Take steps to protect vacation homes during winter

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published September 14, 2016

METRO DETROIT — With Labor Day the “unofficial” end of summer and students heading back to school, many vacation home and cottage owners begin thinking about what to do with their place over the long Michigan winter.

Debra Dodd, a spokeswoman for Consumers Energy, said there are a lot of safety issues that come up when leaving a building unattended for the winter.

“If it’s not done correctly, you could have not only some issues in terms of water, wind, animal-related ... you could have a problem with your electrical system,” she said. 

Turning off major appliances before leaving for the season is smart so that power surges don’t damage them during offseason storms or when the cottage owners return, said Gary Bubar, a public affairs specialist for AAA Michigan. 

And Consumers Energy issued a list of tips to help owners close up their second homes safely for the winter:

• Shut off the water supply and drain pipes, hot water tanks and sewer taps to avoid frozen pipes, or put antifreeze designed for recreational vehicles into toilet bowls to help protect the lines.

• Clean and close the damper or flue on fireplaces and wood stoves.

• Store outside furniture and grills to prevent the possibility of damage, and disconnect the propane tank from the grill.

• Remove all food and thoroughly clean the kitchen to prevent animal or insect infestation.

• Arrange for snow and ice removal at least once during the winter months to provide emergency access to the house, and arrange for snow removal from the roof to avoid damage due to the excess weight.

Dodd said that chimneys make great nesting places for animals, so it’s important to close them off and then visually inspect the chimney when returning in the spring.

“It can cause a carbon monoxide problem very easily” if it is blocked, she said. “It would cause the furnace and the chimney to not operate properly.”

Malfunctioning appliances also can cause carbon monoxide poisoning, so it’s important to install an audible carbon monoxide detector and a smoke alarm in the house even if it will not be used over the winter. There are even some that will alert you remotely via email or smartphone, she said. 

Some residents leave their heat on during the winter months to prevent frozen pipes and can be notified via smartphone app if the temperature drops below a certain level. 

“There’s so many products available now,” Dodd said. 

There are security issues to consider when leaving a building unattended for a period of time, Bubar said. 

“We know that especially if you have a place that’s secluded, it’s terrific in the summertime, but it also offers something to those who have less-than-honorable intentions,” he said. “Make sure folks can’t see easily (inside) from outside, because if they can’t see it, they don’t want it.”

He said that outbuildings, including sheds and garages, should be secured. Putting a chain or gate across the driveway is a great visual and psychological barrier to someone entering the premises, he said, and alerts year-round residents that you are gone.

“That way, they know you’re closed up for the year also. If they see something going on that’s not supposed to be, they can call 911,” Bubar said. 

For those not planning to block their drives and leaving the electricity turned on, Bubar recommends putting lights and televisions on timers to give the illusion that someone is there. And just like at a permanent residence, let full-time neighbors know what your plans are so they can help keep an eye out for anything suspicious.

Leaving vacation homes often means leaving recreational vehicles or boats as well. Bubar recommends putting as many barriers between your stuff and thieves as possible: Lock the garage, lock the vehicle, remove the keys, and even take the wheels off trailers “so people just can’t back in and hook up your boat.”

Document your vacation house and the items in it and in the outbuildings with photographs, Bubar recommends, “so if things are missing, you have (evidence) that something was once there.”

“Get pictures of the before, and hopefully there won’t be an after,” Bubar said.

Webcams are an option if the power is on, he said.

“You’re securing the second home both from break-in and from weather. Sometimes you’re trying to do it from 500 miles away,” he said. “The technology is out there, but the power’s got to be on for that.”