​When nasty winter weather hits: How to take care of your home in low temperatures

​At the university where I teach, the pipes froze in the architectural building and wiped out $50,000 worth of equipment. This brings up the important fact that regardless of the design of a building: At some point, the responsibility is handed off to the occupants to operate the building. With the onset of nasty winter weather, the biggest concerns in a house are pipes and personal discomfort. When it comes to the pipes, there is no room for operator error. You need to know how to take care of your home in low temperatures.

Yet people are constantly trying to save money by adjusting the thermostat. This means that operator error happens frequently. Here’s why: Let’s say your home is insulated and you have the thermostat set to 70 degrees; if the heat goes out, you’ve probably bought yourself several days before you need to worry about the pipes or even before becoming really uncomfortable and suffering damage to the house. No error there.

But let’s say you go out of town for a week or two. People think the magic number is 32 degrees, but water under pressure freezes at a different temperature, and the altitude affects this. If you have a mountain vacation home, the freezing point could go up to 40 degrees.

So why keep the thermostat any higher than that? When the pipes burst, thermodynamics say there are three factors: temperature, pressure and volume. Those last two are fixed for your house. As for temperature, if it’s 0 degrees outside, moving in through the walls, there’s no sudden jump in temperature; there’s a gradient. If the interior of the house is 40 degrees, halfway through the walls, the temperature is 20 degrees, well below freezing and, though not ideal, there may be pipes in the walls.

I’m putting an addition on a home that’s on the historic register; we needed to add a small bathroom and the only logical place to put the plumbing was in the exterior wall. So I designed it as a double wall. The exterior is just a wall and chock full of insulation. The interior wall has the plumbing. In the exterior wall, there is a gradient; if it’s 0 degrees outside and 70 degrees inside, somewhere in the middle of that wall is 32 degrees. That works; the operators of the house, my clients, will protect the house, even in the event of a temporary loss of power, and remain comfortable at this setting.

To ensure comfort, consider diversifying your fuel sources. If everything is electric, without power, there is no heat, cooking, or warm water; you’re stuck. If you have a fireplace that runs off of gas and the gas is still running, or if it’s a working fireplace or wood stove, this will keep you comfortable for a long time. With a gas stove, you can still cook on the burners. If personal discomfort does become an issue, you can go to a hotel or a public warming station.

Still on the topic of going away for a while, in case the above reasons for maintaining a somewhat comfortable temperature on the thermostat aren’t enough, I’ll give you another. When I set my thermostat located on a wall at the interior of the house at 65, closer to the exterior, the room temperature may be 55 or 58 degrees. Had I set it at 50, it would be close to 40 by the walls, and we’ve already seen what that can mean.

Rather than go through gyrations of the thermostat to save money, the best thing you can do is set your thermostat at 65 and keep it there. If you’re cold, put on a sweater! Some 34 or 35 percent of energy used in this country is in the heating and cooling of buildings. Consider how cold movie theaters are in the summer; that’s just one example of the waste.

For extra assurance when you travel, turn the water off and then run the faucet until there is no more pressure, no water coming out.

As for the roof, if you maintain it, it’s unlikely you’ll need to worry about snow. Architects pay attention to the roof load, the sheathing and structure, snow load (40-60 pounds per square foot), and load without snow. This is written into the codes; we design structures for snow load, so the roof won’t collapse.

Remember, the design and the life of your home is a collaborative process with your architect (me); the owner is very involved in the upfront decisions. The owner needs to continue participating by operating the home properly and avoiding operator error. The owner needs to replace the roof or windows every 30 years or so. The owner needs to change the filters of the furnace, keep it operating well, and avoid airborne pathogens. This is the right way to take care of your home in low temperatures. Just because the design is done right doesn’t mean the job is done.