Prepare Your Buildings for Winter's Chill

Focus on three key areas to keep your ministry warm and dry

Winter weather can be rough on buildings. Snow and ice weigh down roofs; cold temperatures freeze pipes, and overworked heaters can spark fires. Nationally, winter storms cause about $1.5 billion a year in insured losses.1

Churches, schools, and other ministries can reduce the potential for damage by clearing heavy snow from roofs, keeping pipes warm, and addressing early signs of furnace problems.

“A little maintenance goes a long way in preventing cold-weather losses, or at least reducing their severity,” says Tom Lichtenberger, assistant vice president of property claims for Brotherhood Mutual.

There's plenty you and your maintenance team can do. Let's look at three key areas: roofs, pipes, and heating systems.

1. Roofs: Prevent Snow Accumulation

Winter storms account for millions of dollars in roof damage every year.

“It isn't just a blizzard with a single heavy snowfall that causes a roof to fail,” Lichtenberger says. “Repeated snows that don't have time to melt off can accumulate and surpass the roof's load. We also see collapses when rain falls on top of snow, which saturates the snow and increases its weight.”

Several factors determine how vulnerable a roof is: the amount of snow and ice, the amount of water in the snow, the condition of the roof and rafters, the type of roof (flat or sloped, steel or shingled), the load the roof was built to withstand, and more.

According to the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS), most roofs are designed to support at least 20 pounds of snow per square foot.2 That’s roughly equal to:

  • Four feet of new snow.
  • Two feet of older, more watery, dense snow.
  • A four-inch-deep chunk of ice.

A roof that was built to meet local building codes and is kept in good condition is less susceptible to collapse. But extreme loads, especially when left on the roof over time, can weaken a roof, potentially leading to damage, sagging, and collapse. 

Here are two ways to prevent snow and ice accumulation:

  • Clean gutters and downspouts, so melting snow can drain. Check drains on flat roofs to make sure they're not clogged by leaves, twigs, or other material. Obstructions can cause water to back up, freeze, and form “ice dams” that block water’s path to the ground. This could force water upward, potentially beneath shingles and into your building.

  • Clear the snow and ice. Keep an eye on the roof when snow piles up. If an excessive amount falls, or the snow is blocked from sliding down the roof, it may be time to act. Either use a long-handled roof rake or call a licensed contractor to remove it safely. Don’t climb onto the roof to remove snow. Climbing onto an already-stressed and slick roof can be dangerous.

During warmer months, have your roof inspected regularly and repair it quickly if leaks or cracks are found. Regular maintenance not only can prevent snow and ice damage, but it also protects your roof during spring and summer storms. See additional roof maintenance tips in Brotherhood Mutual's free Safety Library. 

2. Pipes: Don't Let Them Freeze

Frozen pipes are one of the biggest risks of property damage when the temperature drops, according to the IBHS. 

When outside temperatures dip below freezing, it’s important to keep a building’s temperature above 55 degrees. If some areas of a building stay colder than the rest, prop doors open or take other steps to maintain heat in those areas. Inspect attics, basements, and other places where pipes run. You may need to better insulate those areas or fit exposed pipes with insulation sleeves. 

Burst pipes can cause greater damage in buildings that go unused for days at a time. During extremely cold weather, you may wish to check buildings more often than normal.

3. Heating systems: Perform Routine Maintenance

It’s a good idea to have a qualified contractor inspect heating systems annually and perform maintenance regularly. Malfunctioning heating equipment can spark devastating fires.

“Changing filters, adjusting controls, and ensuring that equipment functions properly before cold weather will be time and money well spent,” says Brock Bell, senior risk control manager for Brotherhood Mutual. “That way, you won't turn on your furnace the first cold day and find out it doesn't work.”

A contractor can check the belts, lubricate the motor, inspect the flue, and look for problems that lead to furnace failure. Bell discourages using volunteers for this type of work.

If you use space heaters, the U.S. Fire Administration recommends inspecting them regularly for damaged plugs or wires. It also advises people to plug space heaters directly into wall outlets. Using extension cords or power strips can increase the risk of fire.3

Make sure to keep anything that can burn at least three feet away from space heaters, furnaces, and other heating equipment.

Make Warm Days Count

Taking steps to guard your buildings against winter risks can save time, money, and aggravation in the long run. With a little effort, your ministry can be in great shape to withstand the icy blasts to come.

1 “Facts + Statistics: Winter Storms.” Insurance Information Institute. Accessed Dec. 12, 2018.

2 “Prevent Roof Damage from Heavy Snow and Ice." Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety. Accessed Dec. 18, 2019.

3 "Heating Fire Safety." U.S. Fire Administration, FEMA. Accessed Dec. 18, 2019.