Winterizing a Cottage in Ontario: How to Avoid Damage During the Colder Months

Ontario Cottage Winterizing 101

From those hot summer days spent splashing in the lake and working on your tan, to those autumn evenings when the family gets together to cozy up around a bonfire, there's nothing quite like having your very own cottage to get away from the city and enjoy Ontario's natural beauty. As a cottage owner, you know what a huge benefit your cottage is to you and your family throughout summer and for a good portion of the spring and fall as well. But before you abandon it for the winter, it's important to take care of your checklist for winterizing a cottage.

As we are all very well aware, Canadian winters can be really harsh. Your home is protected with layers of insulation that hold in the heat from your roaring furnace. But while you're cranking up the thermostat in town, your cabin is out there in cottage country, facing the ravages of winter on its own. If you know and follow the steps for winterizing a cottage in Ontario, you can get the peace of mind that comes with knowing your cottage is safe and sound under a blanket of snow.

Knowing how to winterize a cottage means you won't have to face a nasty surprise when you head up there in the spring—and won't have to deal with an increase of your insurance rates after you're forced to file a claim on your Ontario cottage insurance to deal with the cost of serious winter damage like burst pipes or smashed windows.

Closing Up for Winter Vs. Making Your Cottage Usable in Winter

Before we get started on tips on how to winterize a cottage in Ontario, it's important to note that there are two possible situations people think of when they consider winterizing a cottage. The first scenario is when you have a summer cottage that you only visit during the warm months and you want to make sure it's closed up properly so it doesn't suffer damage during a harsh winter, and that's primarily what this guide is focused on.

The other scenario for winterizing a cottage is when you have a three-season cottage and you'd like to turn it into a four-season cottage so you can make use of it all year 'round. After all, there are plenty of winter recreation opportunities in Ontario, from snowmobiling to cross-country skiing, and your cottage could be the perfect base of operations for all of that and more—not to mention the advantage of getting out of the city during the winter holidays to enjoy a truly silent night at the cottage.

Does winterizing a cottage affect your insurance?

If you do decide to go ahead with some renovations for winterizing a cottage that will make your cottage cozy and warm during heating season, it's important to speak with your Morison Insurance broker first to make sure you're fully covered on your cottage insurance policy. Some modifications may change your insurance needs or require certain steps to be properly included on your policy after winterizing a cottage. For example, if you get a wood stove installed it needs to be inspected by a WETT-certified professional who can ensure the installation was carried out safely. Winterizing a cottage to the point where it is practical to heat it during the winter can involve quite a lot of work and renovation, depending on how it was originally constructed and its current condition, which may affect your insurance policy. It could involve steps such as:

  • Installing or upgrading insulation
  • Repairing or replacing the roof
  • Installing a wood stove or furnace
  • Installing a hot water heater

Your broker at Morison Insurance has plenty of experience with the ins and outs of cottage insurance after winterizing a cottage and can give you the advice you need to make sure you have protection from financial loss in the event that your cottage suffers damage.

Winterizing a Cottage: Heating and Insulation

When you're winterizing a cottage for the winter months, you have a decision to make. Many people choose to turn off the heat altogether because they don't want to pay to heat a building that isn't being used. That's understandable, but it does have a downside: it leaves your cottage vulnerable to problems caused by freezing temperatures, such as frozen pipes.

Leaving Heat On

If you do decide to leave the heat on when winterizing a cottage, you can set it to about 10 degrees which is enough to prevent the worst cold weather problems while not running up too high of an energy bill. However, this is only a good strategy if your cottage is reasonably well-insulated so it can hold in the heat being produced by your furnace. Make sure to leave under-sink cupboard doors open to allow heat to circulate around pipes. You also need to change the furnace filter when you're winterizing a cottage and ideally give the system a tune-up to make sure it's in good shape to keep chugging away all winter long. If you have a programmable thermostat, you can set it to turn the heat on intermittently. With a smart thermostat, you can even control it remotely through your cellphone and only switch on the heat when outdoor temperatures dip particularly low.

Turning Heat Off

However, if you decide to leave the heat off entirely, there are still steps you can take to avoid trouble while winterizing a cottage. Turning the heat off gives you the advantage of not paying for heating costs on your utility bill, and eliminates the possibility of a furnace malfunction. Installing an insulating material called pipe wrap around exposed pipes is a good way to help avoid freezing and bursting. We'll explain more about protecting your plumbing in the next section.

Winterizing a Cottage: Plumbing

Plumbing systems are vulnerable to freezing temperatures. There's typically always some water just sitting in your pipes, and if it freezes, it expands and can put extreme amounts of pressure on the pipe from the inside—enough to burst them open which, needless to say, causes major water damage inside the cottage and also necessitates a pipe replacement. Here are a few things you should do when winterizing a cottage in Ontario to keep your plumbing in great shape.

Drain Pipes and Appliances

Draining excess water out of pipes and appliances such as the hot water tank or washing machine when winterizing a cottage will help to ensure that there's nothing in there to freeze, expand and cause trouble like bursting. Turn off the main water supply,  then turn on the faucets and flush toilets by holding down the flush lever until all water is drained from the tank. Drain your hot water heater and washing machine, and defrost the refrigerator.

Add Antifreeze

Once the system has been drained, the next step for winterizing a cottage is to pour a cup of antifreeze down each drain. There's still some water in parts of the pipes such as P-traps, and the antifreeze will ensure it doesn't freeze up during the winter. However, make sure you get non-toxic plumbing antifreeze, which is typically used for recreational vehicles.

Check Out the Septic Tank

Chances are pretty good that you've got a septic tank system at your cottage. It needs to be drained every couple of years, so if it's been two or three summers since it was drained, that's an important part of winterizing a cottage so everything is ready to go when you arrive next year. But if it doesn't need to be done this year, just add a few scoops of septic tank bacteria to work away at the waste over the winter. If you have an outhouse, it's a good idea to throw some of the "good" bacteria down there as well.

Winterizing a Cottage: Appliances and Electricity

Next up, make sure electricity is turned off by flipping the main breaker on the electrical panel and unplugging appliances. Don't forget small appliances such as the microwave, along with other electrical items such as televisions and computers when working on winterizing a cottage. If you have a tankless water heater, make sure it's shut off as well.

Refrigerator and Freezer

Once the refrigerator and freezer are completely cleaned out, defrosted and drained, unplug them and leave the doors open to prevent mildew or musty odors from developing inside. You can also place an opened box of baking soda inside to help prevent nasty smells.

Winterizing a Cottage: Avoid Pest Infestations

Rodents like rats and mice would love to have a winter-long party in your cottage, so it makes sense to take a few precautions to avoid them while you're winterizing a cottage. Make sure you've removed all food, and not just the perishable stuff. Dry goods such as cereal or flour can attract pests, and you're probably not going to want to eat it after it has spent the winter in the cottage anyway. Even canned goods should be removed because they can freeze and bust the can open, making a mess that will draw in rodents.

Use caulk to seal up gaps and crevices in the exterior of the building that rodents or insects could use to get inside. Store bedding and other textiles such as towels in plastic bins, and cover mattresses and other soft furniture like sofas with plastic sheeting, so mice can't infest and ruin them if they do get into the cottage. Also, take time while winterizing a cottage to make sure the flue in your fireplace is closed and chimney vents are blocked off so they can't wiggle in that way. If you have a gazebo or bunkhouse with screened walls, board it up with plywood to prevent entry.

Winterizing a Cottage: Windows

Most cottages don't have storm windows installed, so there's always a risk that a pane of glass could be shattered during a rough storm, or damaged by an impact from something like a falling tree branch. Of course, that could happen during the summer too—but if it happens during the winter, you won't know for months and the interior could incur serious damage from snow, moisture, pests and other problems. Boarding over the windows with plywood shutters is a simple, effective way to avoid the possibility of a broken window when winterizing a cottage in Ontario.

Winterizing a Cottage: Outdoors

Once everything is shut down, turned off and drained out inside, it's time to head outside and take care of the outdoor portion of winterizing a cottage. Here are a few tasks to handle before you leave:

  • Check out the roof and make sure it's in reasonably good shape, with no missing shingles or sagging spots.
  • Clean out rain gutters thoroughly—they need to be functioning properly to dispose of rainwater and snow melt so it doesn't pool on the roof and cause a leak, or spill over the edge of the eavestrough and cause problems for the siding and other parts of your exterior.
  • Clean off boating and water sports equipment such as water skis and lifejackets, and make sure they are securely stored.
  • Put away other equipment such as garden hoses, fire pit accessories and play items.
  • Bring patio furniture inside if possible, or stack it securely and cover it with a tarp.
  • Rake up leaves from around your cottage and mow the lawn, if there is one.
  • Don't forget to lock all doors and lock or secure windows that can be opened.

Get the Right Cottage Insurance Coverage from Morison Insurance

Whether you just bought a cottage and need to get it covered with Ontario cottage insurance or you have insurance coverage but aren't sure it's the right coverage for your insurance needs, speak to an experienced broker at Morison Insurance by calling 1-800-463-8074. We will make sure you get the best possible coverage so you can rest easy all winter long knowing you won't suffer financial loss if your cottage is damaged during the winter.

This content is written by our Morison Insurance team. All information posted is merely for educational and informational purposes. It is not intended as a substitute for professional advice. Should you decide to act upon any information in this article, you do so at your own risk. While the information on this website has been verified to the best of our abilities, we cannot guarantee that there are no mistakes or errors.

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