5 Ways to Prepare Buildings for Extreme Cold Temperatures

Jan. 29, 2019

The coldest weather in years will sweep the Midwest and Northeast this week, resulting in wind chills as cold as -50 degrees F. Here’s how to keep your building functional and comfortable in subzero temperatures.

Dangerously cold temperatures will sweep the Midwest and Northeast this week, with some locations reaching wind chills of -40 to -50 degrees F. The extreme deep freeze can cause frostbite within minutes and can also result in high heating bills and burst pipes.

Here are five things you can do now to mitigate the polar vortex’s impacts on your building and its occupants.

1. Review Backup Power

Losing power is never convenient, but during temperatures this cold, it could be catastrophic. Make sure you have reliable backup power in place to provide continuous power to your building even if there’s an outage.

“Connect the heating system to the backup power to ensure that the building’s heating system remains operable in case of a loss of power,” suggests Susan Millerick, senior director of media for the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety. “The last thing you want to have happen is a loss of power that allows pipes to freeze.”

Millerick recommends verifying building fuel levels if your facility uses oil or propane tanks. “Also ensure that your emergency generator has plenty of fuel to respond and turn on, but also respond for some time if need be,” she says.

2. Prepare Your Pipes

Insulate any pipes located in vulnerable areas, like exterior walls or unheated basement spaces. Open the doors of cabinets and utility rooms to let warm air circulate in them, recommends the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety.

Seal all openings on exterior walls, from windows and doors to cracks and holes, to keep cold air out of the wall cavity. Inside, seal any vents, partition walls, plumbing stacks and other penetrations. “Seal with caulk any cracks around places where electrical or pipes or wires enter the building,” Millerick adds.

[Related: Roof Repairs in Extreme Weather Conditions]

Piping connected to your fire sprinkler system also needs attention, the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety adds. The fire sprinkler system should have a central station monitoring its status that can alert you if a sprinkler pipe ruptures. Find a way to heat your sprinkler control room if it’s normally unheated.

3. Set Up Sensors

Guard against leaks by installing an electric leak detection system on your water line and monitored electric sensors near water sources, the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety suggests. These will let you know if you have a leak, which could be caused by a frozen pipe or valve.

Closely monitor the temperature inside the building as well. Even if your pipes are insulated, a loss of power to the building (and the resulting loss of heat) could allow them to freeze anyway.

4. Maintain Safety

Keep the building at least 55 degrees F. even when it’s unoccupied, recommends the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety. If your boiler hasn’t had a checkup recently, have one done as soon as possible.

You also need to keep up with grounds maintenance even if you’re not expecting anyone to visit your premises during the worst of this week’s temperatures.

Make sure that you’re keeping your parking lot plowed. Put mats inside and outside doors to minimize the amount of snow, salt and dirt that people track into your building.

The Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety notes that cold weather can also create cracks in your sidewalk and parking lot, which can trip people and potentially result in a liability claim against you, so regularly inspect your walking surfaces to look for cracks and holes.

5. Implement Business Continuity Plans

There’s likely still snow on the ground from earlier in the season that still hasn’t been able to melt. The winds that will be responsible for the dangerous wind chill this week will also blow fallen snow around, which could make commuting harder.

Commuters who wind up in a fender bender or slide into a ditch from snow blowing onto the roads will find themselves faced with a scary situation. If your business model supports it, encourage telecommuting for any employees who are able to do so.

Confirm that you have contact information for any vendors you might need to reopen the building after the worst of the windchill is over, such as water extraction companies and plumbers in case of a burst pipe, Millerick adds.

Don’t forget to take care of your own staff too as you strive to keep your building and its occupants safe.

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Wind chills this cold can cause frostbite and hypothermia in a matter of minutes, so make sure the facilities crew is wearing appropriate cold weather gear, covering as much exposed skin as possible and taking breaks to warm up. The temperatures will be painful, but with advance planning, your team and your building can weather winter’s worst.

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About the Author

Janelle Penny | Editor-in-Chief at BUILDINGS

Janelle Penny has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with a special emphasis on covering facilities management. She aims to deliver practical, actionable content for facilities professionals.

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