DSNews Article Preserve and Protect
Alan Jaffa, CEO of Safeguard Properties, contributed an article to DSNews titled, Preserve and Protect.
Preserve and Protect
By: Alan Jaffa, CEO of Safeguard Properties 11/01/2010
Instituting Proper Winterization Procedures Will Help Prevent Water and Ice Damage from Flooding the Budget and Leaving Your Company in the Cold
Ask any field services expert, and he or she will tell you: When the mercury dips, winterization issues rise in unoccupied homes. One of the most costly problems to fix?and the least expensive to prevent?is water damage that results from frozen pipes in vacant properties. Yet every winter season, millions of dollars are spent to repair and replace walls, ceilings, foundations, floors, pipes, water tanks, heating systems, and plumbing fixtures that have been broken or ruined by water and ice.
Even the most carefully performed winterization can miss a minor plumbing defect that deteriorates under freezing temperatures and causes major water damage. However, the vast majority of winterization damage results from carelessness or improper procedures.
For these reasons, investing in recruitment, training, and certification of qualified winterization contractors, as well as ongoing quality control procedures and communications, is critical to prevent serious water and freeze damage and minimize costly repairs to properties.
IDENTIFYING THE RIGHT SYSTEM
Homes have vastly different plumbing and heating systems depending on age, type, and climate in which they are located. Identifying the proper system and following the correct procedure for each kind of system is the most important first step, because it will prevent the vast majority of winterization errors.
The most common heating systems include dry, steam, and radiant heat. While freeze damage can occur with all three types, typically the most expensive problems occur with radiant systems. Radiant systems utilize loops through which hot water passes. A qualified contractor should drain all loops as well as the boiler used to heat the water. If any of these loops contains moisture, freeze damage will occur.
Additionally, radiant systems are becoming more common in higher-end homes to heat floors; thus, if freeze damage occurs, repairing the system may require tearing up floors to reach the pipes.
To address complex issues and the multitude of situations that can occur with each system, it is critical that winterization contractors be experienced and licensed and that they have licensed plumbers on call to effectively address any issues that may arise in the field.
ADDRESSING THE WATER SOURCE
Ensuring that a water source is turned off and will remain off is critical in vacant properties, where weeks may pass between inspections and undetected water damage could be significant. In addition to flooding basements, frozen and burst water pipes can turn a home into a virtual ?ice castle? that can cost tens of thousands of dollars to remediate and repair.
Whether a property?s water source is a city line, private well system, shared well system, or any other type, the water must be turned off at its source. Contractors then will take additional steps to prevent water from entering the house even if the water source is turned back on in error or if a shut-off malfunctions.
One precaution is to install a ?zip tie? fastener to the main shut-off valve to prevent it from being turned on. For additional reinforcement, a contractor may install a cast-iron ?nipple? that threads into the water meter connection. Zip ties cost pennies, and a nipple costs only a dollar. They take only a few minutes to install and are critical to preventing water from entering a property and causing damage.
It is important to note that some cities prohibit contractors from touching a home?s water meter. Therefore, property preservation companies must maintain a database of those municipalities and advise contractors accordingly. Property preservation companies also must communicate with those cities to discuss alternative steps that may be taken to ensure water is effectively cut off from a property.
THE CHALLENGE OF ADJOINING UNITS
Condominiums pose a particular winterization challenge because they share walls, floors, and ceilings with other units. Failure to winterize a unit properly not only can damage the targeted unit but also adjoining units that may be occupied. The cost of inconvenience and damages to occupied and furnished adjoining units can be significant.
For this reason, the preferred alternative to protect a condominium in winter months is to leave the utilities on and maintain sufficient heat to prevent pipes from freezing. Because utilities may be shared or utility charges built into condominium fees, it is often necessary to coordinate this process with the management of a condominium association.
WINTERIZING, REWINTERIZING, AND DEWINTERIZING
After the water has been turned off, it is still present in the traps and bends of plumbing as well as in boilers. Any standing water, even a trace amount, can expand and crack fixtures in freezing temperatures, causing serious and expensive repairs. To ensure a winterization is performed completely and accurately, contractors must follow a step-by-step process (see sidebar on Page 52), utilizing a winterization checklist, and must verify each step with photo documentation.
After a winterization, the plumbing must be dewinterized carefully, so systems can be inspected and restored for a prospective buyer. In many cases, a property will be dewinterized and rewinterized numerous times before it eventually transfers to a new owner. Preferably, the contractor that performed the winterization also will perform the dewinterization to check for tampering, age-related problems, and other issues.
In a dewinterization, contractors follow a similar systematic procedure to a winterization. The process begins with air-pressure testing; then the water is slowly restored. The contractor waits about 45 minutes and continuously inspects the property to check for any water leaks.
Systems can become compromised and seriously damaged when someone without proper knowledge or training enters the property and attempts to restore the plumbing system. This can happen, for example, in REO properties with a prospective purchaser and an agent who may not be experienced in winterization procedures.
Effective communications between property preservation companies and real estate brokers are critical to make sure that dewinterization and rewinterization procedures are followed carefully and the integrity of the plumbing system is maintained.
TRAINING, CERTIFICATION, AND QUALITY CONTROL
Property preservation companies should take great care in recruiting and training qualified contractors to perform winterizations and providing ongoing support and tools to maintain the highest quality standards.
Winterization contractors must demonstrate that they have sufficient experience with plumbing and heating systems and have quality control procedures in place for the work they perform. To become certified, they must undergo a series of training modules through their property preservation companies, often taken online.
Contractors also are taken into the field to perform practicals with a quality control field representative. Even after a contractor is certified, quality control representatives continue to conduct random checks of their work to be sure that winterizations are performed consistently at the highest quality.
It is important that contractors have tools and resources available to them to ensure that they perform winterizations consistently and accurately. In many circumstances, contractors are working in cold weather, unheated homes, and often wet or damp surroundings. Tools such as an automated checklist help contractors perform more effectively. Contractors utilize laptops in the field to access the checklist, which opens tasks automatically and requires the contractor to verify completion of each step in succession before continuing to the next step.
Contractors also must have access to call-in resources to address unusual circumstances that occur in the field. They also should have ready access to manufacturers? information to address any unique characteristics of a particular system.
In a housing market where vacant properties sit for longer periods of time in cold climates, proper winterization measures are the best investment to protect the value and integrity of a property. Remediating and repairing a home damaged by ice and water can cost a bundle, which means undertaking the proper steps to prevent the damage from occurring in the first place is a sure way to put the freeze on surplus fees.
8-POINT WINTERIZATION PROCESS
While specific tasks may vary depending on the type of system, in general, the winterization process follows these standard steps.
1. Disconnecting the Water Supply ? Water is turned off at the curb or other source. A zip tie is installed on the main shut-off valve, the water meter is disconnected, and the main water line plugged.
2. Draining the System ? Gas or electric to the water heater is turned off. The water heater is drained. If present, wells and holding tanks are drained, and electric to the well pump is disconnected. All toilet tanks and bowls are drained.
3. Blowing the Lines ? Faucets and valves are closed. A compressor is attached, and pressure is built to 35 PSI. One faucet valve at a time is opened?first hot, then cold. The contractor must verify whether water or air came out of valves and faucets and report whether all water has been removed from the system.
4. Pressure Testing the System ? All water must be drained from the system. Faucets and valves are closed and pressure is built to 35 PSI. The contractor must report whether pressure held for 30 minutes. If the system fails to hold pressure, the contractor must document the reason for the failure.
5. Adding Anti-Freeze ? Anti-freeze is added to all toilets, both the bowl and the tank. It is added to all sink traps, shower and tub traps, floor drains, and dishwasher drains.
6. Posting Stickers and Notices ? Winterization notification stickers are applied to toilets, showers, tubs, water heater, water meter, dishwasher, and all sinks. Additionally, toilet wrap is installed on all toilets to further ensure they are not used. Notices are posted at the entryways of the home advising anyone entering that the property has been winterized and warning against the use of any plumbing fixtures.
7. Addressing Radiant or Steam Heat Systems ? If a property has radiant or steam heat, in addition to the steps above, the contractor must drain the boiler, loosen bleeder pins to allow draining, drain the expansion tank, blow heating loops, pressure test the heating system, and apply a winterization sticker to the boiler.
8. Making On-Site Notifications ? Contractors must call from the site if the property has a fire-suppression system, a lawn sprinkler system, or the presence of unusual circumstances. In these cases, contractors will follow additional procedures.
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Safeguard Properties is the largest privately held field services company in the country. Located in Cleveland, Ohio and founded in 1990 by Robert Klein, Safeguard has grown from a regional preservation company with a few employees and a handful of contractors performing services in the Midwest, to a national company with over 800 employees. Safeguard is supported by a nationwide network of subcontractors able to perform any requested superintendence, preservation, and maintenance functions, as well as numerous ancillary services in the U.S., the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico.