Old Man Winter is not so kind to your vacant property.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared in the December 2011/January 2012 issue of Retail Facility Business magazine.]
Do you like winter? You may enjoy skiing, sledding, the simple beauty of freshly fallen snow, or taking long walks in fluffy white powder. You may even like the brisk workout that comes from shoveling your driveway (but you are probably alone here). At the end of the day, though, you have the option of a soft blanket and a cup of hot chocolate to take the chill from your bones.
Your vacant or abandoned property, on the other hand, is not so lucky. During the winter it just sits there, worried about security, freezing pipes and the massive damage water and ice can cause if not properly maintained.
If you have lonely, vacant commercial properties like this in your inventory, there are steps you can take to protect your investment. What should you consider before you winterize a property? What mistakes do you want to avoid? Settle in with your favorite warm beverage and let’s talk winterization.
Things to Consider Before Winterizing a Property
Like all real estate, ‘location, location, location’ is what matters the most. If your property is located in Florida (south of Ocala), Hawaii, areas of Arizona and California under elevations of 2,000 feet, and southern Nevada, then you don’t need to worry about winterization. However, for the majority of properties located everywhere else in the United States, winterization is necessary to protect the property against freeze damage.
Before you start the process of winterizing a building, consider the current security of your property. Your building must be completely secured before you can even contemplate winterizing it. Protecting your property is important for a number of reasons. It is especially important during the winter time as vagrants will utilize a vacant property to provide shelter against the elements. Not even the lack of heat in an enclosed building may be a deterrent to vagrants. All year round it is not uncommon for water pipes and electrical lines at a vacant property to be stolen for their copper. If the pipes contain running water during the winter, the property owner will incur significant losses from copper theft as the water will eventually cover the ground and freeze. A hefty water bill may add insult to injury. Winterization stops water from running through the pipes. These security risks increase the importance of having a commercial maintenance vendor suitably protect the building. Make sure the property has proper deterrents such as fencing, boarding, lighting, remote security and properly locking doors, as this will greatly reduce the likelihood of the winterization being breached by vagrants or vandals. If the property is not well protected at present, contact your commercial property maintenance provider to secure the property before or in conjunction with winterization.
Next, advise your commercial property maintenance provider if the property has previously been winterized. If so, you will likely just need a winterization checkup or system refresh to ensure that the property will remain well protected during the winter.
One of the most important questions you need to ask is: Does the property have a fire suppression (sprinkler) system, and is the system wet or dry? Most properties have a wet fire suppression system. If the property does have a fire suppression system it is important to make sure heat is maintained in the building. Minimal heat can be as low as 50 to 60 degrees, as long as many ceiling tiles are opened/propped up to allow airflow to circulate. Additional tricks of the trade include placing heat tape or a space heater at the main water and fire riser closet. Many older buildings did not insulate exterior accessible closets or water risers located along exterior walls. In addition, identify any separate shut-off valves to the domestic heating system in order for winterization to be fully completed. A separate shut-off valve for the domestic heating system will enable water to continue flowing to the fire suppression system throughout the winter in order to protect the building against fire damage. Winterizing the fire suppression system is not recommended and in some municipalities may in fact be illegal. If the fire suppression system remains fully charged with water, then heat must be maintained in the building.
And, since we are talking water, your commercial property maintenance vendor should check to see if the main water line to the building has an interior shut-off valve. Without the advantage of an interior shut-off valve, there is a risk the water could be turned on at the street; as a result the winterization would be breached. And guess what, you may not know for days or weeks that the street valve was turned on. If an interior shut-off valve does not exist, have your commercial property maintenance vendor install one; this is a great investment against accidental or malicious damage.
Another simple protection against freeze damage is maintaining building heat. There exists a tradeoff between the risk of freeze damage and the cost to continue operating heat. In nearly all cases freeze damage is much more costly than maintaining minimal heat levels. Particularly when the property will be leased or is expected to be sold, it will be more cost-effective to just maintain the heat at 50 to 60 degrees, rather than complete a full winterization and subsequent de-winterization. As mentioned above, heat must be maintained if the building has a fire suppression system.
Your commercial property maintenance provider can determine what type of heating system is installed in the building. It may either be a wet or dry system and this heating system will determine the type of winterization service that should be completed. Wet systems are typically more complex to winterize and require additional steps to be performed. Have a qualified commercial property maintenance vendor check to see if the heating system holds pressure; it may be necessary to have the vendor make repairs and code improvements before you can ensure reliability during a long, harsh winter.
In the case of a partially occupied building, if there is not a separate shut-off water valve to the vacant part of the building, then the heat must be maintained throughout. If the property has a shared water source, a partial winterization of just the vacant unit(s) may be your only option as water service cannot be disrupted to other tenants or buildings. A partial winterization consists of turning the water off to the vacant unit fixtures (commodes, sinks, bathtub/showers, and utility sinks) and pouring antifreeze into the fixtures, floor drains, and traps. Qualified commercial property maintenance vendors will be certain to use non-toxic antifreeze. But again, heat must be maintained because there still will be water in the lines of the vacant unit(s).
Professional commercial property maintenance vendors will provide accurate, written winterization details along with extensive photographic documentation showing the winterization steps being completed. In addition, notices should be posted on the front entrance, all fixtures and kitchen areas to indicate that the property has been winterized.
Once the winterization has been performed, conducting follow up inspections to check on the property is a prudent and inexpensive business decision. Because even winterized properties can incur break-ins, vandalism, copper theft, or even the simple use of a faucet or commode by a vagrant or a broker, there exists the risk of a system breach to a winterized property. As such, it is strongly recommended that the property owner engage a service provider who can frequently check on the property to make sure that the winterization is still intact and the property has not frozen due to the actions of third parties.
As you can see, there are quite a few issues to consider before winterizing a property. However, the risk from not winterizing a property is so costly that every property owner needs to go through these steps if they are responsible for a vacant building. A qualified commercial property maintenance vendor can help walk you through the process and make sure that the risk of freeze damage is minimized. Now that we have covered some of the critical steps to proper winterization there is a whole other series of issues to consider.
What To Avoid During the Winterization Process
When dealing with a wet heating system, avoid shutting down a boiler unless it is absolutely necessary. Usually when a property has a boiler system that is operational it is best to leave it up and running. Draining a boiler can dry out valves, causing severe damage and making it problematic for some boilers once water is restored. If there is a boiler that is operational at the property, consider keeping this running versus the cost to repair as it may impact your leasing or selling position.
While it may sound logical to shut water off to a fire suppression system if you anticipate a long vacancy, it is strongly recommended to avoid this option. Tampering with or disabling this system may also be against city code and could actually void an insurance policy.
What do you do if you have existing damage to the plumbing system, but do not want to invest in repairs at this time? Avoid the temptation to ignore damaged plumbing. Seek an estimate to repair the plumbing system. Yet, even if there are visible damages to the plumbing system, your commercial property maintenance vendor should attempt to clear the lines with compressed air. While the system may not hold pressure from the compressed air, additional water will be removed from the system that may not have been eliminated through simple draining.
Overlooked steps can also “trip you up.” Commercial property maintenance vendors know not to empty the water heater onto the floor. It should always be emptied into a drain or to the exterior of the property. The failure to do so can cause damage to the flooring or a slip hazard if the water is left on the floor and freezes.
Lastly, don’t procrastinate. Plan and complete the winterization in a timely manner.
Winterization Service Check List
• Consider the geographic location of the property.
• Protect the property from outside intrusion.
• Base the level of service upon whether or not the property has been winterized previously.
• Turn off or install an interior shut-off valve in the property to protect against the risk of the main water line to the building being turned on.
• Consider whether or not to maintain heat in the building.
• After the winterization is complete, conduct follow up inspections to check on the property (very important).
• Winterizing a property that has not been secured.
• Shutting down a boiler unless absolutely necessary.
• Winterizing a fire suppression (sprinkler) system.
• Shutting off the water supply to a fire suppression system.
• Winterizing a property with shared water and occupied units.
• Leaving damaged plumbing unrepaired.
• Not attempting to use forced air through the plumbing lines even if there are visible damages.
• Winterizing fixtures and traps with toxic antifreeze.
• Emptying the water heater onto the floor; it should always be emptied into a drain or to the exterior of the property.
• A delay in winterizing the property.
— Marc Insul has more than 15 years of experience in the property maintenance and inspection industry. He serves as president/COO of Commercial Asset Preservation (CAP), a Salt Lake City-based nationwide provider of general maintenance, preservation, property caretaker and inspection services for abandoned and vacant commercial real estate. Insul can be reached at [email protected].