In terms of wear and tear on buildings, winter is the harshest season of the year. Snow accumulation and ice damming on roofs can be a major headache, pipes freezing and bursting could spell disaster, and just about any accumulation of water means trouble.
Though it’s a tough time of year, association managers, building engineers, and residents can work to prevent weather-related issues in their buildings. Understanding where and why such problems may occur, before they happen, could mean the difference between some low-cost solutions and a major renovation.
Simple maintenance steps taken to winterize a building, performed at the right times by qualified professionals, can save cash and effort over the long-term. And perhaps the greatest source of winter-connected problems in the building is the spot people seem to look at the least: the roof.
Especially during the winter, but really throughout the year, the roof should never be ignored. Problems up there can lead to problems with the building’s façade, structure and foundation, if left unattended.
The various stages of winterization on a building should be undertaken in the fall before the cold weather and snow, says Ronald Katz, managing director of Kipcon Great Lakes LLC in Wheeling. Grant Ostreko, an associate engineer with Waldman Engineering Consultants in Naperville, agrees. Fall is a good time for maintenance checks and repairs of the roof, he says. That fall checklist should include replacing sealants and cleaning gutters and downspouts. Masonry on the parapet walls also should be scrutinized to see if it needs any repairs.
One of the most common roof problems for some multifamily buildings is ice damming, which is often the result of a faulty roof design. An ice dam is the ridge of ice that builds up along the edge of the roof or through the gutters. When the air temperature is very low, and a roof doesn’t have a steep enough pitch toward the drains, the melted water refreezes at the edge of the roof and through the gutter. This rim of ice traps runoff water, which then backs up onto the roof, seeping under the shingles and leaking inside the building. It also puts a lot of stress on roof seams, gutters, flashing and other elements of the roof system.
“It can cause wall and attic insulation to fail, which can increase heating bills substantially,” says Mitchell Frumkin, PE, RS, CGP, the president of Kipcon. “Wet insulation is a prime location for the development of mold, which can lead to health problems such as asthma, allergies, colds and sinus conditions.”
The problem can be prevented by ensuring there’s always a layer of cold air beneath the roof’s outside surface. Improving insulation in that area, as well as improving airflow by creating ventilation holes in the soffit or eaves, are the best ways to keep the space below the roof decking at an appropriate level, which is not conducive to ice damming. “That area should be nearly the same temperature as the outside,” Frumkin says.
Another way to prevent ice damming is to have a qualified roofer install ice dam prevention material on the roof. A two-foot-wide swath of waterproofing membrane is installed around the perimeter of the roof. With that membrane installed, if any melt-water escapes beneath the shingles, the roof’s waterproof barrier will remain intact. One more option is to install heating cables on the roof, to form a path for melted snow to travel through an ice dam. But heating coils can burn out and are not easily regulated.
Preventing ice damming is just one aspect of proper roof maintenance in anticipation of winter and during the cold months. You must ensure that water always is properly channeled away from the roof. The building engineer or custodian should do this, first and foremost, by ensuring the gutters and downspouts are clean and free of debris at all times.
It is those connection points between areas of a roof, such as where the roof meets the gutter, or where shingles meet flashing, that can turn into problem spots for leaks, if left unchecked for too long. If you’re worried about ice damming or snow accumulation on your roof, have an engineer check the roof and the building’s design. Offering solutions to the problem could cost a small amount of money but do wonders for your peace of mind.
The process of examining and repairing a roof, or planning a replacement of the roof, is really an ongoing one. It continues from year to year and is never done. You don’t discover potential trouble spots in a roof by having your building engineer do a walk-around there once every couple of years; you’d be too late then. Finding problems in time is a question of looking frequently for them, even in the middle of winter.
Depending upon his capabilities, your superintendent or building engineer might go up and check on the roof a couple of times during the winter to ensure that no obvious problems are missed. You also should allow the building’s consultants to do their jobs.
Inspectors can be a registered engineer or registered architect. In such inspections, the entire building is visually inspected and also physically inspected. Doing a close-up, probing examination of one side of the façade of a building, inspectors will perform a roof to foundation “drop down” with a movable stage like window washers use. At that time the inspector will look for loose cornices, mortar joints, lintels and sills. Some bricks might be removed temporarily to see if there is any water seepage behind the brick façade.
An inspector may also test to see if the building is leaking an excessive amount of heat through its roof. This may be determined partly by finding out how much insulation is in the roof. Inspectors will do a core drilling to determine how much insulation exists. Older roofs sometimes have no insulation, and therefore can be essentially the same as a person bundled up and out on a cold day but without a hat. Everything’s warm but a lot of the heat is escaping from the top.
Parts of the building that wouldn’t seem to need attention, such as parking garages, also could benefit from the wise eye of a pro before winter blows in. With multi-level garages comprised of suspended concrete slabs, ensuring that the concrete stays structurally sound is a matter of life and limb. These slabs need a waterproofing treatment, which is applied every five years or so, and should be inspected by an engineer or other qualified professional at least every couple years to ensure that no problems are developing.
In surface parking lots, fall also is a good time to winterize and prepare for the damage of the freeze-thaw cycle. Potholes should be filled at that time, or they will become far worse and present a real hazard in the ice and snow. The entire lot could be tarred at that time, if needed.
Prior to winter, the building’s engineer should ensure that the structure’s masonry weep-holes (if it has them) are clear of debris so they can let the water escape. As with other parts of a building’s façade, allowing water to collect there will only lead to problems.
Caulking around windows should be scrutinized every three years by a qualified inspector, at which time an inspection will be done from the inside to check on integrity of the windows. Depending upon the type of caulking, as well as building conditions and how well the caulking was applied, it could need to be replaced every few years. The only way to know when that job must be done is to have a qualified person inspect the caulking, but residents often can tell when something’s amiss, due to the draftiness inside their unit.
“Sometimes you can feel the cold air coming in around the caulking on the balcony,” Ostreko says.
Various parts of your building’s exterior envelope have different life spans, but siding, shingles and roofs last 20 to 30 years if they are properly installed and maintained. When the roof does need to be replaced, though, it could be pricey. It’s better to keep the roof in good shape so it lasts as long as possible.
Ensuring that pipes and plumbing are safe from freezing temperatures in the winter is the building engineer's job. But to begin with, it’s the contractor’s job. Pipes should be properly insulated when they are installed.
Some pipes, though, are located in unheated or poorly heated spaces. Basement pipes in unheated spots such as crawl spaces, and pipes located in poorly heated stairwells, or pipes exposed to the weather on the rooftop, all should have proper insulation that is routinely checked, and replaced as soon as it appears to need replacement.
When preparing to winterize a multifamily building, the heart of the matter is the structure’s boiler. Remember, these basement behemoths need regular tending, and not just in the colder months. Perhaps the most crucial part of maintaining a boiler is employing the right boiler maintenance pro. Such a professional should do regular fireside cleanings of the boiler and at least biannual checkups of the system. As the boiler’s stack temperature increases, it indicates residue buildup and means it’s time for a cleaning.
Stack temperatures and other readings must be done at least a few times a week. Some buildings have their in-house custodian do the readings daily. This person should have logbooks for this data, in order to record, monitor and compare daily water level and pressure readings. Summer and mid-winter are good times for checkups/cleanings of the boiler. During the checkup, gaskets on the boiler should be checked to see that they fit properly. If not, they should be replaced.
While in the basement, have your engineer or other service professional check the sump pump discharge pipe, which shouldn’t be allowed to freeze. Look out the basement windows and note anything in the window wells; window wells should not only be covered, they should not be collecting leaves or other materials that could clog drains or trap water.
Always have a good, reliable backup sump pump and make sure you have it before the start of winter, says Matt Stock, of U.S. Waterproofing in Rolling Meadows. Get an AC/DC, well-made cast iron sump pump, and make sure it’s in working order.
And remember to take care of the obvious things when it’s cold, Stock says. “Don’t let snow pile up against the building. Shovel the snow away from the walls and foundation,” he says. And also remember to keep what’s outside, outside. Install a runner or long carpet in the entry hallway at the door, to catch most of the snow and salt that gets tracked in by the residents. It could prevent a lot of soiled carpeting throughout the building.
Jonathan Barnes is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to The Chicagoland Cooperator.