Maintenance strategies can prevent winter building damage

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As colder temperatures approach, cities and towns are beginning preseason planning to protect municipal properties from freeze-up incidents associated with frozen water and sprinkler pipes as well as roof damage due to heavy snow loads.
 
These types of incidents can be costly and time consuming to address. Fortunately, they can be greatly reduced with basic preventative steps, including the use of thermographic imaging cameras.
 
According to the International Risk Management Institute, “Used properly, a thermal imaging camera can provide valuable information during moisture assessments, remediation oversight, energy audits, roof and electrical system inspections, and water damage investigations.” These benefits can help save building owners and municipalities money in the long run.
 
The primary use of thermographic imaging cameras is to alert facility managers to possible problem areas ahead of time.
 
[MIIA provides grant support of up to $1,500 to members who are interested in buying thermography cameras. Members may contact their Risk Management representative for details.]
 
Hidden problems
According to a 2013 article on Buildings.com, the problems that can end up costing facility managers the most – poor insulation, roof leaks and electrical malfunctions – are often the hardest to catch because they are hidden from view. Not only can thermal cameras catch problems that can’t be seen, but they can decrease labor costs, keep workers safe, qualify some for insurance breaks, and increase the frequency of inspections that can be performed.
 
The Buildings.com article notes that thermal cameras can also provide leverage when approval is needed for upgrades.
 
“Instead of taking an incomprehensible spreadsheet of data,” the article states, “you can show a visual that instantly makes the problem clear.”
 
Most freeze-ups occur when buildings are closed for an extended period of time, particularly over school vacations and extended weekends. While cost-saving measures associated with energy usage are important, they must be carefully balanced against the cost of potential water intrusion due to a frozen pipe.
 
If used properly by a trained individual, thermographic cameras can aid in the identification of areas of inadequate insulation, cold spots, and other causes of pipe vulnerability. They can also detect heat leaks and temperature changes in a building before a problem occurs.
 
Pipes typically burst when the water inside them freezes and expands, creating pressure that exceeds what the pipe can withstand. When the pipes begin to warm back up, the built-up pressure within them releases at a rate beyond what the pipe can endure.
 
Mitigation steps
Pipe freeze-ups can be avoided if the following steps are taken in preparation for winter months:
 
• Keep thermostats set to 60 degrees or higher.
• Use thermographic imaging cameras to identify areas of inadequate insulation, cold spots, and other causes of pipe vulnerability.
• Consider adding antifreeze to heating lines. (Natural/biodegradable antifreeze solutions are available.)
• Check univents to ensure that outside dampers are fully closed.
• Keep heaters and vents clear to allow for greater circulation of warm air.
• Set circulator pumps to run continuously.
• Consider installing low-temperature sensors/alarms to immediately alert staff to potential freezing.
• During building closures, assign a competent person to inspect buildings each day for potential problems, including freeze-ups and vandalism.
• Ensure that pipes and walls are adequately insulated.
 
Preventing roof damage
As facility managers walk their properties and complete their inspections, municipal buildings and schools with flat roofs are at particular risk for structural damage and/or roof collapse.
 
The danger of roof overload is significantly increased when a flat roof abuts a pitched roof of higher elevation. Snow may slide off the pitched roof onto the lower flat roof, significantly increasing the snow load on the lower portion. The danger of a roof overload or collapse is further heightened if moderate to heavy rainfall occurs before there is significant melting.
 
Roof collapse poses the risk of serious injury to occupants as well as the risk of serious property damage and loss of continuity for municipal operations. To guard against these potentially serious risks, facility managers should take the following precautions:
 
• Visually inspect flat roof surfaces and remove as much snow as possible. Take extra precautions to avoid damaging the roof surface, particularly rubber membrane roof surfaces. Ensure that all staff removing snow from roofs are wearing safety harnesses.
• Inspect and clear all roof drains to allow for proper runoff of water, which will lessen the load.
• Check inside buildings for any indication of roof weakness (e.g., settling of ceilings, broken structural elements, leaks).
• If a problem is suspected, contact your building inspector for assistance.
 
Written by MIIA Director of Claims Operations Stephen Batchelder.