The cold weather has returned, and many municipal and school buildings remain closed. While it is easy to focus on more pressing matters, these buildings need continued vigilance to avoid costly repairs and property claims.

Typical sources of property-related losses during winter closures are frozen and burst pipes; unit ventilators that are not working properly; mechanical failure of circulator pumps, boilers and sump pumps; and corrosion or other failure of water feed connections. Unfortunately, these risks of loss are heightened during periods of extended closure as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

MIIA has identified the following eight best practices to prevent property damage during winter facility closures:

Cleaning and sanitizing: Develop a plan for proper cleaning and sanitizing of buildings to prevent the spread of viruses. This will be dependent on the occupancy and frequency of use of each building.

Staff walk-throughs: Prepare a plan to have staff perform regular walk-throughs during any closure period. These checks should go through every part of the building, looking for signs of security vulnerabilities, water leakage or intrusion or other physical damage, cold areas, or pest or vermin intrusion. Staff should have a list or map of key shut-offs, such as water lines and gas, as well as copies of building response plans, with key vendors and contacts.

Heat setbacks: Set heat setbacks to an appropriate level to prevent freezing. This could vary by zone, depending on the building, insulation levels, air circulation, number of heating vents/radiators, etc. Generally, 55-58 degrees would be acceptable. Vestibules and cold spots may need to be set higher or have supplemental (and safe) heat sources brought in. Do not add additional tripping or electrical hazards with supplemental heat.

Doors and windows: Properly close and secure all doors and windows, particularly exterior doors and windows and fire doors. Some interior doors may be left open if it helps to circulate heat into unheated areas. These areas should be documented on a building closure plan to ensure that everyone is aware of which doors are to remain open and which are required to be closed.

Water line inspections: While conducting walk-throughs, pay attention to water connections: sinks, toilets, water heaters, refrigerator lines, water fountain lines, and washing machines. Consider shutting water down from non-essential areas if feasible until normal activities resume. (Some water lines must be drained after being shut down.) Look for loose, corroded, frayed, cracked, or otherwise damaged connections and replace prior to shutdown. Periodically run water in sinks and flush toilets.

Sump pumps: Test sump pumps at least monthly during shutdowns. Pour approximately five gallons of water into the pump and watch the float valve rise. As the float valve rises, the pump should turn on, and the water should discharge through the outlet pipe. Go outside and inspect the outlet pipe; water should be flowing from the pipe and away from the building.

Boilers and other HVAC systems: Check unit ventilators to make sure they are properly closing and opening. Check boilers, circulator pumps, furnaces, and HVAC systems to verify they are properly working.

Remote sensor technology: Make sure that any remote detection devices (burglar, temperature, water sensors) have a full battery charge, and that alert numbers and emails are up-to-date and people on the lists understand their duties should they receive an alert.

Implementing these eight simple steps now and during the winter months can save both time and valuable dollars.

Written by Stephen Batchelder, MIIA Vice President for Claims and Risk Management