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Before you Go on Vacation, you Need to Do This Chore

If you’re heading for a much-needed vacation away from the frosty weather, you need to remember to make certain preparations before you leave. Since the house will be empty, you should clean out perishable items from your refrigerator, turn off all of the lights, unplug your major electronics and ask a neighbour to collect any mail filling up the mailbox.

Finally, there is one chore you absolutely have to remember before you pack your bags and make your way to the airport: you have to drain your pipes.

Why should you drain your pipes?

When residents leave their homes unattended during the winter, they turn off their thermostat to save energy — this puts their pipes at risk of freezing when the outside temperature dips below zero. Frozen pipes are a nuisance to deal with when you’re at home, but at least you have the opportunity to fix the problem. Vacationers won’t know that their pipes are frozen and unless they have hired a house-sitter or neighbour to check up on the property, there will be no way to intervene.

The reason why you want to intervene with frozen pipes is that they can burst and send water gushing into your property. When you’re at home, all you have to do is turn off the main shut-off valve, call a plumber to get professional drain replacement and repiping services and take photos of the scene as evidence for your insurance claim.

When you’re not home to turn off the main shut-off valve or call an emergency plumber, the level of water damage can be astronomical. Depending on how long you’re away, the water could seep into the walls and flooring and then spark mould growth. You could come home from an expensive vacation to be greeted by thousands of dollars’ worth of damage.

What makes matters more complicated is that you may have to foot the bill on your own. Even when you have applied for water damage coverage, your claim could be cancelled once they find out that the accident happened while you were on vacation. One of the little-known facts about home insurance in Canada is that it won’t cover water damage when the residents have left their property unattended for more than four days.

In 2015, The Canadian Press covered the story of Ivy Scotland, whose insurance company denied her $11,000 in water damage coverage after her pipes had burst and flooded her house. The 84-year-old resident was absent from her home for more than four days because she was undergoing cancer treatment. Luckily, the insurance company changed its stance on the issue and reimbursed her for the costs of the contractor she hired.

The insurance company’s change of heart was likely inspired by the widespread news coverage that her story received. While it’s possible that you could be fortunate enough to get support after coming back from vacation, the small hope is not something you should gamble on.

There are plenty of precautions that you can take to protect your pipes from freezing like keeping the thermostat running at a warm temperature, adding foam insulation to exposed pipes and opening interior doors to encourage better air flow.

While these are good suggestions, the most effective technique for preventing frozen pipes when you’re away is to drain your plumbing system. When you empty the pipes of water, you avoid any chance of freezing over.

How do you drain them?

Draining your system is a simple and quick chore that you can do before you leave the house. Start by finding the house’s main shut-off valve in the lowest level — it’s traditionally placed near your water meter or your water heater. If you have trouble locating the valve, you can always call up Sewer Squad Plumbing Co to help you find it and check if it’s working properly.

Every resident should know where the shut-off valve is in case a plumbing emergency happens. When a pipe bursts or a fixture floods, the first thing you should do is run down to the valve and turn it off. Doing this will cut off the house’s water supply so that you can limit the water damage. Otherwise, gallons of water will keep spilling into the house as you wait for the plumber to arrive.

The house could have one of two designs: a gate valve or a ball valve. You can close a gate valve by twisting the ring clockwise — towards the left will opens the valve (“lefty loosey”) and right will shut it (“righty tighty”). If you have a ball valve, turn the handle so that it is perpendicular to the pipes. If you have time, mark the handle with arrows or symbols to remind yourself which way is open and which way is closed.

Once the valve is closed, go to the faucet at the lowest point in your house like the laundry room sink or the basement bathroom sink. Turn on the faucet and let the remaining water in the pipes flush out. Slowly move up the levels of the house, turning on every faucet and allowing water to run out of them.

Then, go to your toilets and remove the tank covers, so that you can see the water in the tank. Flush the handle, repeating the step until there is no more water left inside of the tank, and then carefully put the lid back on the top.

It’s possible that there will still be some water sitting in the pipes. You can use an air compressor to force the remaining water out. If you don’t have an air compressor handy and you don’t want to buy one, you can follow the advice of the insurance company Allstate Canada and pour some antifreeze down the drains and toilet bowls.

Antifreeze is a chemical additive that lowers the freezing point of water, so you can guard against frozen pipes. Typically, you use this chemical in your car to stop your engine coolant from overheating and creating harmful build-up.

What do you do when you come back home?

Getting your plumbing system working again will be simple. The first thing you should do is go back to your main shut-off valve and turn it back on. Open all the faucets and keep them open until a steady stream of water comes out. If you’ve turned off individual valves for toilets and sinks, turn those back on too.

If the weather is still frigid, remember to turn up your thermostat to prevent frozen pipes. Keep the warm air circulating by opening up interior doors. Open up cabinet doors that cover drain pipes to let the heat reach them. You’ve managed to avoid the plumbing problem for your entire vacation, so you don’t want to deal with it right after you return.

What other precautions can you take?

A burst pipe shouldn’t be your only concern when you leave your house unoccupied during the winter. Seasonal weather can be temperamental, changing from bitter snowstorms to mild temperatures in a matter of days. Melting snow and ice can overwhelm municipal water treatment systems and send sewage back-up straight into your basement. The best way to protect your basement from an expensive and foul-smelling mess is to install flood-prevention devices.

You can get a new sump pump installed in the lowest part of the basement to stop any water pooling on the floor. Even if there is sewage back-up coming through a drain, the sump pump will redirect the water outside of the house.

If you happen to have a sump pump, you should test to see if it works properly before you go on vacation. Dump a bucket of water directly into the sump pit and check to see if it removes it efficiently. If it’s not working, call an expert to determine if you need to get a new one installed. One of the benefits of knowing a reliable plumber is they can take the guesswork out of aggravating plumbing problems — with a quick investigation, they can tell you if the sump pump needs a repair or replacement.

You should also think about getting a backwater valve installed to prevent the city’s wastewater from backing up into your basement’s drains. A cap will be placed in your main-line so that it acts as a one-way passage for your house’s plumbing waste. If the city’s wastewater system is overwhelmed and pushing sewage up residential lines, the cap will stop it from getting close to the drains.

If you want to find out more about avoiding water damage, you should give us a call. We offer much more than drain cleaning services in Toronto and the GTA — we can install flood prevention devices, thaw out frozen pipes and help customers find their shut-off valves during emergencies. You don’t have to turn to the experts after a plumber disaster. We will be great resources for thwarting plumbing disasters altogether.

A lot of Canadians book vacations during the winter-time to escape the harsh temperatures and the piles of snow. It would be a real shame to come back from sandy beaches and sunshine to a basement destroyed by a flood. All you have to do is take some time to prepare your plumbing, and your return should be a happy one.

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