Winterizing Your Building Keeping Jack Frost - and Expenses - At Bay

Winter is the harshest season when it comes to wear-and-tear on residential buildings. Not only does ice collect in cracks and spaces between bricks and masonry, contributing to façade deterioration, but salt also erodes surfaces, boilers and steam pipes work overtime, and more hours of darkness mean higher electrical and gas bills.

By taking some relatively inexpensive preparatory and maintenance measures, however, a building super or even a unit owner can minimize damage and higher operating costs. When late summer and early fall hit, it's time to make a winterization checklist. And although the building superintendent can do most of what's on it on his or her own, when it comes to boiler maintenance it's a good idea to consult a professional, who can properly inspect, clean and repair the pipes. Aside from escalating costs, the consequences of an unkempt building, include tainted air, structural damage, and unhappy tenants.

Battening Down the Hatches

What matters most when preparing for winter, according to R. Neal Eisenberg, director of corporate development for Gotham Waterproofing and Restoration, a Staten Island-based firm, is having a basic understanding of the building's interior and exterior conditions. "Without understanding the building, it's very difficult to prepare a proper course of action for any preparatory or corrective measures that are necessary," he says.

The Superintendents Club of New York President Peter Grech recommends starting with the outside, with the jobs that are easily neglected. Any outdoor plumbing, such as hose cuffs on the roofs or in outdoor gardens, should be shut off and bled. Otherwise, Grech warns, "they'll freeze, break and leak. So that's one of the most important things."

It's equally important to close all bulkhead doors tightly and fit them with weather stripping at the bottom; otherwise snow piles up, and, when it melts, seeps through. Be sure to tightly close the hallway and bulkhead room windows as well. Drains should be cleared of leaves, and when it comes to heating, the boilers should be vetted out and overhauled in preparation for winter.

Coming Up All Wet

Leaky roofs cause much of the damage buildings sustain during winter. Therefore, Grech says, the super "has to check the roof itself and make sure there are no tears or rips." He should look for anything through which water might enter, such as loose mortar, or cracks in the parapet walls.

Grass growing on the roof - a sure indication of leaky bricks and mortar - is another trouble sign. The latter allows water to enter, freeze and expand, which, over the course of time, makes a crack grow. If a super has perimeter hot-water heating, Grech says, he should look under the windows with binoculars every week for ice buildup, which is indicative of a radiator leak. "Sometimes [water] doesn't go down straight, it just leaks out through the wall, and in time it will go into someone else's apartment," he cautions.

The super also should check the window seals, Grech says, but adds that he cannot - and should not - inspect the entire building alone. "If it's a small building, he or the agent or someone from the building could use a good pair of binoculars, and just go up and down and look for anything obvious," Grech explains. "If you find something, in most cases a professional has to address it."

"In understanding a building, probably the most important thing to do is to assign one or more people to the task who are knowledgeable in the areas of design and construction," Eisenberg adds. He says most time the people who inspect the building come from either the executive board or a different background altogether, and don't fully understand the building's needs. Eisenberg says if that's the case, "they should really deal with a consultant or some type of an engineer or a design professional who can assist them in the assessment of the property."

Seasonal changes in the building's components, such as the mortar, bricks, seals and caulking, over time wreak havoc on a building's structural integrity. "Building materials have different co-efficient of expansion," Eisenberg says. "They expand and contract at different rates at different temperatures." Therefore, he continues, they must adjust for their connection to other materials. A joint connection sealed with ruptured caulking - which creates a penetration point for either cold or moisture to enter the building - is one of the places in which damage can occur. That can then spread to other components, such as wood sills and plaster walls.

Masonry, which includes brick, stone or concrete precasts, should also be carefully inspected. Trouble can start with something as simple as the bricks' absorbency rate being greater than what it should be. If the elements get through, over time the structural steel corrodes, leading to more serious structural problems.

Other troublesome areas include the connections between the roof and the sidewalls and flashings, which contractors who don't understand those connections often repair improperly. "In many cases, these are not looked after in the way that they should," Eisenberg points out. "Either they're sealed off too tightly or they're not attached properly or a variety of other things might be present." Damage then occurs either inside the building or down through the wall system.

Windows of Opportunity

Windows, another potential penetration point, require special considerations as well, starting with which kind of window is there, ranging from thermal, metal or plastic or wooden frame, to name a few. "The type of window becomes part of what you need to do to winterize it," Eisenberg explains. He says they must be adequately sealed around the perimeters of their connection to other materials and properly glazed or sealed where the glass meets the frame. If they have weep holes, those must be working.

According to Michael Damelin, president of Cityproof Windows in Long Island City, there's more than just water that can get in through a poorly fitted or poorly maintained window. "You have draft infiltration, you have dirt infiltration, that could damage carpeting or furniture," says Damelin. Aside from grit and damaging UV rays getting in, heat seeping out from around windowpanes cost buildings money. According to Damelin, with refitted or replaced windows, "Energy savings [for a building] can approach almost 30 percent, if an entire apartment or building is done, all other things being equal. You're able to control the energy loss through the windows."

Getting Steamed

After plugging all cracks, leaks and window seals, the heating and insulation require attention. Once again, the most obvious tasks come first, such as checking for windows or doors that have drafts. Grech says simple insulation from a hardware store fixes those quite effectively.

He adds that steam and hot water pipes should be well insulated, especially in areas where the basement is not heated. The insulation around the roof tank and its pipes should be checked as well, otherwise they tend to freeze and crack. Equipment on the roof, Grech says, such as makeup water for any particular system, should be insulated, and the heating must be in working order.

Grech says boilers require a preseason overhaul, which involves cleaning the tubes, the chimney, and the back and breaching area. The bottom of the chimney should be cleaned, the tubes vacuumed and brushed, and the burner adjusted.

Boiler and furnace maintenance starts with supers, most of whom, Eisenberg says, are licensed to deal with furnaces. Repairs depend upon the age of the furnace and whether it is oil or gas-burning. "Usually, a super can make sure that the basic operations are functioning and do some basic immediate repairs, but if the system itself is cracked or there's some major problem, then it needs a professional," Eisenberg says.

Steam and water pipes must be inspected for cracks, openings or gaps, and to see if they need insulation. A professional should check the latter for asbestos, which many older buildings once used as insulation, and at least once a year it should be checked for other contaminants as well.

Prevention Starts at Home

Tenants and owners can take several simple steps both to keep warm this winter and to avoid higher costs come spring. "The most important thing you need to look at is your penetrations from the exterior," Eisenberg advises. The windows, including the glass itself, the seals and the sills, should be in good shape and draft-free. Cracks in the plaster can easily be sealed, and weather stripping, which is inexpensive and easy to install on the bottoms of doors, reduces energy costs by keeping heat in.

"If the building is sealed pretty tight, then you're not going to have any draft coming in, and you won't be losing any heat," Grech says. He reiterates that the roof area is crucial to energy conservation, because heat rises. If one encounters any cracks in the bulkhead or stairwell doors, he says, the heat will escape, but if they are sealed tightly, they're fine.

Fluorescent bulbs and dimmers also reduce energy bills. "The new bulbs are very good, even though they are not incandescent," Grech says. "People are putting them in apartments because they like them. They get the same feeling as a regular light bulb, they last much longer, and the energy savings are tremendous." At the very least, he continues, the building should use them in all common areas and storage rooms.

A Matter of Scheduling

Most of those tasks, especially those involving seals and mortar, should be done after the heat of summer but before winter. That, Eisenberg explains, is because of the expansion and contraction factor inherent in thermal cycles.

Immediately following Labor Day, Grech says, "the super should be looking at the roof and the bricks, because if he does find something, by the time you bring in a professional, it may take five weeks." Grech recommends bringing a Polaroid camera with which to snap shots of faulty areas, which can then be sent to the manager.

He says the boiler should be examined during summer, when maintenance and repair companies are the least busy. "The boiler should be looked at two or three times a week," Grech adds. "That's where you would waste a lot of your energy." He says that for every quarter of an inch of soot buildup on boiler pipes, one loses eight percent efficiency. The soot acts as insulation and prevents effective heat transfer, and if moisture is present, the soot will react and start corroding the metal.

After doing the major walkthrough and corrections, it's just a matter of going through the building on a daily basis to make sure things are up to par. Savings percentages vary from building to building, but they can be substantial, especially as the cost of heating increases. "People have to balance out the cost to repair vs. the savings in dollars," Eisenberg says. "It's not only the dollars that people should look at, but it's the consideration of the eventual additional costs if these minor items are not attended to." He recommends that boards have a long-range maintenance program and a repair reserve. "The most important thing that I think any building can do is look to the future," Eisenberg says.

For more information regarding winterization and building maintenance, visit

Michael McDonough is a freelance writer living on Long Island.

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  • Very detailed and imfortative document.I am a Hotel Operational Professional who is in a transition into Property Management field.Very Helpful,