For commercial buildings, the winter season brings more than just an increase in employee sick days and the corporate holiday party. It introduces a challenge that can impact productivity, comfort, and the overall safety of your workplace: the risk of frozen pipes.
Commercial building winterization is a preventative measure that safeguards your property and keeps your business running smoothly during the colder months. Preventing frozen pipes should be a top priority for any commercial building owner, business owner, or facility manager.
In this guide, our Lee Company experts will cover the essentials of winterizing a commercial facility so you have actionable steps to protect your property and guarantee a seamless transition into the winter season.
The Causes and Consequences of Frozen Pipes
Why do pipes freeze, and what havoc can they wreak on your property? Understanding these basics will help you prioritize winterization tasks to prevent frozen pipes.
Why Pipes Freeze
The primary cause of frozen pipes is exposure to below-freezing temperatures. When water in a pipe freezes, it expands and creates pressure inside the pipe that leads to cracks or bursts.
This pressure can be powerful enough to rupture even the strongest pipes, leading to a serious plumbing emergency and costly repairs.
Pipes are most susceptible to bursting when temperatures drop significantly, but there are other specific factors to consider as well:
- Pipes located in areas without adequate insulation are more likely to freeze.
- Pipes that are exposed to the harsh winter elements, especially those on the exterior of the building or in unheated interior spaces, are at a higher risk.
- A thermostat set too low can create conditions ripe for freezing pipes.
- Defective pipes with cracks or leaks, or those that are past their prime, are more vulnerable to freezing.
- Inactive buildings or areas with insufficient heating can lead to frozen pipes during prolonged periods of cold weather.
Why Is It Bad When Water Pipes Freeze in a Building?
The damage from frozen pipes can be extensive and costly. Commercial plumbing pipes typically range from two to four inches in diameter, and the potential water flow rates from a burst pipe are staggering.
For a 2-inch pipe, the flow rate can be as much as 850 gallons per minute. Increase that pipe size to 4 inches, and you could be looking at a catastrophic 3,400 gallons per minute!
Imagine the impact on your building if a pipe were to burst and go unnoticed, even for a short period. The water damage could affect the building’s structure, as well as any inventory, equipment, or assets housed within it. And the aftermath of water damage can create the perfect conditions for mold growth, posing health risks and requiring professional remediation.
Water damage is one of the main causes of insurance claims in commercial real estate, with repair and restoration bills often averaging around $24,000. The most extreme individual claims can see damages that approach the $5 million mark.
These statistics underscore the importance of preventing frozen pipes in commercial buildings. Not only does it protect property and everything in it, but it also protects against potential financial losses and operational disruptions.
Winterization Checklist for Commercial Properties
A comprehensive winterization checklist for your commercial property should include both exterior and interior components. Starting early (we recommend at least two months before temperatures regularly dip below freezing) and covering all these bases can help minimize the likelihood of frozen pipes.
Exterior Winterization Checklist
- Insulate Outdoor Faucets and Hose Bibs: Use insulated covers to protect outdoor faucets from freezing temperatures. This simple step can prevent water from freezing inside the pipe, which is a common cause of bursts.
- Inspect Irrigation Systems: If your commercial property has an irrigation system, make sure to have it inspected and drained before winter sets in.
- Seal Cracks and Openings: Check the building’s exterior for any cracks or openings and seal them to prevent cold air from entering and warm air from escaping. This not only helps in preventing frozen pipes but also improves energy efficiency, resulting in reduced expenses.
- Clear Gutters and Downspouts: Clear all gutters and downspouts of debris to prevent ice dams, which can cause water to back up and freeze in the pipes.
- Maintain Proper Drainage: Verify that the property has proper drainage to prevent water accumulation, which can lead to frozen pipes and other structural damage.
Interior Winterization Checklist
- Insulate Vulnerable Pipes: Pipes located in unheated areas of the building, such as basements, attics, and crawl spaces, should be insulated. Pipe insulation is a cost-effective way to prevent freezing and can also improve energy efficiency.
- Keep the Building Warm: Maintain a consistent temperature throughout the building, even in unoccupied areas and during non-business hours. This helps prevent cold air from seeping into the building and keeps pipes warmer. It might cost a bit more in heating bills, but trust us, it’s worth it to avoid the expense of burst pipes.
- Allow Faucets to Drip: In extremely cold conditions, allowing faucets to drip slightly can keep water moving through the pipes, reducing the risk of freezing.
- Know the Location of Your Main Water Shut-Off Valve: In the event of a pipe burst, knowing where the main water shut-off valve is located and how to turn it off is the most important action you can take in response.
- Insulate Attics and Crawl Spaces: Properly insulating and ventilating attics and crawl spaces can help keep pipes in these areas from freezing.
- Monitor the Building: Periodically check for any leaks or signs of frozen pipes, such as odd noises or decreased water pressure. Catching these issues early can prevent more extensive damage.
Addressing Frozen Pipes in Commercial Properties
Identifying frozen pipes quickly is the best way to prevent emergencies. But how do you spot the signs and, more importantly, what actions should you take once you’ve discovered them?
Identifying Frozen Pipes
Frozen pipes often reveal themselves through subtle cues:
- A noticeable drop in water pressure.
- Strange gurgling noises
- Visible frost on exposed pipes.
- Bulging, cracks, or splits in the pipes.
In commercial buildings, where pipes may run through extensive and hidden areas, regular inspections during colder months are critical. If you notice any of the above signs, you’ll need to react quickly.
Thawing Techniques and Precautions
With a quick response of thawing the frozen pipes, you may be able to avoid a costly and potentially damaging burst. Depending on the location of the pipes, here are a few techniques you can use to thaw the pipes:
- Before you start, open the faucet that the pipe feeds into. This allows water to flow through and helps to relieve any built-up pressure.
- Use a hair dryer, heat lamp, or portable heater to apply heat to the frozen section of the pipe. Never use an open flame or blowtorch. This can damage the pipe and cause a fire hazard.
- Never try to thaw a pipe too quickly, as this can actually cause it to burst. Slow and steady is the way to go.
- Once water flow is restored, insulate the pipe to prevent future freezing.
If you’re unable to locate the frozen section, if the pipe is not easily accessible, or if thawing attempts are unsuccessful, don’t hesitate to call a plumber for commercial buildings.
Lee Company has the expertise and tools to quickly address the issue and our technicians can provide valuable advice on preventing frozen pipes in the future.
Preparing for Periods of Inactivity or Vacations
For many businesses, winter brings reduced operating hours or even closures for extended periods. There are specific steps you should take so that, upon your return, you won’t encounter any unwelcome frozen pipe surprises.
Winterizing During Extended Absences
- Turn Off the Water Supply: This might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s a critical step in preventing frozen pipes. By shutting off the main water supply, you eliminate the risk of water sitting in the pipes and potentially freezing.
- Drain the Pipes: Once the water supply is off, open all faucets and drain the pipes completely. This ensures that no water is left inside to freeze. Don’t forget to flush the toilets to clear water from the tanks and bowls.
- Insulate Exposed Pipes: Even when the water is turned off, and pipes are drained, it’s a good idea to insulate any pipes that are exposed to the cold. This adds an extra layer of protection and is a key aspect of any frozen pipe prevention checklist.
- Secure the Property: Check that all windows and doors are properly sealed to prevent cold drafts. If your commercial facility has a heating system that can be set to a low temperature, consider keeping it on to provide some warmth and circulation.
- Consider Turning Off the Water Heater: If you’ll be gone for an extended period, consider turning off your water heater to save energy and prevent any potential malfunctions.
Additional Tips for Winter Maintenance in Commercial Buildings
Winterizing a commercial facility goes beyond just preventing frozen pipes; it’s about ensuring the entire building is ready to withstand the cold. Have you considered all aspects of winter preparation?
Below are some additional tips to ensure your property is fully fortified against winter’s chill:
Commercial HVAC Maintenance
- Ensure your heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are in top-notch condition. Regular commercial HVAC maintenance checks can prevent unexpected breakdowns during the coldest months.
- Replace filters for optimal airflow and efficiency. This simple step can make a significant difference in the performance of your heating system.
Insulating and Sealing
- Check the seals around windows and doors. Even small drafts can lead to significant heat loss. Weather stripping or caulking can be a quick fix to keep the warmth in and the cold out.
- As we mentioned earlier, properly insulating and ventilating attics and crawl spaces can help keep pipes in these areas from freezing. It can also reduce heating costs and help regulate indoor temperatures.
- Make sure that parking lots and walkways are promptly cleared of snow and ice. This ensures the safety of employees and customers.
- Confirm your roof is in good condition and free of any leaks. Heavy snow or ice buildup can cause significant damage if the roof isn’t structurally sound.
- Trim any overhanging branches or trees that could potentially fall onto the building if they break under the weight of snow or ice.
- Clearing gutters and downspouts of leaves and debris helps direct water away from the building, preventing water damage to the structure and foundation.
- Any machinery or equipment stored outside should be adequately protected from the elements and freezing temperatures.
- Make sure all exterior lighting is working reliably. Winter brings shorter days and longer periods of darkness, so adequate lighting is a must for safety and security.
- Do you know what to do if a pipe bursts? Have a clear, well-communicated plan for employees or building occupants to follow.
- Keep a list of emergency contacts, including a reliable plumber for commercial buildings.
- Don’t wait until winter to address potential issues with your plumbing, heating, and electrical systems. Regular inspections throughout the year can identify areas that may need extra attention during colder months. Proactive maintenance is much more affordable than reactive repairs.
- A facility maintenance contract is a valuable investment and can alleviate the stress of maintaining your property on your own, regardless of the season.
After completing the tasks above to get your commercial property fully winterized, rest easy knowing Lee Company is at your service for any commercial plumbing needs in Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, and Georgia!
Our experienced technicians are ready to tackle everything from routine maintenance to emergency repairs so your plumbing systems run smoothly all winter long. We’re here for you 24/7, ready to keep business continuing without interruption. Contact us today to schedule your winterization appointment.
Need help winterizing your building?CALL US NOW AT 615.567.1000