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Are You Ready For El Niño? The Commercial Building Manager Perspective

El Niño is here, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecast indicates this could be one of the most powerful weather phenomenon to develop since the 1982-1983, and 1997-1998 events. The El Niño pattern typically delivers increased wet weather to the “Southern U.S. from California to the Carolinas, and then up through parts of the East Coast,” according to NOAA and Weather Channel experts. With large storms and heavy precipitation expected well into the spring of 2016, there is considerable concern about homes and residences flooding and being damaged, but often overlooked is the impact on these storms to commercial structures. Building managers need to take proactive steps to ensure properties under their direction are properly safeguarded. To that end, here is an El Niño punch list identifying five definitive preventive measures, which building managers should take to limit the potential harmful impacts of storms at commercial sites.

1) Debris Removal around the Property

If you only take one thought away from this piece, make sure it is debris removal. Commercial structures are highly susceptible to water damage due to their complex construction and infrastructure, and drain blockage is by far the predominant cause of massive leaking and water intrusion into a business operation. Gutters and drains are obvious, but do not forget all keyways and waterways impacting the exterior shell system. Drain capacity is paramount, blockages can cause significant damage, and for commercial structures, blockages may not just take the form of vegetation, but could also include construction materials, recycling and refuse among other items.

Regular and methodical action to remove debris is an absolute necessity.

2) Inspect, Repair, and Maintain Structures

Every area of the building should be closely inspected including: roofs, decks, subterranean drainage waterproofing and even windows. Let’s take a look at a few of these in more detail:

  • Preventative roof maintenance is a top priority for any business property. Preventative maintenances is also a “value spend,” in that the total cost is generally less than the sunken costs of repairing leaks after the rain hits. Preventative maintenance usually costs about 1% of the cost of a new roof, so if the roof is a $1 million project, the cost to do maintenance would be about $10,000. Effective preventative maintenance should include critical items such as: reinforcing flashing transition areas (all roof penetrations and roof transitions), repairing tiles and addressing standing water areas, on flat roofs. Small leaks can be detected inside the property, typically by small water stains, but larger leaks are usually a result of improper water diversion off the roof. The rule is that 90% of leaks come from 10% of the roof area. Lesson: A building manager should think about their roof like their car – maintain it, change the oil, be proactive about maintenance in an effort to stave off larger issues. In drought scenarios, which much of the country has been experiencing over the last six years, building managers tend to neglect preventive maintenance.
  • Properly inspect and maintain any decks in multi-family complexes; and in all commercial structures check window, door thresholds, and light fixtures, as these are all vulnerable leak areas if not maintained. Just as with the roof, these areas represent water penetration areas, as do deck thresholds and wall and perimeter flashing areas. Multifamily operators should be keenly aware of the leaking potential associated with their decks. Many commercial buildings have waterproof decking systems, (deck over dwelling area or office space) these are highly vulnerable areas and can leak a lot more per square foot than roofs do. Be aware.
  • More than 10% of all leaks originate from poorly installed aluminium-framed windows and doors. During this El Niño season, building caretakers should remember that water leaks that show up on floors, lower-level ceilings, walls and window sills may not be coming from the roof, as is typically assumed.

3) Communicate with Clients

Many building managers have multiple clients, how can this information be best transmitted to occupants? Messages on debris removal, maintenance and inspection of property and structures must be consistent, timely and have a call to action. Email blasts and regular visits to the site instilling the message of maintenance and prevention are effective methods. Danger areas that can be dealt with now are cost and time-savers down the road for the property owner.

4) Get Pre-Set with Vendors

You know the rains are coming, but have you done any of the prep work to prepare yourself? One of the best ways to start is to identify one or two dedicated vendors who will be your go-to property specialists when the water is pouring in from a less than optimally maintained roof or duct system.

You may already be working with a licensed, contractor with a good reputation, and if so make certain that you have the process of contacting them, explaining the repair issue, the history of the leak, the exact location of the leak and the financial conditions firmly in place. If you are vetting a new contactor, make sure they have record of timeliness, prowess and success. Do they have the capacity? Check with other organizations who have used them in crisis situations to identify if they are reliable and get the job done right the first time.

Another critical measure in regards to vendors is to have a pre-approved agreement with the contractor for emergency services. A good rule of thumb is to have a pre-set dollar limit on repairs in place for emergency leaks. Keep in mind too that pricing for repairs, particularly in roofing have risen considerably, driven by higher labor costs across board, on average of 10%; and materials pricing inching up, raising total costs in some cases by 20%.

With any vendor you have contracted with, make certain that they have an emergency preparedness plan including all contact information, access to the facility and the necessary authorizations needed to complete work.

5) What to Do When the Rain Comes

A tenant at the business contacts you, the roof is leaking in multiple places and water is coming into the work space – are you ready? First identify if the leaking is a health or life threatening emergency, in most cases employees are simply panicked because of the water flow. It’s important here to connect with your client and give them the information they need. When will repair services arrive? Two hours? Three? The next day? This is information you can quickly provide them with the aid of your trusted vendor partner.

The pre-approval contract is already done, so the vendor can head out to the property and rectify the situation. In the interim, talk with employees about ways to collect the water to prevent damage.

Often even if rains do not cause damage in one episode, the events may lead to useful information for the building manager that can provide cost savings in a subsequent rain event. During rains it’s a good idea to go around the inside of the building and look for moisture or even the slightest signs of leaks. Finding these pockets of moisture can prevent dry rot. Frequent trouble spots include above and below window walls and the base and corners of floors, wall and ceiling tiles. Inspectors should pay careful attention not just to stains but darker areas.

Across the country building managers will be grappling with the water issues associated with the El Niño pattern. In some areas, particularly the West and Southwest, the issue of drought and lack of rains have put building representatives at a preparedness disadvantage. When the water comes you don’t want to be the one without answers. Now is the time to get ready.

Charles Antis is founder and president of Antis Roofing and Waterproofing, Inc.


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