Cottage Q&A: Should we heat our empty cottage?

A snow-covered cabin with a pine tree in the foreground By FOTOGRIN/Shutterstock

We live permanently at our four-season cottage, a well-insulated Viceroy home with forced-air propane heating and back-up electric baseboard heaters in the basement. We want to go south this winter for six to eight weeks. (I will drain the water from the pipes.) What is the ideal temperature to keep the home at during this period? I was thinking about 8°C to 10°C, but I have heard that this could cause dampness and eventually lead to mould.—Michael Oke, via email

Don Fugler, an independent building researcher in Ottawa, thinks that temperature is reasonable for the length of winter absence you’re describing. “If there’s a ventilation system—even a small bathroom fan that’s designed for continuous usage—running it would be helpful in keeping the interior dry,” he says. He also recommends that you leave interior curtains and blinds open. “They can create micro-environments that may lead to condensation. I like to leave the windows without coverings, and leave all the interior doors open, including the door to the basement.”

Tankless hot water heaters in cold temperatures

This should keep the mould away, assuming your place doesn’t have an existing moisture problem (from, for example, water that’s not being properly diverted away from the cottage or cracks in the foundation). You probably know already if you’ve got a damp basement. Indicators include a musty smell and finding water-damaged belongings. “The inability to store cardboard boxes is a strong sign,” says Fugler.

Okay, so heating the cottage while you’re gone is a good idea. But if you’re going to do that, is draining the pipes in fact necessary? Well, no. “Temperature wise, at anything above zero, pipes are not going to freeze,” says Shawn Groulx of Express Plumbing and Heating in Red Deer, Alta. That said, “it’s still a good practice.”

How to make your three-season plumbing work all winter

If you don’t drain the pipes, he recommends that you shut off the main water valve and open the taps. It’s not only cold temperatures that can mess with your plumbing, says Groulx. A tiny problem could turn into a catastrophic, gushing leak while you’re away. Holy basement dampness!

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