I’ve heard the question many times: How low should I set my thermostat if I leave town in the winter, to save money but prevent my pipes from freezing?

65 °F?  60 °F?  50?  I heard one person answer 40 °F, if your thermostat will go that low.  Hey, that’s above freezing so it must be fine, right?

But that’s crazy – a terrible idea.  Here’s why.

Your thermostat is probably located somewhere fairly central in your house, on an interior wall, in a place where people are likely to be.  So whatever the temperature is at your thermostat it’s going to be colder, maybe quite a bit colder, in some of the corners, nooks, and crannies of your house.  And that might be where your pipes are.  There are certainly pipes in the cabinet under your kitchen sink.  If that’s at an outside wall then this cabinet will get much colder than the thermostat, even with plenty of insulation in the wall.

If there’s any significant air leakage into your house then that area is going to be colder than the thermostat, and if that cold air is leaking directly onto a pipe then freezing conditions can exist even with the thermostat set fairly high.

So what is the ideal temperature to set back your thermostat to, if you’re leaving town and want to save some money on heating?  My advice is that you don’t turn the thermostat any lower than you ever have while you were home.  It’s just not worth it.  But if you really want to cut your heating bills for an extended winter time absence then you should shut off the main water valve at your meter and drain all the water from your plumbing system.  Shut down your water heater and drain it too.  Now you just have to worry about the short section of water pipe that comes before the main water shut off valve.  You should insulate that short section of water pipe.

Keep in mind that pretty much everything in your house will work better and last longer if it’s kept at a moderate temperature, so go easy with the drastic temperature setbacks, even if you’re sure that the pipes won’t freeze.

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