Ask the Carpenter: Should you shut off the heat upstairs to save money?

Ask the Expert Home Improvement
Turning off the heat on the second floor could result in moisture issues. Globe file

Q. My question is a follow-up to the Dec 31 article on closing a house for the winter. Our family owns a Falmouth home built in 1832, and we were discussing the merits and dangers of closing the house for the winter. The house has one forced-hot water heating zone for the old section, both floors, and one for the master bedroom, which was built about 1960. We are having a plumber make both floors in the old section separate zones — for a total of three in the home. Some of my relatives think we should leave the upstairs zone drained, since the house is not fully occupied, and heat only the first floor. Others think this will damage the house, which is not well insulated and has not been renovated or updated in decades. There is no fine woodwork, and there are no finishes to worry about. Other than saving money, are there other benefits? Will a colder upstairs be less prone to snow melt on the roof and ice dams? Are there any good reasons not to shut down the upstairs?

T. B., Falmouth

A. Turning off the heat on the second floor could result in moisture issues. It’s better to create the three zones, and then keep the upper floor at least 55 degrees in the winter. Additionally you will need to exercise your toilet, sinks, and shower valves occasionally and add water to your drain traps. Your house drain trap is designed to hold water to prevent sewer gas smells from entering your house. Over time, as that water evaporates, these drain traps dry out. The simple solution is to run the water in these unused fixtures once a month or add RV antifreeze to the drain traps. RV antifreeze will not evaporate as quickly.

Other readers respond

From John Laracy in Westwood: I have 30 years of shutting down my wife’s family’s vacation home on the Cape. Please add these to your list of things to do when shutting down a home for the winter:

■ Drain the pump reservoir for the liquid soap dispenser.

■ Drain the hose that feeds the kitchen faucet if it is the type you can use like a sprayer.

■ Drain the solenoid valve that feeds water to the ice maker in your refrigerator.

■ Remove dog treats.

■ Have the gas shut off at the meter.

■ Install something to keep raccoons out of the oil burner flue. (We ran into that problem last spring. It took six weeks to get out a baby raccoon, which was eventually large enough to climb out on its own.)

From G.P. Allen in Vernon, Vt.: You suggested shutting off the water to prevent the pipes from freezing. We installed a solenoid activated by a switch, so we can turn off the water when we are not home. Unfortunately, we found out that a leaking toilet will slowly develop an ice plug at the frost line going out to the septic tank. I think this is caused by a lack of hot water from washers and showers, which keeps the frost away from the pipe/soil interface. Nasty surprise to flush the toilet and discover the water has no place to go.

From Bob Glendon in Andover: One thing you did not mention is a freeze alarm, which can be found on the Internet and is easy to install. Just plug one into the phone jack, which means you need a landline. You call your house every day and hope not to get a busy signal. The one that we have allows you to program up to three numbers. It will call all three if the temperature in the house drops below 40 degrees. It has saved us a lot of aggravation over the years. There are other models that are even fancier.

From Rob: Great points. Thank you, readers.

Rob Robillard is a general contractor, carpenter, editor of, and principal of a carpentry and renovation business. Send your questions to or tweet them to @robertrobillard. Subscribe to our newsletter at