Winterization is the process that prepares a building for the cold months of the season. Its main purpose is preventative maintenance—protecting the HVAC system; the area it’s functioning in; the assets around it; and, most importantly, people. Neglecting maintenance in order to “save” money is a risky decision, especially during the winter. In fact, a facility manager that chooses to go this route is more likely to lose money and cause one or more of the following issues:

  • Wasted energy and high electric bills
  • Freezing and leaking pipes
  • Flooding
  • Uncomfortable and/or unhealthy living temperatures
  • Dangerous working conditions (learn How to Refuse Unsafe Work)
  • Going against codes

So, what do these issues mean for health and safety? They can present a number of health and safety risks for those occupying the building. This article will cover a few of those risks and outline the steps you can take to mitigate them.

Poor Air Quality

Poor indoor air quality is a common occurrence when an HVAC system is neglected, and it’s very important to consider during the winter months, mainly because the inside air is likely the air being consumed the most (see Indoor Air Quality: The Invisible Hazard in Every Workplace to find out more). When air filters and ducts aren’t cleaned, pollutants, dust, and contaminants increase and accumulate (learn the Difference Between Pollutants and Contaminants). This is especially dangerous for those who suffer from allergies, asthma, and upper respiratory conditions. Dirty ducts can also attract insects and rodents.

Mold and Bacteria Growth

The unsanitary conditions that cause poor air quality are the same conditions that increase the risk of mold and bacteria growth (for more on mold, see Indoor Air Quality: 7 Basic Questions about Moulds). Leaking pipes that go unnoticed and unfixed can also cause mold growth. But the most intimidating biological hazard caused by a poorly maintained HVAC system is the Legionella bacteria (learn about Legionella: The Killer In Your Tap). This bacteria is responsible for causing an infection called Legionnaires’ Disease, the symptoms of which include headaches, muscle pains, chills, fevers, and coughs. Depending on its severity, it can be life threatening.

Unhealthy Temperatures

Maintaining an HVAC aids in maintaining temperature. For the winter time specifically, a faulty heating system can lead to temperatures cold enough to threaten the health of the building's occupants. Such temperatures aren't just uncomfortable; they can even result in illnesses such as pneumonia (to find out more about the risks associated with low temperatures, see Cold Stress: Your Winter Safety Guide).

Risky Environment for Workers

Facility managers that neglect the HVAC system, which is commonly located on the roof, are also putting the workers who must do the repairs in a dangerous position. While dealing with faulty HVAC systems is a part of a technician’s job and training, waiting too long to perform seasonal maintenance still puts them at an unnecessary risk (if you or someone under your supervision has to directly repair the unit, see Preventing Falls From Roofs for fall protection strategies).

Winterizing to Avoid Risks

To avoid these unwanted and inconvenient events, follow the necessary steps or contact a professional technician to ensure an efficient maintenance job and a peace of mind for the season:

  • Perform a complete checkup of the system: look for and address any areas in need of cleaning, repairing, or replacing
  • Test the controls: ensure that all controls are working efficiently so that energy is not wasted
  • Insulate and heat trace pipes and sprinklers: this will prevent freezing, which can also prevent the aftermath of leaking and flooding
  • Prepare cooling towers and mechanical rooms: The BP Group advises “Maintaining a 40 degree set on heat trace systems to prevent pipes from freezing and potentially faulting the HVAC system,” and mechanical rooms should remain heated
  • Weather strip windows and doors: this keeps the cold air outside and the warm air inside
  • Program the thermostat: doing so will ensure that those living or working in the building are comfortable, as well as ensure that all rooms that need a specific setting are that setting

Conclusion

The issues caused by a neglected HVAC system are completely avoidable. Schedule a maintenance appointment before the season begins instead of stressing once an unexpected issue arises. Many would agree that winter is the worst month to experience an HVAC emergency, not only for those who stay indoors the entire season, but also for those who travel. It’s important to undergo this maintenance before traveling to avoid returning to a disaster. It’s also recommended to consider other preventative tasks to protect your home while away.

Along with the obvious benefits discussed throughout the article, another main one to consider is longevity. HVAC systems are built to last 15 to 20 years, but neglect can drastically lessen that lifespan. The right maintenance during the winter time and all year long will help your HVAC last like it’s supposed to. While taking care of your HVAC system’s health and safety, you’re also doing good for your own health and safety, along with the health and safety of those around you or those you’re responsible for.

While skipping on HVAC maintenance isn’t the way to save money this winter, here’s an infographic with effective suggestions for cutting down costs, including using holiday LED lights, opening blinds to let in warm sunlight, and turning ceiling fans clockwise to push warm air back down. Take advantage of one or more of these ideas to save on your monthly heating expenses without causing any health and safety risks.

Why Winterization Is Important for Health and Safety