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Winter preparedness: Is your building ready for the cold?

October 22, 2018

Help avoid freezing pipes and water damage with these tips for maintaining building heat and integrity during cold weather.

Vice President, Executive Technical Director

Jim Breitkreitz is the Executive Technical Director for Risk Engineering at Zurich North America,... About this expert

blue pipe with ice

We are approaching the time of year that some people look forward to and others dread: winter.

Freezing temperatures in areas not exposed to such conditions during the rest of the year, lengthy periods of extreme cold, winter storms and other events with associated power outages all create an environment for cold weather-related water damage losses. These can include damage from frozen pipes, which can lead to tenant displacement, critical equipment damage and more.


Now is a good time to perform a cold weather risk assessment of your facility. Both domestic and fire protection liquid lines should be evaluated. The facility should also have temperature monitoring in place, with either an automatic notification or someone on site to regularly read thermometers mounted at strategic locations. The temperature threshold for notification using either approach should be 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The value of 40 degrees is used to allow time to rectify the situation before a freeze occurs. The main concern here is water, which expands when frozen and can result in water lines being compromised.

Some areas of a building typically have a higher susceptibility to freezing incidents, including vestibules, stairwells, fire pump rooms, areas above ceilings, dry pipe valve closets, and elevator and mechanical penthouses. Many of these areas are not typically occupied, so it is critical they are monitored for low temperatures. To help ensure these areas maintain their ability to keep temperatures above freezing, the functionality and status of certain systems should be evaluated. Examples of systems to check and procedures to follow are included in the following table.

 

System

Action

Heating systems

Provide annual service.

Air-handling units

Verify dampers work and fans are controlled by thermostat for automatic shutdown in the event of freezing temperatures.

Non-freeze fire protection systems

Check air sources, air pressure levels, low point drains and antifreeze solution in accordance with the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) standard NFPA 25.

Insulating systems protecting water-filled pipes

Verify coverings are intact.

Heat trace systems protecting water-filled pipes

Verify system performance and supervision.

Building envelope

Verify windows and doors are functional, weather-tight and in good repair.

Fire alarm systems

Check building’s low temperature and sprinkler system air pressure supervisory devices in accordance with NFPA 25 and NFPA 72.


Severe winter weather events require that added measures be taken as long or severe cold snaps can overwhelm normal building system operation. In these cases, periodic full-facility inspections should be performed, with temperatures raised in the facility and verification that building management systems can match the needed building temperature. If not, they may need to be overridden or reprogrammed for the event.

When severe winter weather is forecast, it provides a good opportunity to verify your emergency generator fuel levels and to ensure your phone numbers are up to date for appropriate vendors (including glazing contractors, water extraction companies and heating companies) and claims professionals. Plans should also address items identified as having the potential to freeze and create subsequent water damage. In addition, your organization should discuss how to prepare in the event of a severe winter storm.


As we head into winter, make time to schedule your pre-incident assessment and ensure your teams are up to speed on cold weather procedures and response capabilities. Proper winter preparedness can go a long way toward helping prevent freeze-related water damage – so hopefully you won’t be left out in the cold.

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