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Home Improvement : What to Check When Leaving Your Home Alone

October 09, 1994|JOHN MORELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Don't worry, it's going to be fine."

A Southern California family on a skiing vacation in Mammoth one recent winter received this advice from a neighbor back home. Someone had noticed water flowing from under the front door of their house and called the fire department. The firemen found that a water supply pipe under a sink had burst. They turned off the water, and swept out what they could.

The neighbor told the family it wasn't necessary for them to return home immediately. They had already paid for a couple more days of lift tickets so they might as well have fun and deal with the damage when they returned.

However, no one knew that one of the firefighters had turned on the furnace in the water-logged house before he locked the door, thinking that the heat would help dry out the carpeting. When the unfortunate family finally opened their front door three days later, they found their house had the climate of a rain forest.

"The fireman was just trying to help out, but by turning on the furnace the water was drawn up into the air," said Rod Albright of Albright Plumbing & Heating Supply in Los Alamitos. "Water that was originally just in the carpeting was soaked up into the paneling causing it to buckle (and the) wallpaper was peeling."

Albright heard the tale of woe from the homeowner, who came to him looking to replace the broken $5 water line that caused nearly $30,000 in damage. "What made it worse was his insurance would only cover the water damage to the floors and furniture, not the damage created when the furnace was turned on," he said.

The faulty supply line was made of plastic, which is no longer acceptable under present building codes. Stainless steel lines are today's standard, and replacing old plastic lines should be a priority to prevent a major headache. "You'll be lucky if it breaks while you're home," said Albright. "If you're not, you just have to hope someone sees all the water flowing from your front door."

For the most part, our homes can take care of themselves while we're away. Southern California's climate is mild enough for us not to worry about ice damage in winter and intense heat in summer. But before leaving on an extended vacation, it's probably a good idea to check around your property for any problems that could develop while you're gone.

"Water damage is the real nightmare," said Tom Houlihan of Orange County Appliance Parts in Garden Grove. "Other systems in your house, such as gas and electricity, have some form of protection built in, like safety valves and circuit breakers, to prevent catastrophe."

When he leaves for his annual two-week fishing trip, Houlihan regularly turns off the water to his house after locking the front door. "It's just one of those things I do. Nothing is probably going to break while I'm gone, but just to be safe, I turn it off."

Even if the supply lines under your sinks are new, there are other potential weak links that can create an expensive mess. "Many people have water filtration systems hooked up under the sink that have vinyl connectors," said Derek Hanna of Kenny's Plumbing Supply in Burbank. "They're usually under a lot of pressure, so make sure there are no leaks underneath."

Old toilet tanks have been known to crack and flood floors, and rubber water lines that are often found in refrigerator ice makers have been known to be tasty snacks for rodents. "If your home is quiet for a long time, a hungry mouse might get brave enough to chew and break one of those lines, leaving a big clean-up job when you get home," Houlihan said.

But while shutting off your water supply may seem like a prudent thing to do before going away, it can be a problem for your lawn and garden, especially if you have an automatic sprinkler system. "Not many people have a system that allows them to turn off the water to their house and not their yard," Hanna said. "It's probably worth having a friend turn the water on periodically so you'll keep your plants alive."

If you're not experiencing electrical problems while you're home, it's not likely that your wiring will fail while you're away. "If nothing is putting a load on the system, you're probably not going to see a problem develop," said Danny Pelletier of Ever-Ready Discount Electrical Supply in Reseda. "It's when you have all the appliances on and the system is stressed that you find faults."

Pelletier advises against turning off electricity at the main circuit breaker when leaving for an extended period of time. "You're not going to be saving that much in terms of your electrical use and leaving an empty, dark house isn't safe for security reasons," he said.

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