Winter Worries Protecting People and Property

Winter Worries

Homeowners association and co-op/condo buildings have their work cut out for them when winter arrives; residents may slip and fall on icy sidewalks, roofs can leak, and recreational amenities need looking after. Some of these things can be controlled—and some can't, but it's important for every board/management team to keep an eye out for wintertime conditions that can lead to liability and legal problems, and do what they can to remove the risk.

Slick Sidewalks

A board's interest in safeguarding against slips and falls isn't just out of concern for their residents' well-being; if a snowy walkway or icy steps cause a serious injury, a costly lawsuit can be the result.

Ted Wilson of Advanced Pavement Technologies in Fairfield has seen a lot of co-op and condo buildings deal with sidewalk issues. A sidewalk that's cracked or chipped can ultimately be a danger—and lots of cracks and chips worsen in the winter.

"I see it all the time," Wilson says. "Water can build up between the concrete and the Belgian block [underneath]. When it gets cold, that water turns to ice, causing the pavement to expand and heave, and it becomes a liability."

According to Wilson, there are many ways to prevent slip-and-fall accidents during the winter months. While continuous shoveling during snow and ice storms is probably the first thing that comes to peoples' minds, de-icing products and hardware have come a long way in recent years. In fact, heavy snow shovels and hours of backbreaking work may soon be a thing of the past.

When it comes to snow- and ice-melting products, salt—the old standby—isn't all it's cracked up to be. Wilson warns that by using salt instead of more modern de-icers, HOA maintenance crews are shortening the lifespan of the concrete, creating more opportunities for cracks and chips come spring. "Contractors should be using calcium chlorides instead of salt," Wilson says.

Another weapon in the arsenal against slip-and-fall liability isn't even visible. New paving products using "conductive concrete" can eliminate snow and ice buildup as a storm intensifies and continues. Using heating coils embedded within the paving material itself, conductive concrete eliminates snow and ice as they hit the surface—so no more waiting until the storm stops to go out and shovel.

Such innovations have been particularly popular in active adult and retirement communities. "Obviously as people get older, they are more likely to slip and get injured on ice and snow," says Tom Szarawarski, office manager of Faber Industrial Technologies in Clifton, which distributes snow melting and floor warming systems. "These systems provide a way to keep surfaces safer—and in the long run it's going to be more cost-actually tongiht i wont be onefficient."

"We have a lot of snowmelt installations on stairs, so people don't have to physically go and shovel steps," Szarawarski continues. "Those are automatically controlled, so when it does get cold enough and there is precipitation, it works."

Snow Business

Even with next-generation snow-melt technologies and chemical engineering, snow and ice can still cause damage and liability issues for associations—that's why it's vital for association boards and management to plot their snow removal strategy long before the first flakes fall.

Both Scott Dalley, senior vice president of Access Property Management in Flemington and Arthur Guzzi, manager of the Society Hill Condos in Cherry Hill, agree that maybe the most important job in the autumn season is finalizing plans for snowfall. Guzzi says he plans for snow even earlier than September.

"I get ready for winter in June," he says. "Our HOA has been hammered with snow removal costs in the past, so I've looked for ways to save money. Now I hire bodies in June for snow removal, work out the contracts, and our own in-house staff supervises," he says.

Dalley adds that "snow removal looms large" in the fall, and that a smart manager will make sure all his or her contracts are in line long before the first winter storm. "You should have cell phone numbers for all your snow removal contractors," he says. "And communication with residents is key—the more residents know about plow routes, parking and where to get snow updates, the less chance there is for slips, falls or blocked-in cars."

Ice Damming

One perennial cold-weather problem that might not seem as immediate as a sprained ankle or a plowed-under car is nevertheless a major source of property damage. "Ice damming" is the term used to describe what happens when ice forms in roof gutters and downspouts and creates a dam, resulting in a buildup of water. According to Dalley, the weight of the trapped water and ice can damage gutters and roofs and lead to leaks, causing expensive damage to homes and common areas.

"As it travels down the roof plane, any rain or melted snow will be dammed by the ice," says Andrew Amorosi of The Falcon Group, an engineering consulting firm in Somerville. "It can't get in the gutter, and it can't drain away, so it pools on the roof surface. It usually freezes at night, and melts during the day and gets into the roof interior, then into the units below."

The result is a leak, thanks to the structural damage caused by the constant freeze-and-thaw cycle, and because for the most part, roofs aren't made to handle the weight and constant saturation of large amounts of standing water and ice.

Amorosi says the main reason for ice damming is poor ventilation in the structure below, which results in too much accumulated heat in the attic, which warms the roof. A properly ventilated attic prevents snow from melting.

"In communities more than 15 years old, if the roofs weren't put on perfectly during the original construction, they may start to exhibit problems," says Amorosi. "You can have a great roof that's 17 years old, and then in Year 18, you have 50 leaks. The shingles can become brittle, for example, because—again—improper venting causes premature structural failure, and once the shingles start blistering and cracking, water can get in there and you start to have leaks."

Pooling Your Resources

Along with gutters and roofs anything having to do with water should be thoroughly and securely battened down for the winter—particularly swimming pools. According to Matthew Ettere, owner and sales manager of Perfection Landscaping Inc. in Plainfield, pools should be drained and properly winterized to avoid damage from freezing temperatures, and pool areas policed during the winter months to make sure no one scales the fence to make mischief in the pool enclosure.

According to Kevin Breuche, an owner of Candlewood Management Services in Howell, which handles all aspects of pool management for condo communities and HOAs, winterizing a pool is a multi-step process. The pool's plumbing lines, skimmers, drains, filter tanks and return lines must be emptied of water, and antifreeze added where necessary. If a pool uses a diatomaceous earth filter, the filter and all its parts need to be disassembled and thoroughly cleaned. "It's a much easier process in the fall than it is in the spring," Breuche says.

Some complexes choose to drain their pools entirely for the winter. That may be fine, but Breuche cautions that "You have to make sure you don't have any [groundwater] underneath the pool. If you do, the pool can pop up out of the ground, and you can have extensive damage done. For the most part now, people don't empty them."

Also, the experts remind associations and their staff to be sure to check pool areas regularly during the fall and winter months. If the pool is covered, there should be no branches or debris on the cover, and both the pool area perimeter and the pool cover itself should be securely fastened to prevent any trespassing animals or children from getting in and getting hurt. Make sure your pool area is locked, and keep any equipment like chairs locked up; if they're out, they can tempt kids to hop the fence. There are safety pool covers available that can handle large amounts of weight, but not every cover is a safety cover—and the results of a pet or child getting trapped under a pool cover can be tragic.

Playing Safe

Clearly, an outdoor swimming pool can't stay open year-round. But what about an association's playground? Many stay open throughout the year—but the key factor in deciding whether or not to lock up until spring is whether maximum safety can be maintained through cold temperatures and inclement weather.

One problem that can arise, according to George Herberger of Ben Shaffer & Associates in Lake Hopatcong, a company that handles playground instillation and maintenance, is that play surfaces meant to be springy and soft can freeze and lose their resiliency during the winter. Herberger says that common play surfaces like sand and ordinary wood chips can be especially troublesome when they freeze—but that an engineered wood fiber will hold up better during the winter.

If an HOA is planning to keep its playground equipment available through the winter, Herberger advises refilling or recovering play surfaces in the fall. While it may seem counterintuitive, he says it adds an extra measure of safety during the colder weather. "Seventy percent of [playground] injuries result from a fall to the surface," Herberger says. "If that surface is frozen, you have a problem."

Year-round inspections are also of utmost importance. "You need to conduct a weekly or monthly maintenance inspection [of your equipment]," Herberger says. "The season doesn't matter." You want to make sure that all fasteners are tight, that there are no foreign objects on the grounds or the equipment. Last but not least, if a nice day does pop up in the middle of the winter, make sure there is no icing on the equipment and that the ground isn't frozen. If you see any ice, then close the playground.

While it's been a few years since a truly epic blizzard roared through the Northeast, the truth is that it could happen anytime. Unseasonably warm fall months don't necessarily mean that we'll get off scott free this winter—it could turn bitterly cold, or we could have historic snowfalls in April. Either way, when the weather gets extreme, it's comforting to know that your board/management team has done all it can to protect people and property from the ravages and risks of Old Man Winter.

Hannah Fons is the associate editor of The New Jersey Cooperator. Anthony Stoeckert, Domini Hedderman and Liz Lent contributed research to this article.

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  • If ice damming is caused by internal issues such as leakage of hot air into the attic, is the homeowner association responsible for fixing each home that has ice damming and can they be sued if they don't and damage occurs?
  • I am suing my association for the $1000 deductible on my policy. They failed to remove an ice dam, it leaked inside, and it took them 26 hours after I called to come and remove the dam.