Winter Storm Elliott

Category Facility Maintenance: January 16, 2023

In 2022, there were 18 weather/climate events in the United States which resulted in property damage losses exceeding $1 billion. The most recent was the December 21-26 winter storm, known as Winter Storm Elliott, that brought with it record cold temperatures.  With a combination of frigid temperatures, intense winds, and a long holiday weekend, many commercial facilities experienced burst water pipes within their building sprinkler systems.  News stories shared the flooding damage caused in numerous commercial buildings including in our own local market involving The Indianapolis Children’s Museum.  As estimated by Karen Clark & Company, commercial insured losses will total close to $2.7 billion from this event.

Is there anything that could have been done to prevent these occurrences? While the weather experienced this past December was very extreme, lack of preparation for a predicted storm event did play a hand in some cases.  What can be learned from this experience that will help mitigate damage from future events?  Let’s start by understanding the systems that were impacted by the storm.

There are two types of sprinkler systems, wet and dry. Within a wet sprinkler system, the pipes are full of water.  Water within those lines can freeze if proper maintenance or storm preparation is not performed. Dry systems contain pressurized air and are typically found in parking garages and warehouses. While they are less susceptible to freezing, it can still happen because air in the pipes contains moisture which can condense in low points and freeze. Areas that pose the highest risk for freezing are entryways, stairwells, attics, and under floors.

Here are a few tips to prepare fire suppression systems for freezing weather:

  • Inspect the fire department connections. Be sure they do not have water in them and make sure automatic drip valves are working properly.
  • Check low point drains on dry sprinkler systems to make sure they do not contain water.
  • Ensure all air compressors are working properly and drain any condensation.
  • Check sprinkler valve rooms and areas where risers are located to ensure heaters are working properly and are maintaining a temperature at 50º F or above.
  • Inspect any wet sprinkler systems in attic areas to ensure insulation is in place.
  • Check fire pump rooms for proper heating and verify the test header has proper drainage.
  • Ensure backflows are properly heated or insulated.
  • Add insulation in areas where temperature control is an issue.

Fire systems should be inspected annually by a reputable service provider who can help to maintain the system’s integrity.