How To Winterize the Plumbing At Your Cabin

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When you leave your cabin getaway for the winter, be sure to winterize the plumbing. Bad things can happen when water turns to ice.

Your rustic cabin getaway may be your second home in the summer months, but in the winter you might visit only occasionally or not at all. So you need to know how to winterize cabin plumbing when you aren’t there. Otherwise, when you return, you might find some nasty surprises.

Ice can make pipes swell and burst, and if you haven’t turned off the water you may be faced with a minor flood. Appliances that use water may be permanently damaged. And outdoor water pipes and faucets may be spewing water, which not only wastes a precious resource but could compromise your septic drain field. Even if you turned off the water, you could have leaks when you turn it back on if you forgot to drain the pipes.

Maryland general contractor Alan Hill specializes in insulation and offers two pieces of advice for cabin dwellers: Keep the interior of the cabin warm while you’re away. And install water pipes as close as you can to interior walls, so they benefit from the warmth. If you do this, he says, you won’t need to wrap insulation around the pipes.

Hill says pipe insulation isn’t all that effective anyway, so he recommends installing insulation between the pipes and exterior walls. The R-value of the insulation you install may be regulated by local codes, he says, so be sure to check.

What You Need to Winterize a Cabin

The tools and materials you need depend on how deeply you want to immerse yourself in the winterizing process.

It’s a big project to reroute existing plumbing pipes against interior walls. However, you can and should insulate your water pipes (if they’re not already), and you may need to break into walls to do this properly.

If that’s your plan, you’ll need tools and supplies for cutting and repairing drywall. You’ll also need fiberglass batt, rigid foam board or spray foam insulation to stuff between the pipes and exterior walls, and to cover pipes in the crawlspace. Don’t forget a sharp knife to cut batts and foam board.

When you leave, drain as much water from the plumbing system as possible, though you may not be able to drain all of it from toilets and P-traps. To prevent freezing, you’ll need RV/marine antifreeze, which is safe for residential water systems. You’ll also need pipe insulation for outdoor pipes that can’t be protected any other way.

It’s also a good idea to invest in an electric space heater. Choose one with multiple power settings so you can operate it at the lowest setting to conserve energy while maintaining the inside cabin temperature above freezing. Even better, buy a smart space heater you can control remotely with an app. You’ll have to leave the electricity on to operate it, so be sure to unplug all unnecessary appliances so you don’t waste power.

How to Winterize Cabin Plumbing

Bathroom in a log cabinvuk8691/Getty Images

Ideally, says Hill, the cabin water system should connect to a faucet or valve at its lowest point so you can drain all the water from a single place. This is most often an exterior spigot mounted on the side of the building, but it could also be the drain valve situated in the crawl space or basement (if there is one).

If you’re using a conventional exterior faucet for this purpose, consider replacing it with a freeze-resistant one to reduce the chances of the faucet itself freezing and bursting.

How to Winterize Cabin Water Pipes

Shut off the water supply, open the drain valve, then open the highest-elevation faucet in the building to break the vacuum in the pipes and allow water to drain completely. When water stops flowing from the drain valve, close it almost all the way, leaving it open just enough to allow any remaining water to drip out.

How to Winterize Cabin Toilets

Turn off the water supply for each toilet, then flush to drain the tank. Use a sponge to transfer leftover water from the tank to the bowl, then pump excess water out of the bowl and down the drain with a toilet plunger. Pour enough antifreeze into the bowl to bring the antifreeze level to the normal water level.

How to Winterize the Water Heater

If you have an electric water heater, it’s a good idea to leave it on, especially if you’re keeping the electricity on to run a space heater. Turn the temperature dial to its minimum setting to save energy, close the water inlet and outlet valves, and you’re good to go.

If you want to turn off the water heater to save electricity, or you have a gas heater that you should turn off anyway, wait for the water to cool. Then close the water inlet valve and drain the tank, leaving at least one hot water faucet in the house open to admit air. When the tank is empty, turn off the faucet and leave the drain valve slightly open to allow residual water to drip out into a pan.

How to Winterize the Dishwasher and Washing Machine

If you plan to leave a heater on in the cabin, you shouldn’t have to worry about the dishwasher. But if don’t plan to use a heater, turn off the hot water valve under the sink, then disconnect the supply hose from the valve. Put a tray on the bottom of the cabinet, lay the hose flat on the tray and let the water drain into it. Leave the hose disconnected.

To remove residual water from the washing machine, disconnect both the hot and cold water supply hoses and run the appliance through a drain cycle. Pour about a cup of antifreeze into the bottom of the basket to prevent any remaining water from freezing.

How to Winterize a Cabin Refrigerator

After you unplug the refrigerator, turn off the water, then drain it by pulling it away from the wall and disconnecting the water supply tube. Let water drain from the fridge into a pan and leave the tubing disconnected.

How to Winterize Outdoor Faucets

Insulate all exposed outdoor water pipes with pipe insulation. Turn off the outdoor water supply using the main shut-off valve, then partially open each faucet and leave it open. If you have a multi-zone sprinkler system, you have to follow a particular sequence to drain it. Ask a local sprinkler pro for the best procedure for your system.

Chris Deziel
Chris Deziel has been active in the building trades for more than 30 years. He helped build a small city in the Oregon desert from the ground up and helped establish two landscaping companies. He has worked as a carpenter, plumber and furniture refinisher. Deziel has been writing DIY articles since 2010 and has worked as an online consultant, most recently with Home Depot's Pro Referral service. His work has been published on Landlordology, Apartments.com and Hunker. Deziel has also published science content and is an avid musician.