It's pretty typical to prepare for the cold and snow as a part of your winter maintenance routine. But things might look a little different this year if your building is vacant or only partially occupied because of COVID-19 or another reason. Any changes in occupancy should not affect the care and management of your building spaces, even if you have fewer on-site staff to catch problems immediately.
Winter can dramatically affect a building, from dropping tons of snow on the roof or walkways to freezing pipes and interrupting the power supply. Any of these cold-weather disruptions can degrade your building in multiple ways, including burst pipes, roof trauma, damaged drains and gutters, and power instability.
You may discount the ability of winter weather to affect your building, especially if you are located in a southern state. But you are not immune to the effects of cold temperatures. Surprisingly, the 2018 International Building Code places much of the continental United States in the danger zone for cold weather damage to buildings.
Protect Your Vacant Building
"The term 'out of sight, out of mind' is apt when it comes to vacant buildings but it's important to recognize that an empty building needs as much TLC as one that is occupied," says Chris Cioffi, a Commercial Lines Engineer at Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS). "If you lock it up and leave it alone, winter–and other factors–can cause a tremendous amount of damage and potentially lower the value of your property."
IBHS recommends making the following practices part of your regular maintenance if your building is completely vacant during the winter. If a skeleton staff still operates out of the building, some recommendations may need to be modified:
Preventing Building Leaks
- Conduct physical inspections of the roof and the building's perimeter for leaks and needed repairs
- Look for roof tears or loose/missing shingles
- Look for leaks around roof-mounted equipment, skylights, windows, doors, and pipe and utility penetrations
- Check gutters and make sure they are clean as debris can lead to water buildup on the roof, which causes leaks and extra weight
- Check that gutters are sloped toward downspouts and extend away from the foundation
Adjust the Thermostat
- Adjust the temperature to a minimum of 55 degrees Fahrenheit
- Insulate pipes that enter through exterior walls to prevent them from freezing and rupturing
Fire Protection Systems
- Visually inspect sprinkler system risers frequently
- Confirm sprinkler control valves are chained and locked open and pressure readings are consistent; if there are significant drops in water pressure, check with the local water department and possibly a fire protection service company to determine the cause
- Inspect, test and maintain the system using NFPA 25 standards
- Make sure your fire alarm system works and have it monitored by a central monitoring company that alerts the fire department
- If the building is not in use, shut off the domestic water and drain the water lines, leaving on the fire protection lines
- If it's not possible to shut off the water, frequently inspect for leaks and turn off the water supply line to unused fixtures, such as sinks and toilets in unoccupied areas
- Consider installing a monitored electronic leak detection system for the domestic water line and ensure it is monitored by a central monitoring company to minimize response time and overall interior building damage
- Maintain exterior lighting around the building, including parking lots
- Install interior motion or timed lighting to give the appearance of occupancy
- Add perimeter fencing and gates on driveway entrances if you suspect the building may be vacant for some time
- Install an exterior camera system
- Trim dead vegetation around the building to reduce the risk of fire and to make the building look occupied
- Remove hazardous materials from the property, such as flammable liquids and chemicals
- Notify your alarm company of the vacancy
- Hire a patrol service to keep an eye on the building if your staff isn't able to do so
- Protect exterior ground-mounted air conditioning units to prevent theft of copper tubing; options include steel encasements, locked boxes, fencing, steel cages, overhead lighting and bolting it to the concrete slab
- Change locks and install new tapered deadbolts to make it more difficult to twist open locks with a wrench or change security codes to keep building inaccessible to some or all employees, thieves and vandals
In addition to the best practices outlined above, always keep your insurance active and let your agent know the building will be vacant.