Essential Winter Maintenance

By Brian Stoops
This article comes from the November 2003 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

For companies in cold weather climates, maintaining safe facilities becomes a higher priority in the winter. While most people don’t even think about it, facility managers must keep buildings clear of snow and ice or face the possible consequences. Something as seemingly innocent as a snowy walkway that has not been cleared can result in serious injury or fatality. It is a little known fact in this country that slip and fall accidents-which cause 15% of all accidental deaths-are second only to motor vehicle accidents as a leading cause of accidental deaths.

Each year, more than a million people seek hospital treatment for slip and falls. Of those million, 300,000 suffer debilitating injuries and 12,000 die. This can lead to litigation and skyrocketing insurance costs for many property owners. Additionally, snow and ice can cause severe property damage, and create cleanup headaches for facility managers.

However, a trouble free winter with effective safeguards to prevent hazardous conditions is possible through a variety of resources and systems now available on the market. While pipe freeze protection products are commonly used as a winter hazard deterrent, snow melting and de-icing systems have become necessary tools for keeping walkways and pathways clear.

Protecting Against Liability

Although the laws may differ from state to state, businesses can be held liable for a dangerous accumulation of ice and snow if they do not take adequate precautions to clear it. A number of facility managers are reducing snow removal costs and liability by installing snow melting systems in a variety of places. Outdoor malls, parking lots, walkways, and loading ramps are all areas in which these systems are being employed.

With snow melting systems, concrete driveways and other exterior flatwork surfaces stay safer. Such systems eliminate plowing and shoveling; they prevent potential damage to the concrete and asphalt caused by snow-removal equipment and corrosive de-icers; and keep out the messiness from applications such as sanding and chemicals. Generally, two types of snow melting systems are available for use in exterior slabs on grade: hydronic and electric. Both rely on four key elements to turn the entire slab surface into a heat source:

  • A heating element, which is embedded in the slab;
  • Sensors to detect outdoor air temperatures and moisture;
  • A power source; and
  • A controller to tie the heating element, sensors, and power source together.

Although a snow melting system can cost several hundred dollars each winter to operate, it is often less expensive, as well as less labor intensive than snow removal equipment, plowing services, or costly de-icing chemicals.

Danger From Above

Moving to the roof, ice dams can also be a serious hazard. These dangerous formations are common in industrial administrative buildings, warehouses, storage facilities and production buildings.

Ice dams form on a roof when melting snow and ice refreeze on a cold roof edge and prevent water from draining properly to a gutter. Improperly draining water can run into a building or onto the grounds and cause serious property damage, as well as contribute to slip and fall accidents.

De-icing systems enable roof drains to run a path to the gutter and then to the downspout. These systems usually consist of a heating cable and are relatively simple to install on roofs. No retrofitting or alteration of existing structures is required. Several of these installations have been completed. One such example is Boston’s Faneuil Hall. This historic Boston institution has been around for hundreds of years and hosts several shops.

In this case, roof and gutter heating cables were used on Faneuil Hall to successfully prevent snow and ice buildup from falling onto an entrance reserved for the handicapped.

Purchase Tips

A few tips for facility managers to keep in mind when they are considering a snow melting or de-icing system:

  1. Usage and costs. Not all snow melting and de-icing systems are created equal. With a variety of different products on the market, facility managers should consider what their user needs are versus what the product can perform.With a snow melting system, for example, should all areas be free of snow at all times, or is gradual melting after snowfall acceptable? If the former result is desired, a top of the line system and possibly higher installation and operating costs may be required.
  2. Maintenance. Snow melting and roof and gutter de-icing systems should be periodically inspected and tested to ensure they are working properly.
  3. Timing. Snow and ice removal systems should be installed in advance of winter, as these systems require testing prior to the first snowfall to ensure they will perform efficiently.

Snow melting and de-icing systems have become essential for proper maintenance of buildings and the preservation of public safety. Both considerations directly affect the short-and long-term bottom line in reducing the costs and liability associated with harsh winter conditions. These systems may prove to be helpful in the fight against old man winter.

Stoops works for Tyco Thermal Controls.