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Climate affects how you close up homes

Question: I own two homes and live about six months a year in each one. One house is up North where the winter winds howl, and the other house is in the sunny South.

What is the best way to close up these houses when I leave? With the rising utility costs, is it possible to completely shut off all heat in my Northern home? Can I close up my Southern home and turn the air conditioning off?

Answer: A number of people own two or more homes and do exactly what you do. Many more people, such as myself, own one home but may leave it for an extended amount of time.

Leaving a home alone can become an expensive proposition if things go wrong in your absence, and, more often than not, things do go wrong.

You can turn off your furnace and air conditioner to save money, but certain additional things need to be done in both your Southern and Northern houses (though your abode down South requires less attention) to protect them and the interior furnishings.

Water, both in the liquid and vapor state, is your biggest enemy. The water in regular household plumbing supply lines is under significant pressure. If a pipe or washing machine supply hose bursts, thousands of gallons of water can begin to flood the home.

Imagine the nightmare if you lived in a condominium, and the water lines above your unit burst. The damage would be unbelievable. You must turn off your main water shut-off valve whenever you leave either house for an extended period.

The water that is in your Northern house's water lines needs to be drained. Water that freezes in supply lines or traps in drainage lines can cause them to crack.

Go to the lowest fixture in the house that supplies hot and cold water. Open those valves. Go to every plumbing fixture and open all valves and flush all toilets. This will allow gravity to pull the water down through the system. Closed valves create vacuums that prevent water from draining.

Open all outdoor hose bibs as well. Lift up any flexible spray hoses in sinks and showers, and allow the trapped water in these hoses to drain. Keep all valves at all fixtures partially open.

Drain the hot-water tank and water softener. Pour nontoxic antifreeze into all toilet bowls, sinks, tubs, showers, washing-machine drains and floor drains. This antifreeze can often be purchased at recreational vehicle or marine supply houses.

A plumber should be called in to shut off the water outside your home. It is entirely possible for the plumbing line on the street side of your main shut-off to freeze and burst if it gets cold enough inside the house during your absence.

The water does not need to be drained from anything in your Southern house if freezing weather is unlikely there.

If your Northern house is a modern one that is fairly airtight, the water vapor in the air inside may cause all sorts of problems. Once you leave, the temperature of interior surfaces begins to drop, and the water vapor in the air can and will condense on many surfaces. Because millions of mold and mildew spores are on all of the surfaces and furniture, the condensed water provides them with the necessary water they need to grow.

Open windows slightly to allow air to circulate readily through the house. Have a trusted friend or neighbor enter soon afterward to check for signs of condensation. Within several weeks, the indoor and outdoor humidity should have equalized. At that point, the windows can be closed and locked for the remainder of the winter.

Here are a few other steps you'll want to take:

+ Turn off all nonessential electrical circuit breakers. Leave on only those circuits that control security lighting. Electrical fires can and do happen even when an appliance or fixture is in the off position.

+ Empty all perishable food from your refrigerator.

+ Turn off your natural gas or propane supply valve outside your house if at all possible. Contact your local utility company or fuel supplier for help with this job.

+ Notify your local police and fire department before you leave. There is a very good chance they will provide you with a list of other helpful tips that will prevent your home from becoming a statistic in your absence. Be sure they know how to get in touch with you.

+ Consider storing valuable or sentimental items in a separate secure storage facility, or take them with you.

Send for Builder Bulletin No. 381 listing a 20-item must-have checklist for partial and full house-closing procedures. Please send $3 and your name and address to Tim Carter, c/o the St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 36352, Cincinnati, OH 45236-0352.

Tim Carter is a licensed contractor. Got a question for him? Call from 10 a.m. to noon today toll-free 1-888-737-1450 on his radio call-in show (not broadcast in the Tampa Bay area). You can listen to his archived radio shows online at any time by clicking on