With unpredictable weather patterns and a volatile property insurance market, it’s more crucial than ever to complete comprehensive maintenance protocols ahead of winter.

Investing the time and resources needed to thoroughly complete maintenance checklists now will significantly reduce the risk of costly property losses — and associated costs — over the winter months, when storms are likely to hit.

What to expect
After a rainy and windy summer, weather forecasters are predicting an El Niño winter that could cause robust coastal storms. In previous El Niño years with a similar forecast, the East Coast experienced warmer weather generally, but also snowy, wet weather and repeated blizzards throughout the Northeast. According to a recent Stanford University study, however, the changing climate and “chaotic nature” of the Earth’s temperature trends is making forecasting farther out than a couple of weeks extremely challenging.

Meanwhile, property insurance and reinsurance costs are rising, as well as the costs for mitigating property losses overall. A First Street Foundation study showed that many properties are now at higher risk of flooding, both in coastal areas and further inland. As more people began working remotely, the pandemic also led to a property development boom in coastal and remote areas that are at higher risk for flooding or wildfires.

As the risk of extreme events, and associated damages, rises globally, the cost of insurance impacts everyone. Even when policyholders in higher risk areas are charged higher premiums, insurance companies may still not make enough to cover the total cost of property damage in case of a major weather event. Insurance companies must rely on reinsurance to cover these gaps, and reinsurers are raising prices because of the increase in global events.

Inspect, test, prepare
With weather unpredictability and rising insurance costs in mind, it is crucial to complete preventive maintenance and service-related tasks, said Stephen Batchelder, MIIA’s vice president of Claims Operations and Risk Management.

“Getting back to basics with the fall maintenance checklist is going to prevent a lot of unforced errors, ancillary damage, and disruption,” he said. “Particularly with all the rain and wind we’ve had in recent months, activities like trimming branches around power lines and checking roofs, gutters, and drains are extremely important.”

Starting sooner is better, as there are typically some unexpected cold days during fall when the heat suddenly needs to be turned on, Batchelder said. He recommends testing and servicing HVAC systems, cleaning filters, and testing generators to ensure everything is working properly.

Unit ventilators in schools are a common source of maintenance issues, as dampers can collect debris that prevents them from properly closing during operation, which limits functionality and prevents proper heating and ventilation. MIIA recommends that facilities staff check unit ventilator filters, inspect intake boxes for debris, ensure that furniture is not blocking units, and check all belts, traps, and control components.

Other MIIA recommendations for winter preparedness include:
• Inspect drainage and sump pump areas to ensure they are free of debris and blockages
• Establish snow and ice maintenance plans, including contractor arrangements and confirmation
• Test generators and service as necessary
• Conduct infrared thermography inspections to identify building areas vulnerable to cold air penetration
• Check for areas vulnerable to water damage, and consider installing water detection sensors in high-risk areas
• Inspect plumbing connections, as well as sprinklers, boilers, hot water heaters, and other major equipment

Because water losses and other weather-related damage often occurs over weekends or during school vacations, Batchelder said it is important to track weather forecasts, plan ahead for extreme cold and storms, prepare buildings in advance, and plan for staff to be on-site when buildings are unoccupied.

Despite building automation and technology in use today, staff should still physically inspect buildings ahead of time to ensure that windows and doors are closed, and that heating units are working properly. In some cases, heating systems may need a manual override to ensure they stay on and keep buildings warm enough to prevent freeze-ups.

MIIA offers its members a variety of risk management resources, including detailed winter preparedness and maintenance checklists.

Written by Jennifer Ranz, freelance writer