FAIRBANKS — Q: How can I make sure my house stays safe when I leave in the winter?

A: Traveling for the holidays can be a little more complicated when you live in a place like Fairbanks. Here are some tips to make sure you return to a safe, warm house.

To get a house-sitter or not? 

A house sitter can be a double-edged sword. They could prevent a catastrophe or, if they’re not familiar with your house — potentially cause one. For example, leaving the garage door open and freezing the entire home.

Some good things to discuss with your house-sitter include:

• How to shut off the water

• Who to call if the heater breaks, a fuel delivery is needed, or some other emergency occurs

• Idiosyncrasies of your home (for example, doors that won’t shut well or hidden heat cables that keep plumbing from freezing).

• Is there an unresolved issue that requires the water be turned on periodically to keep water or drain lines from freezing? If so, then in very cold weather, it can be better to use a lot of water than just a little because just a little may contribute to freezing inside a sewer line.

An alternative to a house-sitter is to use remote monitoring system that alerts you if the temperature gets too low. Though if the power goes out, you still need to be able to call someone to take care of your house.

What to do before you leave

It might seem like a good idea to block your driveway with your vehicle, but it only tells people you are not home. It also could hamper emergency vehicles as well as plumbers or heating technicians who may need to access your house in an emergency.

Take a look around your home before you leave. If possible, make sure to park vehicles away from trees. The snow may be light and fluffy when you leave, but winds or heavy snowfall can change that quickly. If your roof sheds snow, make sure it will not cause damage.

Even if you’re on autofill: double-check your fuel tank. Your home may use more fuel while you are away.

Have an emergency heating plan in case the power goes out.

• Heating fuel and kerosene heaters can provide emergency heat, and some don’t require a power source, however they also can become a serious carbon monoxide hazard if run indoors without ventilation or a means to exhaust combustion gases.

• A backup generator is a good idea but requires special wiring before it can power a boiler.

• Toyo heaters are great because they can be plugged directly into a generator. However, make sure the generator is capable of providing clean power to the heater, otherwise circuit boards can become damaged.

• A wood stove can be the simplest way to heat a home as long as an adequate source of firewood is available. 

If you’re not on city water, consider cutting off the breaker to your water pump  or even better — installing a pressure switch that shuts the pump off if a pipe bursts. This is cheap insurance, because it’s a lot easier to deal with 5 gallons than a house full of water.

Consider cutting off your HRV before you go. Because you’re not creating any moisture, it doesn’t really need to be on while you’re gone. And if your heater fails or the electricity goes out, the HRV can accelerate cooling.

Unplug your automatic garage door opener and lock the garage door. Your neighbor’s new garage door opener might just coincidentally use the same frequency as yours. Or sometimes the garage magically opens itself. It happens. Ask any insurance adjuster.

On the extremely proactive side, you can pour RV antifreeze into your traps and toilets. This would include bathtubs, showers, sinks and laundry drains etc.

Consider installing a valve so you can drain all the supply lines in your house, but remember, it is almost impossible to get all of the water out. To prevent freezing traps in the drain lines, propylene glycol is available at RV plumbing and RV stores and is less toxic than ethylene glycol “antifreeze” as found in auto parts stores.

If heating lines are at risk of freezing, consider having a plumber add glycol to the heating system. Be sure no glycol comes in contact with drinking water.

 The “Ask a Builder” series is dedicated to answering some of the many questions Fairbanks residents have about building, energy and the many other parts of home life.

Ask a Builder articles promote home awareness for the Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC). If you have a question, contact us at info@cchrc.org or 457-3454.