More Than Pipes Freeze

The big fear we always have around cold weather and buildings is pipes freezing. If a pipe bursts, there’s going to be water damage and that can lead to millions of dollars in property and equipment issues. Imagine a pipe flooding a computer room or dousing a multimillion dollar MRI machine? It turns out however, other things can freeze too.

Expand and Contract

When materials are heated and cooled, they will change in size. This is from changes in their atomic structure as we put more and more energy into something. In the case of winter, it’s more of a contraction as we suck the energy out of things. These effects can be observed in a couple of places. On the extreme end of the spectrum, you have the SR-71 Black Bird, which gets longer in-flight due to heating from atmospheric friction. On the more common end of the spectrum, poor ice water in a glass bowl that’s just had boiling water in it. The bowl usually cracks, because the ice causes parts of it to cool down rapidly and contract, but the rest of the bowl is still hot. Glass has a rigid, crystaline structure and the force of contraction overpowers the rigid molecular bonds. It causes it to crack or even shatter (so don’t try this at home).

These effects occur on essentially everything, with varying degrees of destruction involved. No matter what, nature is always going to win. One part of a material will be hot, the other will be cold, and somewhere in the center these forces will cause the two materials to shear in two.

Impact On Buildings

The effect of extreme weather will vary from building to building. What matters most for your business is trying to uniformly heat your facility and not overlook anywhere that mother nature could cause problems.

The Roof

One of the most heavily effected parts of a structure will be the roof and attic areas. Consider these spaces are exposed to the greatest extremes of heating and cooling, but given the least attention to control their temperatures. In most older buildings, the attic spaces just aren’t heated or cooled at all.

That doesn’t sound like a problem, no one lives up there, so it can be uncomfortable. Typically insulation will be placed in the attic on the ground, insulating the occupied parts of the house from the attic itself. This creates a major temperature differential: The roof and attic space, which may be in contact with snow fall, will be at or below freezing. The housing structure below will be far warmer, dozens of degrees above freezing in Celsius or Fahrenheit.

The structure of the building expands, parts of the roof framing might expand too, the rafters holding everything up. Everything else however, will try to contract. This results in a problem called Truss Lift. Essentially the top of the facility will tear itself up from the bottom. The rafters might bend or snap altogether under the forces.

Internally this is observed with loud, cracking and snapping noises followed by the appearance of cracks at the top of interior walls. The damage can lead to the outright collapse of an entire facility afterwards or at the very least, extensive damage. It’s more common in newer buildings, where increased insulation has exacerbated the temperature differential near the roof.

The Foundation

Where else do these extreme temperature differentials occur? Just look down. During extreme periods of cold, the first few feet of the ground can become frozen. Anything in contact with the ground can freeze too. This included the foundation walls of a building.

The temperatures involved in this tend to be more extreme. The foundation materials are typically sturdier than roofing materials. You make a foundation with cement, cinderblock, and other heavy materials. This doesn’t make them immune to the laws of physics. With enough force, the foundation could crack from a temperature difference.

The more likely problem for a foundation however, is water. Water is everywhere, it’s in the soil, it’s underground, and it can cause serious problems. It acts like a hammer against anything solid. As the ground and water in it freezes, that water will expand into ice. The expansion of the ice applies pressure against the foundation. Once or twice is probably harmless, but imagine what happens when you keep pushing on something over and over and over again? Eventually you will start to chip away at it.

On top of that, water has this annoying habit of penetrating anything that isn’t heavily waterproofed. Concrete is a rough, porous material by nature. Those pores are perfect for water to seep in through. What do you suppose happens when water inside the structure of foundation material expands? It acts like a jackhammer to the inside of the foundation. Eventually the structure weakens, the forces acting on it become entirely too powerful, and it cracks apart.

Protect Your Facility

If these types of issues occur, it’s going to be incredibly expensive to fix them. Depending on the size and construction of the facility, and the extent of the damage, repairs can actually dwarf the cost of the building in a worst-case scenario.

The best thing to do is have regular inspections of your building and consult with your contractors on how to minimize the risks. You can easily adjust the placing of insulation to reduce the chances of truss lift and with proper drainage you can fight against foundation damage from water and ice. It’s also essential to properly maintain your HVAC system. A leaking duct may release excess humidity into the attic and cause additional swelling in wooden structures. This will only make things worse.

Remember, check often, plan ahead, and you’ll be ready to avoid disaster.

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