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How to Prepare Your Housing Organization for the Next Cold Snap

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Over the next few weeks, most of the country should expect to experience the worst winter has to offer in terms of cold weather. Winter conditions can occur in multiple months, but January is usually the peak for cold and snow. Here are some tips on protecting housing properties during an extended cold snap.

Plan ahead for cold weather

  • Know where all water shut-offs to buildings are located. Coordinate with local fire officials, so they know where to find shut-offs. Consider posting water shut-off instructions.
  • Inform residents on proper techniques to maintain their unit in colder weather. When they are away from their unit, they should keep their heat at 55 degrees or higher.
  • Ensure all windows are shut, and all air conditioner units are removed.
  • Inspect vacant units and scattered sites daily for broken pipes, leaks, and other damage.
  • If a pipe does break, shut off the water immediately and contact a local, professional water mitigation company rather than
    trying to complete this process in-house. Water mitigation must begin as soon as possible. Notify HAI Group of the damage within 24 hours.

Know the signs of frozen pipes

When pipes freeze, property managers face panicky calls from residents, buildings without running water, costly emergency repairs, and loss or damage to buildings and tenant property. The resulting damage can be costly. Property managers in every region of the country need to take winter safety measures to protect their buildings’ pipes.

“In warmer climates, buildings often lack proper insulation, increasing the likelihood of freezing when temperatures drop,” said Elizabeth Owens, HAI Group’s director of risk control and consulting. “Be alert to warning signs—bulging pipes; frost-covered pipes; a lack of running water; or a sink, tub, or toilet that will not drain—and take immediate action to prevent pipes from cracking or bursting.”

The most common pipe freezes occur in unheated interior areas like basements, crawl spaces, and exterior walls with water supply lines. Consider placing ordinary thermometers in hard-to-heat rooms, close unnecessary openings, and make provisions for monitoring unattended facilities.

If a pipe bursts, shut off the water (know where the water shut-off valve is located so it’s not a mystery during an emergency). If the burst is near electrical switches or fuse boxes, turn off electricity in that area. Contact a licensed plumber to help remedy the problem and remove as much water as possible. Consider calling a remediation vendor for assistance. Make sure all damage is documented, including photos, and contact your insurance carrier.

Winterize vacant units in occupied buildings

  • Keep the temperature at or above 55 degrees.
  • Open all vanity cabinets to expose pipes to warmer air.
  • Keep all interior doors open to allow for airflow throughout the unit.
  • Keep all windows and storm windows closed to the elements.
  • Ensure that all pump rooms and sprinkler mechanical areas are heated to prevent a broken pipe or sprinkler malfunction.

Winterize completely vacant buildings

  • If no sprinkler system is present and all water is drained from sprinkler supply lines, plumbing fixtures, and water heaters, the heat can be turned off.
  • If a sprinkler system is present and has not been drained, the heat must be kept at 55 degrees or above.
  • Maintain all fire protection equipment per National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards.
  • Winterizing can go a step further by adding a non-toxic RV Antifreeze to the fixture and toilet traps once the lines have been drained. Be sure to post signs warning “Winterized-Do Not Use Plumbing.”

Identify and remove ice dams

An ice dam is a ridge of ice that forms at the edge of a roof and prevents melting snow (water) from draining off the roof. The water that backs up behind the dam can leak into a building and cause damage to walls, ceilings, insulation, and other areas.

How do you know if you have an ice dam?

  • Look carefully at the icicles around the exterior of your buildings. If they are confined to the gutters, and there is no water trapped behind them, an ice dam has likely not formed. Nonetheless, icicles can pose a danger to people when they fall off. Try to safely knock them down while standing on the ground, making sure not to stand directly beneath them. If you cannot safely reach them from the ground, consider hiring a contractor to help.
  • Check for water stains or moisture in attic spaces or exterior walls on the uppermost floor. Stains or moisture may indicate that an ice dam has formed and water has penetrated the roof membrane.

Ice dam removal

  • Melt the ice dam. Fill a nylon stocking with calcium chloride ice melt, and place it vertically across the ice dam to melt a channel through the dam. If you try this, make sure you can safely position the ice melt on your roof, and make sure to use calcium chloride, not rock salt. Rock salt will damage your roof. Also, be aware that shrubbery and plants near the gutters or downspouts may be damaged.
  • Get professional help. If you cannot safely reach the roof, avoid using a ladder in snowy and icy conditions. Consider hiring a contractor to remove the ice dam.

Ice dam prevention

  • Ensure that attics are adequately insulated and there is no significant heat loss through the roof. Clean all gutters of any debris before the colder weather to maintain drainage and prevent pooling ice from freezing in the gutter.

Remove snow from roofs

Taking action to remove snow from the surface of your properties’ roofs is an important consideration to preserve the structural integrity of the buildings, especially in regions with large snowfall totals and consistent below-freezing temperatures. While this is an essential process for many, there can be a considerable risk involved with removing snow, protecting personnel, and maintaining the condition of your properties.

  • When using a roof rake, attempt to shave the snow down to two to three inches on the surface. Attempting to scrape shingles clear of snow entirely may damage the surface and pose the threat of future leaks.
  • Refrain from using a roof rake or shovel while positioned on a ladder. This can result in a greater chance of tipping the ladder.
  • Ensure that crews or residents on the ground will not be hit by falling snow or objects. Create a safety zone that prohibits anyone from standing in an area where snow may fail to prevent injuries.
  • Use only plastic shovels and snow blowers with rubber or plastic blades to prevent surface damage.
  • Determine the location of roof drains, vent pipes, skylights, and roof-mounted equipment to prevent damage to these components during snow removal.
  • Avoid making piles or unevenly cleaning the roof surface. This may put additional weight in a particular section and exceed the maximum snow load for the roof surface.
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Andrew Ragali

About The Author

Andrew Ragali is a senior marketing specialist at HAI Group. His core focus is the development of compelling and informative content to help HAI Group's clients navigate insurance and risk management in the affordable housing industry. Send Andrew your ideas, questions, and thoughts: aragali@housingcenter.com

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