By Kenneth A. Travers
In the winter of 2020-2021, a serious expansion of a disrupted Polar Vortex in the Southern Plains states — coupled with a significant ice storm — created a catastrophic power disruption resulting in freeze damage lasting multiple weeks. Could this year’s winter season bring a repeat of these significant effects and business disruption? Experts forecast that another season of instability with the Polar Vortex could occur, but cannot forecast exactly where impacts will be felt.
Below, facility managers and property owners will find 14 useful tips to help them prepare their facilities for potential weather disruptions.
- Failing To Plan Is Planning To Fail: Restoring a business or operation following the loss of a critical utility service for an extended period, especially during adverse weather conditions, can create a unique set of issues that increases risk to employees and property. This requires a well thought out restoration and recovery plan. These disruptions can also lead to significant water damage when aligned with cold weather events where heat cannot be maintained on premises.
The best approach to minimizing risk resulting from these very cold polar air plunges is to prepare in advance for potential extended loss of power or impacts to critical infrastructure upon which a business, building, or facility may depend.
- Plan To Win: Facility managers and property owners should develop a basic weather impact and business continuity plan to minimize weather damage, ideally before the season begins. This plan would also enhance the business’ ability to restore and recover as early as possible following the disruptive event, addressing responsibilities for preparations, triggers for activating various aspects of the plan, a stock-up of equipment and materials, heat, temporary power and recovery, and restoration steps to be implemented once the event has passed.
- Pay Attention To Weather Forecasts: It’s important to regularly review forecasts to identify potential impending weather events which could create disruptions or potentially create loss of power. Weather forecasting today has improved greatly over the past decade and Polar Vortex events can usually be identified in advance, enabling time for preparation.
- Get The Business In Order: When extreme weather has the potential to impact supply chains, it is time to stock up on raw materials from suppliers and buffer finished goods in the warehouse. Businesses should work with customers to supply finished goods ahead of previously established timelines to provide some breathing room. Facility managers should also check spare parts and equipment inventories and verify the business has the items needed.
- Arrange For Redundant Power: Virtually all business operations and facilities depend on reliable and available power supplies. In a severe weather event, disruptions to grid power are common. The business should arrange in its plan for a means to provide necessary power to the facility according with the operational needs and the business continuity plan. This can take the form of permanent redundant power on site via backup generators, fuel cells, or battery energy storage systems.
- Plan For Necessary Heat: It’s important to remember that heating appliances will usually require some amount of electricity to operate. The business should plan to assure continued heating, at least at a minimum temperature required to operate. This is especially true in areas with susceptible aspects such as liquid filled piping. Under no conditions should internal heat ever fall below 40°F, but ideally never less than 50°F.
- Protect All Piping: Piping is used in most all facilities to support heating systems, cooling systems, plumbing systems, fire protection systems, and processing operations. Depending on the types of systems and use, the types of liquids inside may be susceptible to freezing temperatures and could fail at joints or piping segments leading to liquid damage. It is crucial to protect piping from freezing by taking steps such as turning faucets on so water comes out as a trickle until the bitter cold weather subsides.
- Integrate Sensor Technology: The capabilities of technology advance every day. Incorporating some technology as a supplement to existing property loss prevention programs can help address risk or notify you of an issue more quickly. Electronic sensors for water leaks, a wide array of ambient conditions including temperature, heat, and even fire detection are readily available now more than ever.
- Enhance Roof Maintenance Program: Cold temperatures mixed with precipitation results in ice or snow. Both can be burdens to a roof, especially if conditions exceed the expected loading which can result from a prolonged power outage and weather event. Before snow or other cold weather precipitation occurs, make sure facility roofing systems are in good shape, debris is removed, and roof drains are adequately cleared. Drifting snow can bear down on roofs, especially those with varying roof elevation sections. Drifts will usually occur at these drastic roof elevation changes but can also occur adjacent to large rooftop equipment. The business continuity plan should list tasks and a responsibility for periodic monitoring of roof conditions to make sure that drifting snow does not become so extreme that it can lead to overloading your structure resulting in potential collapse.
- Mitigate Heat Loss: Buildings are not airtight. There are always opportunities and small openings that allow heat to escape and cold air infiltrate the structure. Being aware of those locations and/or treating those points to limit that exchange can help in an extended cold snap. Provide additional insulation, improve seals, or provide sufficient additional heat to contend with the cold infiltration as necessary. Where these exist in areas with cold-susceptible features extra care should always be taken to limit exposure.
- Protect Against Infestation: As temperatures drop quickly, pests will want to find a way to keep warm. An ongoing pest management service can be helpful. While investigating for heat leaks, be mindful of opportunities where pests can make access inside. Sufficiently treat those areas to prevent entry. In all cases with pests, be careful and engage a professional for removal if you find one inside.
- Secure Loose Materials: Strong storm systems often bring strong winds. These winds can readily pick up loose items and project them against a nearby structure, breaking windows or damaging exterior cladding. Should severe cold weather and forecast severe storms be forecast, arrange for staffing or labor to pick up exterior loose items and move them inside or provide securement to prevent them from becoming projectiles and striking nearby buildings. Where neighboring properties may have items that could affect a primary building operation, consider installing exposing window protection such as plywood or metal panels.
- Pre-arrange Restoration Services: After a widespread disaster, finding contractors to make repairs and restore facilities can be difficult. It always makes sense to establish an agreement or arrangement in advance with desired vendors who can respond as a priority. A restoration company may be the most important pre-arranged relationship. In addition, an electrical, fire protection, and HVAC contractor will be very helpful to have on retainer. Be sure to engage qualified and sufficiently insured contractors your business has vetted in advance.
- Secure Prior to Shutdown: If the business is planning to shut down operations for a period, be sure to consider site security. Every property is different in terms of needs, but sufficient security should include opportunities to observe the property conditions (perhaps cameras if not manned security) and sufficient access management. Double-check pedestrian and overhead dock doors to make sure they are secured. Operable windows should be fully shut and locked. Any outbuildings should also be properly locked and valuable yard items secured.
Kenneth A. Travers is Technical Manager – Property and Product Specialist for the Risk Engineering team at The Hartford. He has more than 42 years of experience in the risk engineering field developing and delivering loss control engineering services and assessment tools for complex businesses with a focus in natural catastrophe, business impact, supply chain, and fire protection engineering applications.