Energy Adviser: Extended leave needs preparation

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As the days shorten and the damp and cold Northwest weather rolls in, the warmer Southwest or Southern climates begin beckoning snowbirds. Before fleeing from the cold and sunless skies of the Northwest, consider doing more than forwarding the mail and stopping the newspaper. Shut down your primary home here. Or risk returning to broken water pipes or possible moisture damage.

"There's no one right answer for how you shut down a house for the winter," said Bob West, energy counselor for Clark Public Utilities. "It's all about balance and it's not without some element of risk."

There are two basic ways to shut down a house. A complete shutdown requires much work, because it requires a plumber to get all the water completely out of your pipes. However, a full shutdown does give some homeowners more peace of mind. But it can still leave the furniture and other contents in the home at the mercy of moisture and any wide temperature swings that can cause damaging contractions and expansions in furniture. Also a dark and empty house sometimes can be a target for vandalism or theft.

Most snowbirds opt for a partial shutdown. This is where the balance comes in. The lower you keep your temperature inside your home the less energy you will use, but this also increases risk of freezing inside the home. Although Southwest Washington rarely has severe winters, they do occur and so homeowners need to protect their domiciles by preparing for the worst. Homeowners fleeing damp and cloudy winter days need to have a three-fold plan involving a well-weatherized house, a partial shutdown and a personal network ready to step in if needed.

Getting those finishing touches on weatherization, adding any extra insulation to walls and crawl spaces, eliminating air leaks from outside, insulating or adding thermal heating strips to exposed pipes is your first step.

For a partial shutdown of a home, consider setting your thermostat to somewhere between 50 and 60 degrees. If your home has remotely controlled thermostats and lights, you adjust the heat and set the lights to turn on and off from your winter paradise to mimic someone using the home. If not, controlling lighting systems with inexpensive timers also works.

Beware of moisture

The Northwest is notorious for moisture and mold growing inside homes. So consider moisture when balancing your away-from-home temperature. A little higher utility bill might mean less moisture and mold. "A low-temperature dehumidifier can lessen the chance of moisture building up in your home while you're away," said West.

"Closing all the vents in the crawl space helps keep the pipes under the house about 50 degrees Fahrenheit and protects pipes from freezing, but in severe cold any pipes exiting or entering the foundation or uninsulated walls are still at risk," said West. These should be wrapped with thermal tape and plugged into a wall socket. Just shutting off your water at the main valve, however, doesn't take the water out of your pipes, which can still freeze.

Also consider phantom loads. Unplug any large appliances -- washers, dryers, televisions, and DVD players -- before traveling. Empty your refrigerator and leave it open to prevent foods from growing into science projects. Also toss or give away any frozen foods in the freezer that may expire before your return.

Don't forget to tap your social network. "Recruit a trusted neighbor, family member or friend to inspect your home occasionally and adjust the temperature during drastic changes in the weather, especially for extended cold spells," West said.

Let your utilities know you'll be away as well, in case of emergency. Then relax and enjoy knowing you've cut down on wasted energy while you're away.Energy adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to ecod@clarkpud.com or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.