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School Maintenance During the Winter

Consider winterizing your school with these maintenance tips. 

It was early February 1996, when freezing sleet and ice accumulated on trees and power lines in Winston-Salem, N.C. Trees began to fall, leaving thousands of homes and buildings without power, including East Forsyth High School. 

Andrew LaRowe, director of maintenance at the time, had to round up an emergency repair team immediately. “It took eight days to restore the power throughout the city,” LaRowe says, “Schools were cancelled for more than a week. Without heat in the classroom buildings, sub-freezing temperatures froze the coils in 25 heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) units at East Forsyth High School, which caused them to burst.”

Most of the units had to be replaced as school district maintenance workers and contractors worked around the clock to return heat to the school.

LaRowe’s situation is common for many maintenance facility managers. During the winter season, K-12 schools are more vulnerable to weather-related damage that can lead to emergency repairs, LaRowe says. In addition, the winter break usually presents the only opportunity, besides summer, when schools are empty long enough to carry out preventative maintenance projects.

To reduce potential emergency repairs, consider these winter maintenance tips.

1. Perform Maintenance Walk-throughs

Before break begins, LaRowe recommends meeting with your staff to determine who will be local and “on call” over the holidays. Most importantly, communicate with the principal to designate a few individuals, such as custodians, assistant principals or athletic directors, to take turns performing daily walk-throughs during break.

Here’s what they should look for:

  • HVAC systems should run at the appropriate setting to prevent the facility from freezing, but low enough to save on energy costs.
  • The cafeteria freezers and refrigerators should be operating properly.
  • Scan areas that are more prone to roof leaks, broken water lines, and surface flooding for potential water damage and mold growth.
  • Snow and ice should be cleared immediately from sidewalks leading up to exterior doors. Also examine and monitor awnings and covered walkways for stress from heavy snow that could present a safety hazard or damage equipment.
  • Check boiler and mechanical rooms for strange noises or odors that could signal equipment failure.
  • All doors and windows should be securely locked to prevent vandalism and theft.

Of course, even after following these steps, surprise situations can come up, LaRowe says. For this reason, staff should be aware that they might need to come in unexpectedly.

2. Take Preventative Maintenance Measures 

Mark Pieratt, the director of facilities at Horizon Community Learning Center, a K-12 public charter school in Phoenix, uses two-week breaks to practice preventative maintenance measures. Because Horizon is on a modified year-round schedule, the school closes for two-week periods during the fall, winter and spring, and six weeks in the summer. Pieratt uses this time to visually inspect all electrical outlets to make sure the cover plates are in place, along with overhead ceiling tiles to make sure there aren’t any leaks. He also inspects the HVAC system, works on preventative maintenance that requires technicians to go in and out of classrooms, runs sound tests on the fire alarms and replaces alarm batteries, light bulbs and HVAC pump valves, if needed.

During each winter break, he also touches up the paint on all 128,000 square feet of the school. To finish this massive painting project before classes resume, Pieratt divides the work into shifts. The evening shift preps and tapes surfaces, while the morning shift paints.

He also uses the break to deal with issues that could not be repaired without disrupting students. “We avoid doing anything that has the potential to disrupt students’ learning,” Pieratt says.

3. Consider Outsourcing to Contractors 

Some work that is done over the holidays may need to be outsourced to contractors, often at a higher rate than usual. However, Pieratt says his long-standing relationships with vendors who understand the constraints of school schedules and budgets benefit his negotiations. “They know that I need this work done at a certain price and on time,” Pieratt says, “Not having school open on time is not an option.”

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