Chicagoland is known for its cold and windy winter weather, which often lasts from late October all the way through March and makes “The Windy City” a well-earned moniker.
Between the cold prairie winds, and gales from Lake Michigan dumping freezing rain, snow, and ice on the city in the winter to the sweltering heat of Midwestern summer, Chicago's condos, co-ops and HOAs—as well as many of their amenities—can really take a seasonal beating. That's why boards, managers, and community staff members need to be on-the-spot when it comes to keeping those amenities well-maintained and ready for use as the seasons change.
Even a well-organized HOA board cannot spare a community from the challenges of winter weather, so what is the best way to prevent damages associated with cold, ice, snow and frozen water? What proactive measures can be put in place to extend the life of amenities? And who is best equipped and suited to manage damage prevention and repairs?
High winds, snow, ice and freezing cold all take a toll on outdoor amenities, especially those typically used during warm weather. Swimming pools, hard-surfaced sports courts for things like tennis and basketball, and children’s playgrounds are particularly susceptible to winter weather damage.
Checking all outdoor amenities immediately after Labor Day, the official end of summer, and again just before Memorial Day, which signals the beginning of summer, is both practical and necessary in a cold weather climate. Richard N. Hagelberg, CEO of Kidstuff Playsystems in Gary, Indiana, recommends regularly scheduled playground inspections by a qualified inspector at least four times a year.
The National Recreation and Park Association (www.nrpa.org ) is one resource dedicated to promoting children's right to a safe play environment. NRPA inspectors are trained to identify hazards on playground equipment, how to rank those hazards according to injury potential and how to establish a playground safety program.
Hagelberg also recommends using the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) Playground Safety Guidelines, available from the commission in Washington, DC, or through Kidstuff Playsystems, which has a two-page maintenance check list for playgrounds available online at www.kidstuffplay systems.com. The checklist provides a listing of important items to check, as well as a place to record original playground information pertaining to installation, insurance, and warranties. “Record all inspections and save them with other important legal records,” says Hagelberg. “In the event of an injury, these documents are your best defense against liability claims.”
Rick Brewer, owner of Classroom Outfitters in Miami, Florida, provides equipment and offers solutions for safe playgrounds for ages two to five, and from age five and up. Like Hagelberg, he also recommends continual maintenance of equipment and ground coverings, and says he definitely sees an uptick in playground activity during the summer months. Things he checks for before the kids get out of school and families make more use of playground facilities are loose screws and nuts, any place where water can pool to create a slippery or moldy surface, and chips and nicks on painted surfaces. “When paint is chipped it can pose a safety hazard, and it promotes rust,” he says.
Another product several pros say are worth evaluating for play areas are sun shades and canopies. Attractive, durable options are on the market today that offer aesthetic and safety benefits to the amenities and the humans who use them. Sun shades over playgrounds protect children and the adults who oversee them from harmful ultraviolet rays, and also help define and identify the play area within a community. Those same shades may also help extend the life of the equipment by offering some protection from the sun and other elements.
“Safety surfaces for playgrounds are also a large issue,” says Hagelberg. His favorite product is engineered wood fiber. “It is the least expensive, and if a child falls, the mulch absorbs the shock,” he says. He recommends a depth of about 12 inches, which also meets standards for the Americans with Disabilities Act, providing wheelchair accessibility. Poured surfaces are also available, but usually cost prohibitive.
Jory J. Carrick, president of Williamson Management, based in in Bensenville, also favors engineered wood fiber or rubber mulch for playgrounds. “Rubber mulch is initially more expensive, but it holds up, doesn’t decompress, drains well, and it doesn’t attract insects and animals,” he says. He recommends checking mulch in late October or early November for the proper depth, and to be sure rain, wind and user activity hasn’t displaced any areas. A re-check in mid-March–early April is also necessary.
Carrick agrees with Hagelberg on regular and detailed checking of playground equipment, particularly if age is a factor. Newer playground equipment is safer and easier to maintain, but replacing an existing play area is expensive. Cost can approach $45,000 to $50,000, and ADA requirements must be addressed. “Check with your municipality for any permit requirements when replacing playground equipment,” he advises.
The Sporting Life
In addition to playgrounds, Carrick says the nearly 50 properties his firm handles also face cold weather maintenance issues for tennis courts and swimming pools. “With swimming pools, both indoor and outdoor, maintenance boils down to surface and spot repair; don’t defer it,” he advises. The outdoor pools under Williamson Management are typically open from Memorial Day until Labor Day. He has found it is not cost effective to keep a pool heated and open much past Labor Day. “It is maximum cost for marginal benefit, since very few people are available to use the pool once school starts.” Thorough checks for cracks and surface breakdown is necessary at the close of the swimming season and again before opening a pool for the summer.
Tennis courts, basketball courts and parking lots are all usually constructed of asphalt which breaks down naturally from sun, rain and traffic. As asphalt degrades, small cracks allow water to penetrate the surface speeding up the failure process.
“Cracks, drainage problems and a condition known as 'alligatoring' are the top three maintenance issues to watch for with asphalt,” says Carrick. Alligatoring is a series of cracks, grouped together and so named because they resemble the scaly back of an alligator. This type of damage usually indicates a drainage or subgrade problem. The closer the cracks are together, the shallower the failure. Cracks further apart indicate that the failure will be deeper. If the original asphalt was not constructed to meet the load placed on it, the surface may fail even sooner.
“It is best to inspect and patch asphalt in the late fall, before freezing water from snow and ice can expand cracking,” says Carrick. A regular schedule of inspection, patching and repainting all year will extend the life of the surface. “The science of drainage has improved dramatically over the last decade, explains Carrick. It is now possible to build a substructure to redirect water where it needs to go if and when rebuilding is required.”
Carrick says he has had a positive experience with a new multipurpose overlay grid product known as Snapsports Athletic Surfaces®, or Duracourt®. The grid-like surface is pre-colored and pre-coated and lays over the existing court. These systems are quickly installed, durable and beautiful but they are expensive. Resurfacing is also expensive and time consuming, so while there are no quick and inexpensive fixes for asphalt, there are new products and options on the market.
Staying Ahead of the Calendar
Whether using new products or old tried-and-true methods, a proactive stance to maintenance and seasonal prep for amenities is always the best course of action.
“My calendar of event for my communities has us beginning the process in February,” says Kara Cermak, president of Rowell Incorporated, a management company in Elgin. “The reality is, in the fall, we hired our landscaper to add mulch to our playgrounds in the spring, our pool management company was secured in January, and our deck maintenance company was hired in the fall for spring deck maintenance.”
Cermak is a past president of the Illinois Chapter of Community Associations Institute, (CAI-IL) and a current board member of the organization. She says having routine seasonal maintenance scheduled and on the books allows her to focus on areas that may otherwise be overlooked. “Do you have appropriate signage in all areas, what about pool or common bathroom repairs or other maintenance needs that can be accomplished when the weather takes a break?” Cermak says she focuses on the details to keep everything running smoothly because, “Mother Nature can sometimes surprise us.”
Another detail Cermak directs her attention to is the cost of amenities to each community under her management. “Our communities have made it through the rough patch in the economy, and while none reduced pool operating hours, or contemplated more drastic measures, it is clear that each community should weigh the cost benefits to requests. For instance, if weather allows, should the pool stay open after Labor Day? Over the last few years the answer has, more often than not, been ‘no.’ ”
Like Carrick, Cermak also deals with playgrounds and surface amenities such as tennis and basketball courts. “The surfaces of these courts are important to the players; dips that hold water, or breaks, can actually create a hazardous surface,” she acknowledges.
Cermak encourages inspections to determine if repairs are really needed or if a simple re-coloring or net replacement will get the job done, and make the courts aesthetically attractive and safe again. Playground equipment has seen numerous changes and improvements as an industry over the last decade. “Most of the playground equipment that has been installed over the last few years is amazingly durable, and long lasting, she notes.
All the professionals we spoke to agree that a proactive stance to get ahead of winter weather, coupled with a quick double check before the summer season officially gets under way is the best approach for spring and summer preparations. All properties are not created equally, inspect and review each for the specific needs, repairs, and improvements required to keep the community safe and attractive. Consult with experts whenever necessary, and don’t forget local, state, and federal government regulations. Check for existing and new regulations affecting your property early, and comply early so none of your fun-in-the-sun plans are delayed or compromised.
Anne Childers is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Chicagoland Cooperator.