Prepare Your Church for Winter's Chill

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

Winter weather can be rough on a church. In northern areas, blizzards can dump several feet of snow onto roofs, leading weak ones to collapse.

Further south, frozen temperatures can cause frozen pipes, especially if buildings are poorly insulated. Across the country, malfunctioning heating systems are a leading cause of church fires.

In a typical year, Brotherhood Mutual handles at least three times as many winter weather claims as it does fire claims. The company, which offers risk management advice to churches nationwide, recommends routine maintenance to reduce the potential for damage.

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

There's plenty your church 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 church roof damages every year. “It isn't just a blizzard with a single heavy snowfall that causes a roof to fail,” said Lichtenberger. “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.”

Lichtenberger recommends preventing snow and ice accumulation in these ways:

  • Clean gutters and downspouts, so melting snow can drain. Churches near tall trees will need to do this more often.
  • Check drains on flat roofs to make sure they're not clogged.
  • If you're replacing a shingled roof, install a product such as “WinterGuard along the eaves and around roof penetrations. The waterproofing membrane can prevent moisture penetration from ice dams or wind-driven rain.

Lichtenberger recommends having your roof inspected regularly and repairing 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. He offers additional roof maintenance tips in Brotherhood Mutual's free Safety Library. There, you can also learn how to prevent holiday fires and avoid slip-and-fall accidents during the snow and ice season.

2. Pipes: Don't Let Them Freeze

When temperatures dip below 32 degrees outside, keep your heating systems at an appropriate level. It's fine to turn down the heat to conserve energy, but remember to keep the building's internal temperature above 55 degrees so your pipes won't freeze. If some areas of your building typically stay colder than the rest, prop doors open or take other steps to maintain heat in those areas. You also should inspect attics and other places where pipes run. You may need to better insulate those areas or fit exposed pipes with insulation sleeves.

Because churches often go unused for days at a time, burst pipes can lead to major building damage before being detected. During periods of extremely cold weather, you may wish to check buildings more frequently than normal.

3. Heating systems: Perform Routine Maintenance

Because your heating system hasn't been used in several months, it's a good idea to check it before it's cold enough to be needed. “Changing filters, adjusting controls, and ensuring that equipment functions properly before cold weather will be time and money well spent,” says Brock Bell, 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.”

Bell recommends that churches have a qualified contractor service all furnaces and related equipment. A contractor can check the belts, lubricate the motor, inspect the flue, and look for problems that lead to furnace failure. Volunteers don't always know what to look for, and their “repairs” can sometimes make problems worse, Bell said.

Make Warm Days Count

Taking care of your building throughout the year not only represents good stewardship, but it also saves time, money, and aggravation. With a little effort, your church will be in great shape to withstand the icy blasts to come.