Will your empty property be protected adequately this winter?

Will your empty property be protected adequately this winter?

By Harry Banks, Facilities Manager, Global Guardians

According to the Met Office, winter 2016 was a rather dry and mild one. December 2016 was the eighth mildest December for the UK as a whole in a series since 1910, although well below the exceptional mildness of December 2015, and February 2017 ranked ninth. Having said that, this is the UK and we all know our weather can veer from one extreme to the other from one week to the next as well as one year to the next, as we’ve seen this summer, and initial research of a long term forecast for the 2017/18 winter produces all sorts of predictions. No surprises there!

Preparing for all eventualities to care for a building is therefore a priority for a Facility or Property Manager and this is even more important if the property is partially or wholly unoccupied, especially over the winter months.

Although heavy snowfalls are rare in and around London and along the south coast, this isn’t the case in the rest of the country; the farther north one goes, the more familiar white winters are. Did you know snow weighs approximately 20 lbs per cubic foot? However, for every inch of ice under it, you need to add another 5lbs, and if the roof is flat the snow will hold more moisture so if there is sleet and rain as well, the weight of the snow will become quite serious and the potential for a collapse becomes more likely. You might think this is an extremely remote eventuality, but bad winters, or a sudden very cold snap do happen, and the UK gets plenty of rain, ice and sleet as well as snow, so unless a property is monitored, disaster could loom. Also, going up on a roof to clear accumulated heavy snowfall is not a job for amateurs… if the snow has been sitting for a while, the roof could be buckling underneath and an unsuspecting maintenance operative could end up going through it. It’s a good idea to look at the internal ceiling first to check it isn’t sagging or if there are any creaking noises. Better to be safe than sorry.

But back to the average winter and the bigger problem of rain and water damage generally, something we suffer from everywhere.  Flooding has been in the news for the last few years, everywhere from Cornwall to Yorkshire, but even average winter rain needs to be considered where empty properties are concerned.

It’s amazing how many FMs aren’t familiar with the small print of the insurance policies they have in place to cover their buildings. What’s relevant for an occupied building isn’t necessarily the case for one that isn’t, even temporarily, and some policies may have specific cold weather requirements, particularly when it comes to inspections, or caveats as to what constitutes occurrences like, e.g. ‘storm damage’; ‘accidental cover’ isn’t often included and some weather related damage could be covered by this. Also, DIY inspections and risk assessment may seem a cost saving idea but might be false economy. Trained inspectors know what to look for and what preparations should be put in place to avoid non-compliance with policy stipulations.

So, to your master plan to ensure your vacant property is monitored and cared for over the winter months. The following are some hints and tips of items you need to ensure have been covered by your inspectors:

What has happened to the roofs over the summer? Did the very hot spell we experienced cause shrinkage or melting of the asphalt or tar paper? Conversely, when it wasn’t hot and rained heavily, has this caused a build up of silt, moss or vegetation? Vegetation and moss can indicate that water is being held in sufficient quantity to allow growth and this can affect the timber sub-surface, ultimately leading to warping, ponding and internal leakage. For ordinary roofs, a simple check should be done to ensure no tiles are gapping or missing. A poorly maintained roof could cause problems in a winter storm.

Just look at an example of the damage caused by a flat roof leak in a former youth centre: the beautiful parquet floor needed drying out and replacing, the ceiling had to be re-done and the roof above it re-laid.

What have the wildlife been doing over the spring and summer? Old birds’ or squirrels’ nests could block gutters and pipes and stop the free flow of water if they get wet and then freeze. Have squirrels got into the roof space through the eaves or uncovered ventilation outlets? Their chewing causes untold damage to wood. Other vermin and pests should also be eradicated.

Autumn leaves are of course a major hazard and it should go without saying that all guttering, pipes and drains are checked. Water that cannot escape could seep in anywhere over the long term and rot roofs, insulation and cause internal attic or basement flooding.

Ensure airbricks and other ventilation in walls are clear and check for any mould as this can be a health risk if left untreated.

Is there adequate insulation in the property, and in particular, are all the water pipes insulated? They should be if the building is empty unless the water system has been drained down. Stagnant water in tanks is a breeding ground and could possibly lead to legionnaires disease in a worst case scenario.  Some insurance policies require a minimum of fifteen degrees to be maintained inside a building, even if it’s empty. Again, check your small print.

Continuing on the pipe theme, old lead and copper ones are a temptation for thieves so do think about the security of these and what runs through them, whether it is water or gas. Ideally, all utilities should be switched off, but this isn’t always practicable or possible, so at least ensure the stopcocks and switches are secured. In the event of unauthorised access, i.e. squatters or vagrants, this will help deter reinstatement and unauthorised use of the utilities.

Finally, ensure all windows and doors open and close properly and aren’t warped or leaking. The need for this is two-fold. Firstly to prevent water ingress or water freezing if it gets between old double glazing as it could then expand and break the glass. Secondly, any potential entrances that look easy to break through are a temptation to squatters or the homeless. As the weather worsens in winter, the need to seek shelter from the elements increases.

Once all the above has been done, while the winter months progress, do ensure there are regular checks and inspections to ensure everything is as it should be, and repair any damage as quickly as possible to prevent a simple situation from deteriorating. Also, do keep proof of the inspections with the use of proper paperwork; again compliance to insurers’ requirements is important so as not to invalidate your cover.

Having covered the basics of preparing a vacant property for winter, there is one key measure that can ensure all the above is encompassed in one fell swoop and can even reduce insurance costs, not to mention council tax. Simply install a property guardian in the building. By doing this, you have someone in situ 24/7 who can keep an eye on both the interior and exterior and grounds and also keep out squatters and vagrants.

Property guardians are sometimes a misunderstood service or still unknown option to a lot of facilities managers or property owners, and there are unfortunately cowboys out there who bring the industry a bad name. However, the use of a reputable and ethical guardian company, such as industry leader Global Guardians, will ensure your property is properly maintained, looked after and secured, often at no cost to the owner or management, with their outgoings such as insurance and tax, considerably lowered. An easy solution and no matter what the British winter throws at us, your vacant property would be in the best of hands.


Will your empty property be protected adequately this winter?