Planning For Winter Storms

In Texas, the Alamo Colleges District builds resiliency across its facilities after 2021 winter storm.

By Kyle LeBlanc, P.E.
From the December 2021 Issue

In February 2021, a winter storm had widespread and devastating impacts across the United States. Extended durations of unusually low temperatures and accompanying ice storms created blackouts nationwide and wreaked havoc in several states, especially in Texas. The resulting power grid crisis in that state led to loss of life, and shortages of water, food, and heat. Heat loss caused pipes to freeze and burst in homes, businesses, public buildings, and educational facilities, creating further collateral damage to interior spaces.

The Alamo Colleges District, which serves the Greater San Antonio metropolitan area, was one of the educational facilities that felt the brunt of the storm. The Alamo Colleges, which comprises five main colleges and slightly more than five million square feet of facilities, sustained upwards of $2.4 million in damages.

Alamo Colleges District, Texas
Alamo Colleges District, which serves the Greater San Antonio metropolitan area in Texas, sustained upwards of $2.4 million in damages from the February 2021 storm. (Photo: Lockwood, Andrews & Newnan, Inc.)

Before, During, And After The Storm

The damages would have been more extensive if not for the mitigation efforts performed by the Alamo Colleges facilities personnel. A few days before the storm approached the campus, maintenance personnel worked tirelessly to winterize campus facilities. Water supply pipes were drained and depressurized at every facility to avoid the risk of freeze damage. Maintenance personnel ensured that facilities had enough supplies and fuel for generators.

Unfortunately, four of the five colleges lost power during the winter storm as freezing temperatures and extreme cold weather challenged the power grid. Although many locations throughout the campuses have generators, conditions were so bad that fuel trucks were unable to safely access these locations to refuel backup power sources. Gas stations in nearby areas closed due to power outages and ran out of fuel. Eventually, with temperatures staying low for extended periods and no backup fuel for generators, the mechanical and plumbing systems at eight facilities froze. This resulted in burst pipes and water damage throughout these facilities.

Alamo Colleges District, Texas
Alamo Colleges District’s Northeast Lakeview College during the February 2021 winter storm. (Photo: Alamo Colleges District)

“Just like so many other places in San Antonio, and across the state of Texas, the Alamo Colleges District was not immune to the damages the winter storm caused,” said Gregory L. McClure, associate vice-chancellor, facilities and construction management, of the Alamo Colleges District. “The winter storm left a lot of damage across our colleges despite our best efforts to winterize our facilities prior to the storm.”

In the immediate aftermath, the Alamo Colleges worked with remediation contractors to locate and replace sections of freeze-damaged pipes, coils in air conditioning equipment, and remove and replace damaged ceiling, walls, and floor finishes. In addition to the financial burden, coordinating and addressing remediation efforts required weeks of intensive planning and work.

Evaluation And Recommendations

A month after the initial cleanup, the Alamo Colleges turned to Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam, Inc. (LAN), a national planning, engineering, and program management firm, to develop long-term cold-weather resiliency strategies and building-specific projects.

“We have a long working relationship with the Alamo Colleges,” said Kenneth Gau, P.E., a mechanical engineer at LAN. “We have provided facility condition assessment services to them for more than a decade. So, we are very familiar with their facilities.”

Following meetings with facilities maintenance and building personnel and on-site visits to the facilities, LAN’s team of engineers developed a comprehensive list of projects. On-site visits included examination of damages, observation of post-event remediation, and discussion of actions taken to protect campus assets prior to and during the storm event.

The fundamental goal of the recommended projects and strategies was to prevent water from freezing in vulnerable mechanical and plumbing systems. Also a goal: avoid loss of power, and should power be lost retain available and residual heat in these systems. LAN developed a list of more than 400 potential cold-weather remediation strategies across the five district campus locations as well as satellite locations, amounting to approximately $14 million. The list of cold-weather resiliency and facility planning strategies included:

Alamo Colleges, Texas
Frozen mechanical and plumbing systems resulted in burst pipes. The remediation team focused on preventing water from freezing in these systems. (Photo: Alamo Colleges District)
  1. Install infrastructure to accommodate connection of temporary/mobile generators to provide power for HVAC hydronic pumps.
  2. Install stand-by generators to provide power for freeze protection systems.
  3. Extend generator power to winter resiliency equipment.
  4. Install electric unit heaters and connect to generator power.
  5. Provide insulation and jacketing to exposed backflow preventers on site.
  6. Provide insulated box covers and associated concrete pad at smaller (less than 3 1/2″) backflow preventers.
  7. Add insulation and heat trace to exterior, and interior piping subject to freezing.
  8. Verify operation of all outside air dampers during freeze condition sequences.
  9. Revise/upgrade controls and/or programming to better protect equipment during freeze conditions.
  10. Install motorized outside air dampers and connect to existing building automation systems.
  11. Install accessible main shut-off valves in HVAC piping systems.
  12. 12. Add shut-off and drain valves where applicable to facilitate freeze-protection-by-draining.
  13. Install protective wind screens around roof-mounted HVAC equipment.
  14. Delete or blank out combustion air louvers where not required.
  15. Change out gas-fired equipment to electrical where practical to minimize need for combustion air louvers.
  16. Provide adequate roadways or pathways to allow refueling of diesel generators.
  17. Buy small generators that can be connected at critical locations as needed.
  18. Buy portable heaters for spot heating at critical locations as needed.
  19. Minimize outdoor air requirements in laboratories, kitchens, etc. during winter storms.
  20. Minimize exhaust air.
  21. Verify insulation barriers are contiguous where located on top of lay-in ceilings.

Prioritization And Future Work

After developing this comprehensive list, LAN engineers and the Alamo Colleges facilities team held a second round of discussions. With the understanding that the February 2021 winter storm was an unprecedented event that happens once in 40 years, these recommendations were further prioritized based on the most effective cost/benefit approaches.

Projects that added or facilitated backup power sources, such as installing infrastructure to accommodate connection of temporary/mobile generators, were assigned the highest priorities. In total, more than $1.4 million worth of resiliency improvements, to be implemented over the next two years, were prioritized. Some of these projects will require professional planning and design services, while other projects will be addressed and completed through contracting services.

With specific projects identified and funding dedicated for these solutions, the Alamo Colleges has taken a big step toward making its facilities more resilient in the face of future extreme weather events in the region.

“The historical winter weather storm was a learning lesson for all of us on how we can best mitigate these potential unprecedented circumstances in the future,” said McClure. “We are thankful for LAN’s partnership on finding the best and innovative remediation strategies to protect our facilities for years to come.”

LeBlanc, P.E., is an associate and project manager at Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam, Inc. (LAN), a national planning, engineering, and program management firm.

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  1. What a great list to get started on winterizing a campus. This is a good example of why it’s important to start creating contingency plans, and it shows that it’s never too late to start creating said plan. Thanks for sharing!

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