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Plumbing in the Home/heating system for vacation home

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Hi Jay, We have a recent construction vacation home in a higher elevation upstate NY area that can get pretty cold, and we have been through a few ways of trying to prevent plumbing/heating emergencies from frozen pipes, but are looking for maybe a way with less risk or maybe less maintenance.  

Here is our system: a (Cosmogas Ambassador) Embassy Industries BMS on-demand propane water heater (manual at top of page http://embassyind.com/ambassador/index.asp)that services our water needs and the heating system, which is hot water radiators (old fashioned refurbished radiators).  We have a submersible well pump, we have an oversized pressure tank someone bought bigger than needed by accident, three zones, some pipes along exterior walls but decent insulation of the exterior walls, we have an emergency old boiler that is in the water supply loop so that we can provide extra hot water to the system if we have a lot of guests (it's a small house, maybe 1500 square feet, two full baths, we don't really need the extra capacity), we put an extra pressure relief expansion tank on the heater at one point after we were getting the old relief valve going off from time to time, and the only other thing I can think to mention is that the heater exhaust vent sometimes builds up dripping water out of it that turns into an icicle that reaches the ground and has once or twice led the system to shutdown, I forget why, whether it has a sensor for cold and the icicle had backed all the way into the vent, something like that, but we tilted the vent down more so it would drain a little better, and kick off the icicle every time we go up, and that seems to have stopped that problem.

Anyway, we have always kept the temperature at about 45 degrees because we go up there about every three weeks and don't want to drain the system.  Then we started turning off the water pump, on someone's advice, so that if there were a problem there would be less damage.  But that seems to have caused a problem because we recently had pipes freeze when the heater stopped, we think because the pressure in the whole system dropped as water slowly backed out of the system and wasn't replenished when it needed to be, since the pump was shut down.  We have an electronic freeze alarm which is not 100% effective because it sometimes goes off when the temperature dips suddenly, so there are too many false alarms.

So we are wondering, is there some other way to reach our goal: keep the house somewhat heated, but not have to worry that while we are away, there will be a plumbing emergency where water will just continue to spew for days, us never knowing, the house getting ruined, etc?  For example, is there a way to ensure the pressure of the system without leaving the water pump on?  Or make the heating system an isolated, closed system and never in need of fresh water supply, functioning entirely from, say a small supply tank, or something, so that we could then turn off the pump and that way limit the damage from any plumbing event??

Any thoughts appreciated.

Answer
Michael, As you have stated, you have a situation that requires a readily available water supply. Because of this you have created that proverbial "catch 22" situation. You need the water and pressure and having it could lead to extensive damage under the right circumstances.
This is an issue that is created when one system has a duel role. In my humble opinion, a 45 degree turn down is to low for where your place is. The temperatures that  prevail in the winter months can be to drastic for that low of a setting. Your system may not be able to keep the exterior walls warm enough to prevent freezing even though the  interior ambient air temp is above freezing.
The icicle build up is telling me the system is working overtime and condensating excessively.

The pump is the only way I know that can maintain pressure in the system. A low water cut-off control could be installed, but the function of that is to shut down the system so as to not ruin the boiler/heater by firing without water in it. This would have no bearing on the domestic water part of the equation though.
The only other solution I have seen is a back-up system that is radiant electric and requires no water. Then the water supply can be shut down while away thus minimizing the risk of water damage. Granted it increase your electric bill but you can eliminate the potential damage a water leak or burst pipe would create.

J

Plumbing in the Home

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Jay Nicholas

Expertise

Plumbing & Heating (warm air, hot water & steam heat)

Experience

40 years in the business, 35 years as a lic. master plumber in NY State. Retired

Education/Credentials
Graduated Magna cum laude at the School of Hard Knocks

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Commercial, residential and light industrial. You name it ...I have probably worked on it

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