I've always been wary of leaving the house for long periods, but it's more of an issue of who'll water the tomatoes while I'm away rather than how to stop people from breaking in.

But then again, neighbors, including two police officers, tend to be on the lookout for anything suspicious. And when we go places where the dog isn't able to travel with us, a dog walker comes in three times a day, so someone is regularly keeping watch.

In our old neighborhood, however, we maintained a burglar alarm, which, unless it went off accidentally, was adequate protection.

There are, however, many more concerns than break-ins when you leave a house unoccupied for long periods. What happens, for example, if you leave on a business trip in the winter and the furnace conks out. The lack of heat causes pipes to freeze, and you return to a house full of water and thousands of dollars in repairs.

According to Institute for Business and Home Safety, 16 percent of all U.S. homes were left unattended at some point last year for extended periods. Since the goal of the institute, which is supported by insurance and reinsurance companies, is to reduce social and economic losses caused by natural disasters, it has produced a brochure outlining ways to do so.

A lot of what is in the brochure is what I consider common sense, but there seem to be plenty of people out there to whom such information appears new, so I'll go over some of the highlights. Information on obtaining the brochure and other institute publications is available at www.ibhs.org or 1-866-657-4247.

First, one easy way of minimizing damage is adjusting the thermostat. Some of the newer ones are complicated, but once you figure them out, you can program furnace and central air operations over hours and days.

If you live in a colder climate, lower the setting to a temperature that's warm enough to keep the pipes from freezing but low enough that you aren't wasting money heating an empty house. The IBHS recommends 55 degrees, but if you live in a house that is older and lacks adequate insulation, and if the pipes are in or along the walls, 60 or 62 might be a more appropriate temperature. You might want to ask your plumber for advice.

In warmer climates, higher temperatures and humidity can damage furniture and other contents. So set you air conditioning system to 85 degrees.

Now if you have a vacation or second home that remains unoccupied for several months a year, you might want to shut off the water and drain the water lines. This is where you'll need a plumber's advice, since he or she can shut the valve at the water meter and send water outside and away from the house or into a basement drain.

After he shuts off the meter, the plumber will flush all the toilets and drain the pipe leading to the showerhead.

Once you've watched the plumber do this a couple of times, you'll likely be able to do this yourself.

The IBHS also recommends that the gas to the water heater be shut off -- either you or your gas supplier can do this -- or turn the temperature control to a "vacation" setting. I didn't know there was such a setting, but I just looked at my Bradford White 50-gallon heater and there is indeed.

If your house has a water softener, shut off its supply line.

One important reminder: If your house has hot water heat, don't turn off water to any kind of boiler unless the system has a low-water cutoff valve.

If the water service will remain on, insulate the pipes, especially in a garage or basement next to an outside wall. Do the same for the pipes in crawlspaces and attics, because they are the most vulnerable.

Although I use foam insulation tubes on my water lines, you also can use heat tape to wrap the pipes. Wrap the tape or cables around water pipes, plug in the cord and the heating element will warm the pipes to prevent freezing.

Turn off the water supply to individual fixtures -- washing machine, icemaker, toilets and sinks. Flooding often occurs when hoses are worn or ruptured, or there is a leak at the connection.

Consider installing an electronic leak-detection system. When water touches the sensor, the valve closes, protecting everything downstream. Some systems also can alert remote security monitoring services.

You should also consider temperature sensors, which detect freezing pipes and send out remote alerts.

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