Preparing your home before you go on vacation or back “home”
You’re so excited, you are finally taking that three week vacation to tour Europe this summer. You’ve packed your favorite walking shoes and your most comfortable traveling clothes, and you’re getting ready to leave for the airport. Or perhaps you getting ready to go back up North for the summer since our Southwest Florida “snow bird season,” is coming to a close. One thing you may not have thought about yet is protecting your home from the second most common damage empty homes face. And that, according to the Insurance Information Institute, is water damage to the house. That’s right, water damage is the second most common homeowners’ insurance claim. Leaking pipes and appliances, and damage caused by storms cause millions of dollars worth of damage every year. If a pipe leaks or bursts while you are on vacation, water can destroy carpets and furniture, and even compromise the structural integrity of your walls or foundation. Before leaving your home for more than a few days, prep your house so you won’t come home to a big, expensive mess.
Keep in mind that damage can be even more extensive when left unchecked for an extended period of time. Here are some tips on what you should do in terms of your water before you leave:
- Turn off the main water valve unless you have an automatic fire-sprinkler system. If you do, turn off the water valves to your washing machine, kitchen and bathroom sinks, dishwasher and toilets. If you don’t have the fire system, then turn off the main water outside your house. Open the hose bib to verify that it is turned off completely. Shutting off the main valve that controls all the water for your home is the best protection against catastrophic water damage. Everyone in your home should know where the main water shutoff valve is located so they can stop the water in an emergency. If you’re not sure where it is, look for your water meter; the main shutoff will be located nearby.
Many water meter setups have two valves, one on the street side of the meter and one on the house side. Typically it will be outside your home attached to an exterior wall or in an underground box with a removable lid. There are two types of main shutoff valves: the gate valve and the ball valve. The gate valve is common in older homes and has a round handle that must be turned a number of times to open or close the valve. Gate valves are designed to be fully open or fully closed. Water flowing through a partially open gate valve can wear away the metal and cause the valve to fail over time. The ball valve is more common in newer construction and has a lever handle that needs to be turned 90 degrees to turn the water on or off. You can immediately tell if it’s open or not: In the closed position, the lever is perpendicular to the pipes; in the open position it’s parallel.
If you’ve never shut off the main water valve before, test it before you leave on vacation. Turn on a faucet somewhere in the house and shut off the main water valve. All water flow should stop. An old gate valve can break, so be gentle when you’re handling it. If the valve is stuck, leave it alone. If it leaks or doesn’t shut off all the way, have a licensed plumber replace the valve.
If you can’t shut off the main water supply because you have an automatic sprinkler system or someone watering the plants while you’re gone, shut off the valves to the most common sources of water damage such as dishwashers, icemakers and washing machines, in case a hose cracks or lets go. Individual shutoff valves or “stops” are installed on the supply lines leading to most appliances as well as to toilets and faucets.
If you’re still not sure where the shut-off valve is, ask your plumber to show you where this is located and how it operates. Most importantly, check to make sure that the valve actually works!
Rubber or plastic supply lines that lead from shutoff valves to appliances, faucets and toilets become brittle and can leak or even break as they age. Since you’re messing with your shutoff valves anyway, inspect the supply lines too. If you find any leaks, cracks, bulges or signs of corrosion, replace the lines before you leave town. Don’t wait for a vacation to check your supply lines. With 10 minutes and a flashlight, you can inspect every line in your house
- Turn off power to your water heater and any hot water circulating pumps.
- Shut off your refrigerator’s automatic icemaker. The shutoff to your refrigerator’s icemaker might be located under the sink or simply as part of the icemaker itself.
- Empty and leave the dishwasher door open to prevent mold.
- Leave the washing machine lid open for the same reason.
- Set your pool pump to run no more than six hours a day. Arrange for someone to check your pool’s chemical levels and water level while you’re away.
- Use plastic wrap on your toilet bowl if you are going away for more than a month. This keeps the water from evaporating and allows the trap to stay wet, which is needed to avoid odor.
- Test your sump pump to make sure it’s working and is not clogged. Sump pump systems help keep groundwater out of your foundation. Before a vacation, test your sump pump by filling the sump pit with water and making sure the pump is actually pumping out the water. If it doesn’t, be sure the sump pump is plugged in (a surprisingly common oversight) and check the breaker as well. Also make sure the outlet pipe isn’t clogged and that it directs water away from your home. Clean the hole in the discharge line and check that the motor is running smoothly. Also consider adding a backup battery to your sump pump so that it functions during power outages, which seem to go hand-in-hand with heavy rainstorms.
Be sure your gutters are clean, especially if you have large trees that hang over them. A 1,000-sq.-ft. roof will shed about 620 gallons of water during a 1-in. rainfall, or about 103 gallons per downspout if you have six downspouts. That’s a lot of water dumped right next to your foundation. Although it may seem obvious, clean and properly functioning gutters with downspouts that empty away from the foundation are key to avoiding major and expensive home repairs. Let’s face it, we get a ton of rain in Southwest Florida during the summer, and you want to make sure that water is directed away from your house’s foundation.