Guest Column: Is Your Commercial Building Winter Ready?

Proper maintenance and preparation are key to being ready for winter storms.

Map of the continental United States showing areas north of the 32°F line that should be prepared for severe winter weather.

Is your commercial property ready for winter weather? Proper maintenance and preparation are the key to being ready for even the worst winter storms. Severe winter weather can vary from cold temperatures and ice storms in southern cities to heavy snow or ice dams in northern states that can wreak havoc on commercial properties. Freezing temperatures can affect areas as far south as Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. Subsequent consequences can include power loss or structural damage to buildings, and water damage from frozen pipes bursting. All areas located north of the 32°F line should be prepared.

Unfortunately, many commercial buildings in these locations are not prepared for winter weather and do not have an emergency plan in place. This leaves them particularly vulnerable to damage, having to file insurance claims, and increases their chances of being unable to reopen following an event. For many building owners, not knowing where to start can be stressful. To help create an effective plan, IBHS developed a set of Winter Ready guidelines that provide budget friendly ways to prepare a commercial building for winter weather, improvement projects for the off season, and a navigation checklist to help weather the storm!

A large part of being prepared is understanding your business’s vulnerabilities. Protection begins at the roof, your first line of defense against the elements.

Snow and Ice on Your Roof

Even though snow is rare in Alabama, winter storms have dumped over 12 inches in some locations. Excessive snow on your roof can add a dangerous load to the supporting structure. When it comes to the weight of snow, the type of snow is as important as the depth of the snow. Fresh powder snow is typically lighter than wet packed snow, and ice is heavier than wet packed snow. Alabama hasn’t seen enough snow in one event for that concern, but significant snow accumulation can create another problem — ice dams.

When snow melts on your roof there is a possibility for that meltwater to re-freeze. This can produce ice dams, which are ridges of ice that form at the edge of a steep-sloped roof or around drains on a low-sloped roof and prevent meltwater from draining off. The water that backs up behind this ice dam can leak into the building and cause damage to the roof, insulation, ceilings, walls and other areas. Additionally, when the roof doesn’t drain properly, snow, ice and water remain trapped on the roof, adding loads that put your roof at greater risk of failure.

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Frozen Pipes

Burst pipes are the leading cause of property damage from winter weather. To combat the freezing of pipes, buildings should keep their internal thermostat at a minimum of 55°F. Vacant facilities have exposure to pipe bursts due to large interior temperature swings and lack of tenants. Consequential damage can occur if a pipe busts and the water lines are not monitored by an automatic excess flow valve that could shut off the flow automatically.

Pipes that are adequately protected along their entire length by placement within the building’s insulation, insulation on the pipe itself, or heated wrap are generally safe from this hazard. However, water pipes in commercial buildings in southern climates can be more vulnerable to winter cold spells. Because those events are rare, pipes are more likely to be located in unprotected areas or outside of the building insulation, and owners tend to be less concerned with freezing conditions that may occur only once or twice a season. Pipes in attics, crawl spaces and outside walls are all vulnerable to freezing, especially if there are cracks or openings that expose pipes to cold, outside air.

Loss of Power

Having a generator as a backup power supply is an important part of preventing the cold weather from causing even more problems in the event of a power outage. The generator should be able to power essential equipment and systems, especially heating systems that help maintain the building’s interior temperature.

Proper maintenance is critical to avoid the failure of a generator when it’s needed most. The time to maintain a generator is well before a major storm or disaster strikes when professional assistance may be unavailable, power lines are down, and access roads are blocked or impassable. It’s important to purchase a generator that is properly designed and sized for your business needs, and operated in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. Safe operations of a backup generator must be considered; always operate portable generators outside in a well vented area. Permanent generators are more self-sufficient but should be monitored periodically while they are in operation.

Navigating a Winter Weather Event

Developing a business continuity plan can help a facility navigate a storm smoothly, minimize damage and reduce business disruptions. Not having a plan, or having a poorly prepared or misunderstood plan, can lead to disorganized preparation or confused response, with the possibility of harm to employees, facilities, equipment or operations. The highest priority should be employee safety, but it also is important to reduce property damage and economic loss. Having a plan saves time and focuses energy when facing an imminent crisis, or when responding to one that could not have been foreseen in advance.

All plans should include best practices to be used before, during and after an emergency, along with actions to address unique challenges that are specific to each business’ facilities and operations, and the risks it faces.

Preparing for winter season can feel daunting, but with IBHS’s help, your building will be ready to take on the next storm. Be winter ready, go to

Chris Cioffi

Chris Cioffi joined Insurance Institute for Business & Home Saftey in 2016 as the commercial lines engineer for the FORTIFIED Commercial Program. A graduate of Pennsylvania State University, Cioffi has conducted structural analysis of steel, concrete, engineered wood and masonry structures; used structural analysis programs to model design and convey structural stability; and visited construction sites to analyze existing structures, monitor current construction, and determine if additional services might be needed. He also consults with the Research Center team on commercial structure testing, and collaborates with the business protection unit to provide membership-focused resources.

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