there should be little or no damage to a house left unheated for several months.
In a partial closing, the house is checked frequently by a friend, neighbor or hired house sitter. The heat is normally left on with a thermostat setting of about 55 degrees and the plumbing is not drained. Appliances such as freezers and refrigerators can be left operating, as long as they are checked regularly by the house sitter to make sure they are working properly.
However, water heaters should be turned off during any extended absence and should be drained if freezing is possible.
We live in an old farmhouse with a septic system and only one bathroom. There is no place to conveniently add a half-bath in the house. This gets awkward when we have guests. Is there something like a composting toilet that could be installed in the corner of the garage?
Composting toilets, which have self-contained disposal systems that convert waste into compost, require a rather large underground composting tank and are relatively expensive. And, might be tricky to get approval of your local government to install one.
A leaflet on composting toilets, with a bibliography of other sources of information, is available from the Conservation and Renewable Energy Inquiry and Referral Service (CAREIRS), an information agency for the U.S. Department of Energy. Write CAREIRS at Box 3048, Merrifield, Va. 22116; or call (800) 523-2929.
Finding space in your house for a conventional half-bath, or toilet and sink, might be easier than you think. A nook as small as 2-by-4 1/2 feet can be converted into a functional half-bath. Sometimes a closet can be converted, or a space can be partitioned off in a corner of a room.
Readers' questions and comments should be sent to Gene Austin, c/o The Baltimore Sun, Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101.