For years, closing up the cabin was a task our family would simultaneously anticipate and dread. It was always a great chance to get everyone together for a few laughs and to celebrate the end of another great summer. Yet, the ritual closing-up tasks came with a slightly sad feeling of finality, right down to placing the shroud … er, boat cover … over the pontoon. “Well,” we would invariably say, “it’s closed up for another year.”
No More Goodbyes
Of course, not all families say goodbye to their cabins until spring. While winter might be nature’s way of telling everybody it’s time to take five, heading to the cabin during the cold months is also a great way to break up the monotony of the hibernation season. The fire feels warmer, the food tastier and the cabin never seems homier.
The problem is, not everyone has a four-season cabin. For those of us with three-season places, occasional winter use can actually create more risks and problems than sealing the place up for the entire winter. Freeze and thaw cycles, for instance, tend to increase moisture and freezing problems.
But there’s no need to make the family cabin hibernate until spring. Following are a few easy tips for keeping a traditional three-season cabin functioning comfortably year-round.
Battling the Elements
Some of the best things to have around the cabin in summer are a cabin owner’s worst enemy come wintertime. Take ice, for example: Water freezing inside your plumbing supply or drain pipes is the ultimate cold weather catastrophe.
The time-honored, and usually effective, solution to this is to find your drain plug on your water pump and drain all the water before it can freeze. As long as you don’t forget the water heater, pressure tanks and the toilet tanks, this is a relatively painless drill. Splash some RV-grade antifreeze into the toilets and sink drains to prevent the traps from freezing, and you’re all set. Many savvy cabin-owners also blow compressed air throughout the system to prevent pools of un-drained water from freezing and bursting the pipes.
Obviously, this routine can get tedious if you repeat more than once throughout the winter. If you plan on using your water when the mercury falls below freezing, install a compressor fitting and drain valve unit at easy-to-access locations. With these units properly located, it will only take you a few minutes to properly drain your lines, saving you the time and expense of repairing burst pipes in the spring.
This is a good practice to abide by each time you leave the cabin, especially if your water supply lines are piped inside exterior walls. Exterior wall pipes can, and will, freeze solid during cold snaps, whether the inside temperature is seven degrees or seventy. Ditto for sewer traps, which are often located below the floor – right where frozen ground can work its icy spell on the standing water in the trap. Again, you’ll need to mimic the shutdown procedures to prevent freezing; in this case, just add RV-grade antifreeze in the bowl with each flush to prevent the traps from freezing.
For short stays during frigid weather, leaving the faucets and shower turned to a trickle while you’re sleeping also helps to keep the supply lines and traps from freezing.
Water supply lines that run in shallow trenches or above ground can be almost impossible to keep from freezing with standard insulation. This is a common problem for many cabins, but there are some engineering solutions out there that can help keep the water flowing in frigid conditions. In-line heaters, like those available from Heat-line (www.heatline.com), offer protection down to -40 degrees F, are easy to install on existing pipes and plug into standard electrical outlets.
Ice from Above
If you leave your cabin heated throughout the winter, you might see some sparkly icicles hanging off the eave. Christmas card material or not, ice anywhere on your roof is bad news.
Most ice-buildup is caused when hot air in the attic space melts the bottom layer of snow on the roof. This causes the melt water to run down the roof, under the insulating layer of snow, only to freeze when it hits the eave. This causes those pretty icicles and also means that the ice and melt water are creeping back up the roof, penetrating shingles and allowing water damage to occur.
The best way to combat this is to keep your roof free of heavy snow. Since that’s rarely practical in frostbelt areas, do the next best thing: keep your attic space as cool as possible to prevent the thaw-and-freeze cycle that results in ice-build-up. Adding a couple roof vents will also improve air circulation in the attic, keeping that layer of snow frozen until the spring melt. For best results, put any add-on roof vents on the north side of the roof, or add a gable-end vent on each side. Leaving the inside temperature set at a lower temperature will also help reduce the amount of heat escaping through the roof. A good “absentee” temperature is 45 to 50 degrees.
Imagine, for a moment, that you own nothing but the fur on your back: The very first thing you’d be looking for each autumn when the mercury drops is a place to curl up and munch on old cracker crumbs.
Cabins seem to be mouse magnets in the fall, and the little pests only need an opening the diameter of a pencil to get inside your winter getaway. They are surprisingly destructive little vermin, and people have tried myriad methods to deter mice from taking up residence in their cabins. The best way to keep these critters out is to seal every conceivable entry point with expandable foam. Insert wire mesh first, so they can’t chew through, then fill up every crevice with foam. When the foam hardens, just trim the excess off with a razor blade. Cleaning up food residue near grills and birdfeeders can work wonders in terms of preventative maintenance.
Ants, beetles and other six-legged critters need even less space, and often find their way into the cabin through gaps near windows. Installing a few plastic window kits will help keep these critters from dispersing throughout the cabin, and it’ll keep cabins without storm windows a lot warmer to boot.
Bigger pests often are attracted to mineral deposits on picnic tables and cabin siding. Porcupines, bears and all sorts of toothy critters will often chew on this salty wood. There are a wide range of anti-chewing sprays available that can nip this problem in the bud – just check a small area to see if it will cause staining before applying full-scale.
These tricks should help keep the cabin free of ice damage and pests throughout the year. So stoke that fireplace, curl up on your sofa with peace of mind, and watch Old Man Winter do his thing.
Who knows? You might even find yourself hoping old Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow come early February, giving you and your cabin a couple extra wintry weekends together.
Kurt Anderson is a freelance writer from the Upper Midwest, where the seasons are divided into almost winter, winter, still winter, and July.