Although pipes can freeze in an occupied and heated house, the chances of extensive damage from frozen pipes due to an unusual cold snap or heating system failure is far more likely when the house is unoccupied and the problem goes undetected.
For most people the heating system in their home gives such good service
that it's easy to forget it can fail. Under normal circumstances, problems that occur while the house is occupied can be handled without too much discomfort, expense or damage. But a heating system failure during the winter when you are away can be catastrophic.
How vulnerable your home is to such problems depends on how well your home is insulated, how low the outside temperature drops, how windy it gets, how old the heating system is, how well the system has been maintained, where the plumbing pipes are located, etc.
Generally, water pipes located in outside walls on the upper floors of a house will freeze first. The pipes in a below grade basement are usually the last to freeze, but there are so many variables that it is best to assume the worst and not take chances.
If you are planning to leave your home unoccupied, there are steps you can take to minimize the possible damage should your heating system fail. At the very least turn off the water supply at the main shutoff. This will not prevent pipes from freezing or breaking, but it will prevent a flood should a pipe burst. Don't forget that once a pipe ruptures and the water starts to run, it continues to run until someone turns it off. That could be two hours or many weeks.
Water running though a house from a top floor can cause incredible damage. It will soak plaster, drywall, hardwood floor, stairs, insulation, mattresses, upholstered furniture, carpeting and be the source of mold growing inside damp walls. Needless to say, anything you can do to avoid this scene is time and money well spent.
Open cabinet doors under your kitchen and bathroom sinks, so that room air circulates around the pipes.
Even with the water supply turned off, you should have a neighbor, friend or relative check on your house daily if possible. If it's not practicable to have someone do this, you may want to consider buying a Honeywell Winter Watchman. This is a small electrical plugin devise that senses when the indoor temperature drops dangerously low, it then turns on a lamp to signal a neighbor to call you or emergency services.
I have used a Winter Watchman combined with a a Christmas tree flasher plug and a lamp sitting in a window visible from the neighbor's house. If the room temperature drops below 38 degrees, the lamp begins to flash, and our neighbor down the road will call us. This does NOT work in the event of a power failure.
If a heating system fails in winter, and the indoor temperature drops to below freezing, the water supply system in your house needs to be drained.
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Information provided in these documents is provided "as is" without warranty of any kind,
either expressed or implied, including but not limited to the implied warranties of fitness for a particular purpose.