Prepare for six of winter’s biggest challenges

Barbara Ballinger
Barbara Ballinger | 7 min. read

Published on November 17, 2015

As the weather gets colder and snow starts to fall, building owners and property managers begin to worry—and wonder: Will Mother Nature pack another wallop like last year? Boston was particularly hard hit, with many local property managers shoveling mountains of snow from walks, driveways, and rooftops, day after day after day. The National Weather Service reported that the city’s airport received 108.6 inches of snow last March 15, making the 2014-15 season Boston’s all-time snowiest. And it was the worst in the country.

It’s worth mentioning that snow, ice, and freezing temperatures caused damage to the outside and inside of properties, destroying tenants’ belongings in the process. It was a long and stressful winter for everyone.

But, if there’s a silver lining—besides days off from school and work for many—it’s that we’ve learned from last winter’s worst hazards. Here’s how to prepare for six of the most challenging winter weather problems:

Treacherous Walkways

Many cities have rules regarding how quickly snow needs to be removed from sidewalks. Boston, for example, requires that sidewalks are cleared by 7 am to avoid slippery, icy pavement, so residents are less likely to fall and hurt themselves. Real estate saleswoman Stephanie Mallios of Towne Realty in Summit, NJ says that after you’ve cleared any snow from the sidewalk, its best to sprinkle the area with a material that will provide traction (ideally, without salt, to protect pets’ paws).

If you don’t want to be responsible for shoveling 100-plus inches of snow, consider contracting a snow removal service. Keep tenants in the loop so they know if they’ll be able to leave the building safely, says Steve Prozinski, COO and Director of Property Management of NAI Hunneman, a property management firm in Boston. If you haven’t done so already, replace or repair chipped or cracked walks, since snow may conceal dangerous spots, Mallios says. And, of course, be sure you have adequate property and liability insurance to cover repairs to physical damage from storms, or any injuries from falls. “Nobody complains after a disaster that they purchased too much insurance,” says Jeanne Salvatore, senior vice president and chief communications officer at the Insurance Information Institute.

Ice Dams

These are a property manager’s worst nightmare. They form when ice prevents melting snow from draining off the roof properly, says Steve Kuhl, owner of The Ice Dam Company, a snow and ice removal business in Hopkins, Minnesota. He explains, “Most often, interiors are kept too warm and heat escapes into areas of the roof line where it shouldn’t be. The heat melts the snow on the roof’s higher areas, and the melted water travels to where it’s below freezing, such as eaves. When it refreezes, it accumulates into dams that stop the melted water from escaping.”

The Asphalt Roofing Manufacturer’s Association (ARMA) offers two suggestions to prevent this:

  • Be sure attic areas are well ventilated to keep the temperature inside closer to what it is outside to prevent snow on the roof from melting and refreezing.
  • Insulate the attic properly to keep it cold and the rest of the building warm. Doing so also helps lower heating bills. Despite the widespread perception that gutters without leaves will eliminate ice dams, they won’t, Kuhl says. But, cleared gutters will help water flow freely to the ground to avoid damaging foundations.

Collapsed Roofs

Images of collapsed roofs in Boston last winter send a loud precautionary message to building owners. It takes an excessive amount of snow on a roof for this to happen. As Prozinski explains, “Most of the roofs that collapsed [in Boston] were old and flat. Many roofs will last 25 to 30 years, but so much depends on how well they’re maintained and the amount of HVAC equipment on them,” he says.

Additionally, Kuhl says that most roof systems are engineered to hold a minimum of 30 pounds per square foot. Average snow weighs around 5 pounds per square foot, so you don’t need to worry unless there’s more than 4 feet of snow on the roof. Heat from the building, solar radiation, and outdoor warming cycles increase the roof snow’s density. And, drifting snow can overload certain areas so they collapse.

The best preventive maintenance is to remove snow quickly, says James R. Kirby, AIA, technical services director for ARMA. Kuhl stresses the importance of removing all the snow, not just what’s piled up at a roof line’s lower edge. Seasoned roof “plowers” also know how to protect roof shingles and shakes when removing the ice, says Jenn Koeune, maintenance manager at Orren Pickell Building Group outside Chicago.

Frozen Pipes

This doesn’t usually happen in occupied buildings, but it’s still a good idea to wrap pipes with insulation as a precaution, says Prozinski. Also check walls or crawl spaces near pipes for holes and seal any you see. Turn off outside water lines, protect outdoor pipes and drain hoses, and disconnect them from faucets. Otherwise, water inside the pipes may freeze, leading to a burst pipe, which will send water into the building.

It’s also important to check inside pipes: look for air leaks around toilets, sinks, dishwashers, and other appliances, since they may be located near outside walls. When temperatures turn frigid, advise tenants to open cabinet doors in their kitchens and bathrooms that have plumbing on outside walls, and turn on faucets to allow water to drip, which will mitigate a frozen pipe, Koeune says.

Power Outages

Bad winter storms may cause the power in your building to go out. That means no power to appliances, computers, and possibly even your sump pump. As soon as you have information from your local utility company about the cause of the outage and a timetable for power returning, relay the information to tenants. Some tenants may not have phones to receive emails and texts, so it’s worth putting a notice up in the lobby, or slipping them under every one’s door. Remind tenants to unplug appliances to avoid power surges that can damage equipment when power returns, but leave on one light to know power is back.

Have a tree service trim branches near power lines before winter so heavy snow and ice won’t fall and damage them, Prozinski says. Additionally, consider investing in a stand-alone generator for each of your buildings. The generator you buy should be the right size to power the building, along with any equipment you’d like to keep running (like a sump pump or furnace), according to Koeune.

Conked-Out Furnace

Furnaces may stop working for a number of reasons: a dirty system, an old filter, outdated parts, or even a power outage. Thankfully, new high-efficiency models have an automatic shut-off that is triggered when the exhaust pipe becomes clogged, so carbon monoxide doesn’t enter units. Preventative maintenance is key—you may be able to sign up for a service plan that checks furnaces annually and gets an HVAC expert to your building when emergencies arise, Prozinski says.

Final tip: Be diligent about winter maintenance, and if your budget permits, consider hiring a company that handles all preventive work. Also, assemble a building emergency supply kit based on federal government and advise your tenants do so, too.

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Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer who specializes in real estate, design, and family business; her website is Her most recently published book is The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing).

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