Ready or Not, Here It Comes!
By: Nena Groskind
Snow and ice. Only one is a four-letter word, but both are equally likely to provoke creative invectives from condominium managers and board members, who have to deal with the challenges they create.
Winter begins psychologically, if not officially, with the first snowfall, which triggers a cascade of concerns: It has to be removed – from walkways, driveways and sometimes from roofs; it melts and re-freezes, creating ice, which produces both the risk of slip and fall accidents and in the right (or wrong) conditions, dreaded ice dams. And after the third (or fourth or tenth) consecutive schedule-snarling snowfall, it makes everyone cranky.
For anyone who recalls the winter of 2015 – and who could possibly forget it – ice dams no doubt still appear in recurring nightmares of leaking roofs, water-damaged interiors, angry homeowners and insurance claims. If you missed the endless explanations of what causes the problem, here’s a brief recap.
Ice Dams Explained
The collision of warm air escaping from attics with cold air on the outside creates a vicious cycle: The warm air heats the underside of the roof sheeting and melts the snow, which freezes, melts again and re-freezes, creating a small bump that gets larger every time the cycle is repeated. That small ice bump eventually forms a dam that blocks the water, causing it to back up on the roof and leak into the building.
The root causes of ice dams — inadequate insulation and ventilation in the attic and/or inadequate ice and water shield on the roof ─ suggest the strategies for avoiding them, Jack Carr, P.E., RS, LEED-AP, senior manager at Criterium- Mooney Engineers in Portland, ME, explains.
The best defense, he suggests, is a properly ventilated attic, which will short-circuit the heat-melt-refreeze cycle by preventing moist hot air from accumulating in the attic, so it never reaches the underside of the roof sheeting. The old construction rule-of-thumb called for 150 sq. ft. of ventilation for every 150 sq. ft. of attic space. The current guideline doubles that – specifying 300-325 sq. ft. of ventilation for every 150 sq. ft. of attic space. “The more attic ventilation, the better,” Carr says.
If improving the ventilation isn’t an option, he suggests, the second best line of defense is to prevent the water trapped by ice dams from leaking through the roof.
Traditional building science assumed that heat from overly warm attics could shorten the life of asphalt shingles, Carr explains, but modern research has proven otherwise. “You still have to be concerned about venting moisture from the attic,” he cautions. But if heat isn’t an issue, you can think differently about the installation of ice and water shield on the roof. Instead of laying it in 18’-wide strips from the outside walls – the traditional approach – “you can cover the entire roof and then lay the shingles over that,” creating what is a virtually impenetrable barrier. “There is no way water can penetrate that surface,” Carr says.
Smashing, Melting, and Heating
In a perfect world, most winters would be mild, preventive measures would be in place and effective for those that aren’t, and ice dams would never form. In an imperfect world (the one we occupy), many condominium associations will have to deal with the problem, if they haven’t already. There are a variety of options to consider:
• You can melt the ice dams with chemicals. Calcium chloride is recommended most often. Ice-melt compounds including sodium, calcium and magnesium are also effective, but they can damage some secondary surfaces and may harm plants on which the ice dams melt.
• You can treat ice dams with steam. This is a fairly new technique and highly effective, but also extremely expensive. Some companies were reportedly charging $750 - $950 per hour when the ice dam problem was at its peak a couple of years ago.
• You can install automatic heat tapes in gutters and down spouts. The tapes, activated when ice dam risks develop, are effective. But they are also unattractive, which seems to be one of the reasons few associations are using them.
• You can remove accumulated snow from building rooftops so it won’t melt and refreeze. This is the lowest-cost solution, but it’s not necessarily the best choice: If not done carefully and properly, removal could damage the roof. Asphalt shingles, common in New England, can get brittle in cold temperatures. The rakes and shovels used to remove the snow could break off pieces of the shingles, creating holes and potential leaks. The more aggressively ice dams are attacked, the greater the risks. Damaging the shingles may also void the warranty on your roof, which is another argument if not against removal, than at least in favor of hiring professionals for the task.
Weighing the Risks
Removing snow isn’t always necessary. If temperatures are going to rise following a storm, the heat of the day will take care of the snow; and if you’ve never had ice dams or leaks before, then you may not need to shovel or rake the snow to prevent them. Even if ice dams have been a problem, Carr cautions, you have to weigh the damage removing the snow might cause against the potential damage from ice dams. In most cases, he suggests, “You’re better off dealing with the ice dams.”
Instead of focusing on the roof when contemplating ice dams, Carr suggests, you might want to focus on the gutters. Removing snow and ice from gutters and eaves can reduce ice dam risks, he suggests. Better still, he suggests, remove the gutters altogether. “I hate them. They’re out of sight, or out of reach, so no one thinks to clean them.” If gutters are letting water in, he says, “just get rid of them.” Creating a proper slope that directs water away from the foundation, he says, will prevent it from draining into the basement.
If you decide removal is required, industry experts suggest, you want to leave a one- or two-inch layer of snow on the roof to protect it. You should also have an engineer or architect inspect the roof to be sure it hasn’t been damaged.
Managing the Snow
Condominium association boards and managers have to consider many issues when planning for winter, but none are more important than hiring a reputable snow removal contractor and negotiating a contract that specifies clearly what the contractor is expected to do and how much the association will pay for those services.
When selecting a contractor, size and experience are the most important considerations. You want a company that has both experience dealing with multi-family properties and the resources required to take care of your community.
There is no such thing as too much detail in a snow removal contract, or in any contract, for that matter. A well-drafted contract – you know, the kind an attorney would draft — should eliminate confusion about what the association expects and what the contractor has agreed to do. It will also provide standards against which to measure the contractor’s performance, and provide a basis for assigning liability if the association is sued for a ‘slip-and-fall’ injury. The contract should specify, among other details:
• How much snowfall requires removal.
• How quickly the contractor will respond after the snowfall has ended. (It is best to make the contractor’s response automatic, when snow accumulation or icing reaches a specified level, and not dependent on a request for service.
• How often the contractor will plow during a continuing storm.
• Which areas are to be plowed and where the contractor will deposit the plowed snow.
• What snow removal equipment and de-icing materials the contractor will use, where and how often the materials will be applied.
The contract should also require the contractor to:
• Maintain a specified minimum amount of commercial general liability insurance (at least $1 million), name the association as an “additional insured” on the policy (so the association can file a claim directly against the contractor’s policy) and indemnify the association for damages resulting from anything the contractor does or fails to do.
• Repair any damage to the landscaping caused by the plowing; and
• Notify a designated association representative (the manager or a board member) promptly if unable to respond to a snow event as required for any reason. On this point, the board should consider having back-up arrangements with other contractors, to ensure that the association gets snow removal services if your contractor can’t provide them. The contract should require your vendor to pay for this back-up service if you need it.
Predicting the Unpredictable
Planning ahead for winter includes anticipating and budgeting for its costs, which isn’t difficult – assuming you can predict the weather. If you’re looking for an analogy, throwing darts blindfolded works pretty well. Past may be a good predictor in some areas, but not when it comes to weather. If your crystal ball is less than perfect, there are several budgeting options:
• An hourly rate based on the cost of the equipment used for each storm. While this provides a measure of budgeting control for the association –or the illusion of it —industry executives note the risk that some companies competing for a contract may intentionally under-bid: For example, quoting $100.00 rather than $125.00 per truck but then sending three trucks rather than the two on which their estimate was based. Alternatively, a contractor who quotes the higher per-truck rate may still underbid by sending only two trucks instead of the three the community needs, resulting in shoddy snow removal service.
• Tiered pricing. The contractor quotes a base price for say, up to three inches, scaling up from there at specified increments – four to six inches, eight to ten, etc.
• A flat fee, based on the contractor’s estimate. If the contractor underestimates, the association gets a break, paying for less service than the contractor provides. If the contractor over-estimates, the association pays for services it doesn’t need.
• A hybrid. The contractor quotes a seasonal fee for a specified amount of snow and specifies a charge for every inch above that base amount. More associations seem to be choosing this option, which offers some predictability and (on a multi-year contract) the opportunity to average costs over several seasons. David Abel, executive director of property management at FirstService Residential explains: “You can either reconcile debits or credits annually, or keep rolling them over until the end of the contract term. You’re not eliminating the risk of huge swings from one winter to another, unless you’re very lucky,” he says, “but you are mitigating them. And the more years you do this, the closer to the average you will be.”
Some industry experts suggest reviewing snowfalls over several years, and then budgeting based on the average. That approach can work well, Robert Keegan, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, vice president of residential management at Dirigo Management Company, says – “as long as you don’t underestimate Mother Nature. If the average is 15 snow events,” he suggests, “you want to budget for 20. It’s a lot better to have money left over at the end of a season than to go back to owners and tell them, ‘We didn’t budget enough.’”