8 Tips to Keep Pipes From Freezing When You’re on Vacation

Lawrence Bonk
Written by Lawrence Bonk
Updated May 2, 2023
Cabin in the forest covered with snow
Photo: Scott Prokop / Adobe Stock

Winterize your plumbing system before heading back home for the season

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Vacation homes and cabins are typically bastions of peace and tranquility, places where you and your family can fish, swim, and simply have a good time. However, nothing wrecks a pleasant weekend like discovering your plumbing pipes burst while the house remained vacant during the winter months. Not only do burst pipes foul up the whole system, putting the kibosh on running water, but they lead to flooded basements, structural damage, shorts in the electrical system, and mold growth. 

To combat this, make sure you properly winterize your vacation home before leaving for the winter. Here are eight tips for how to keep pipes from freezing when you’re out of town. 

1. Shut Off the Water and Drain the Pipes

In most scenarios, your first step is to find the main water shut-off valve. This valve resides near your water heater tank or somewhere in the basement. Look for a ring-shaped valve, called the gate valve, or a lever, called a ball valve. Turn off a gate valve by turning it to the right and disarm a ball valve by turning it perpendicular to the pipe. 

As for draining the pipes, turn on all of your taps and allow them to drain completely. Flush all of the toilets throughout the vacation home until they also drain completely. 

Two notes here: Do not turn off the valve connected to any fire-related sprinkler system to protect your property in the event of a fire. Also, it is not possible to fully drain all plumbing systems, especially if your home resides on an upward slope. If the system won’t drain completely, skip this step and head on to the next.

2. Keep Water Running and Heat Pumping

Opening up bathroom faucet
Photo: Khunatorn / Adobe Stock

If your plumbing system cannot drain completely, don’t lose hope—you’ll just spend a bit of cash on utilities. Keep a faucet or two running at a low, constant drip. This drip helps lubricate the pipes and prevents pipes from freezing when you’re on vacation. 

Additionally, let the heat run throughout the winter months at a low temperature of around 55 degrees Fahrenheit; most pipes will freeze at temperatures below 20 degrees after six to eight hours. Open the sink cabinets and any other entrances that lead to plumbing pipes. This step will help to keep them warm. Your utility bill will take a hit, but it’s less expensive than burst pipes.

3. Use Antifreeze 

Pick up some plumbing-specific antifreeze. This is a slightly different formulation from the stuff you put in your car, as it is non-toxic and specifically designed for plumbing systems. Look for plumbing antifreeze or RV antifreeze. 

Once you have the right stuff, pour some in the toilet bowls, the toilet tanks, the sinks, and even the bathtubs. Applying a bit of antifreeze eliminates any chance of your bathroom fixtures undergoing multiple freeze/thaw cycles, which protects the integrity of the porcelain and related materials. 

4. Add Insulation

Pipelines covered with pipe insulation
Photo: vladdeep / Adobe Stock

Insulation is your best friend when it comes to protecting your vacation home from burst plumbing pipes. Your hardware or plumbing supply store should stock everything you need for pipe insulation and related protection. 

Wrap all exterior pipes, as well as pipes in unheated areas of your vacation home, with polyurethane or fiberglass pipe insulation. Use spray foam insulation to fill in the gaps around outdoor spigots. Make sure you turn off or remove any backflow prevention devices from your faucets before insulating them. 

While you are at it, fill in any obvious cracks on the home’s exterior with caulk and seal your windows. This step goes double for any basement-adjacent windows, garage doors, and utility doors. The point here is to keep the interior of your home as warm as possible, within reason, to keep the pipes snug as a bug. When in doubt, contact a local insulation pro for a consultation.

5. Drain Appliances 

Drain and unplug any appliances in your cabin or vacation home that use water, including washing machines, dishwashers, water heaters, coffee machines, and more. Disconnect and drain your washing machine hoses, ice maker water line, and dishwasher's supply and drain lines. 

Follow the manufacturer’s instructions if you are unsure of the steps to take, as the process varies according to each appliance type and each individual make and model. 

6. Cover Outside Installations 

Take some time to winterize your outdoor plumbing as well. Drain the outdoor faucet, shut off the valve, and allow any excess water to trickle out. Purchase outdoor faucet covers at your local hardware store and apply them before you leave town for the winter. Remove and store any attached hoses and cover the backflow preventer with a towel or blanket. This backflow preventer is a pipe located somewhere on your property, typically near the water meter or irrigation system. 

7. Have Someone Check on Your Home

If you’re going to be gone for more than a few days—which you probably are if you’re leaving a vacation home—it’s a good idea to have someone come to check in on your home. Asking a family member, friend, or neighbor to keep an eye on things and look out for signs of frozen pipes is a good way to stay ahead of a costly repair. 

It’s ideal if they can check on your house every day or every other day and make sure the heat stays on and the faucets are dripping. 

8. Get a Professional Inspection 

Before you head back to regular non-vacation life, hire a local plumber for a quick inspection of your system. They’ll go over your plumbing system with a fine-toothed comb, checking out the pipes, the sump pump, the outdoor fixtures, and any other component that could break down or corrode during the winter months, even if you have your water turned off. 

These plumbing inspections include multiple steps, as experts check on outdoor caulking, window seals, and more. They’ll even blow compressed air through your pipes to ensure proper drainage. A simple plumbing inspection costs around $200 and pays for itself if the contractor catches a problem early. 

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