Winter or not, it's always the right time for businesses to plan for long-term protection from one of the quieter natural hazards: consistent sub-freezing temperatures, or deep freeze. Planning ahead provides a valuable return on a modest investment, making a big difference should a freeze happen.
Although the climate is getting warmer, deep freeze remains a surprisingly pervasive threat. Warm places can still get dangerously cold, and that can be catastrophic for unsuspecting businesses. As we saw over Christmas 2022 with winter storm Elliott, the Deep South is vulnerable to deep freeze, which can knock out power, break water pipes, and otherwise disrupt business.
Elliott cost the U.S. an estimated US$5.4 billion in insured loss. Although it hit the Northern U.S. hard as you might expect, four of the five hardest-hit states were in the South.
One of them, Georgia, ranked the fourth-hottest state with an average temperature of 66 F (19 C), saw major disruption. Athens temperatures hit a 23-year low. Tens of thousands of Georgians were without power, not just from typical downed powerlines or demand surges, but also from natural-gas supply disruptions. Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport cancelled more than 100 flights on the day after Christmas. Local news reported pipes burst all over the city, leaving many residents stranded in their homes without water.
Dominos kept falling, with burst pipes causing water pressure to plummet. "We are finding there are warehouses, businesses, schools, and churches that have been closed due to the holiday that have broken pipes that have gone unreported," said Clayton County Water Authority General Manager H. Bernard Franks. "This results in major water loss for our system."
Freeze a risk everywhere
Even as humanity heads toward a dangerous "point of no return" with respect to climate goals, freezing temperatures threaten property in virtually every square mile of the United States and much of the rest of the world. When water freezes, it expands, ripping holes in copper. When temperatures eventually rise, water gushes everywhere, into carpets, walls, and ceilings, sometimes closing entire floors of commercial buildings.
During a recent extended cold spell, sprinkler pipes in the unheated ceiling cavities of a hospital froze and subsequently burst, drenching carpet, drywall, data center servers, drugs, and sterilized surgical instruments. A number of surgeries were canceled or postponed.
A library recently lost power in a cold spell. Although that's not news, the emergency generator wouldn't start because of frozen fuel and coolant. HVAC water lines and the fire sprinkler system also froze and burst, dousing more than 250,000 books and 28,000 maps. Mold developed and the library was closed for six weeks.
In 2021, The Great Texas Freeze broke records for its duration (8 days, 23 hours, and 23 minutes), and at least 4.5 million people lost power. It was part of winter storm Uri, which caused US$30 billion in losses.
It's important to know that freeze damage often occurs after some sort of change in a facility, e.g., forgetting to replace insulation after a repair, or leaving a window or door open. Water systems are often the primary freeze objects, but industrial production processes are also vulnerable. For example, condensation in instruments can freeze, interrupting signals, damaging equipment, and causing extended periods of downtime.
Perfect time to prepare
Ready to reduce your risk? Here are some tips for protecting against deep freeze:
- Designate a "weather watcher" to monitor conditions, warn colleagues, and set the emergency response team in motion.
- Prepare portable heaters.
- Place thermometers in hard-to-heat areas.
- Don't shut down operations in unusually cold weather.
- For areas with a freeze history, drain water from equipment or add antifreeze.
- Ensure doors and windows are closed and insulation is intact.
- Keep all areas of the building and equipment at 40 F (3 C) or higher.
- Secure a second fuel source for heating if one is interruptible.
- Drain idle equipment, remove low points and dead ends.
- Provide alarms for important piping systems.
- Install windbreaks to protect outdoor equipment and instruments.
- Remove snow as soon as possible from roofs, equipment and roads.
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