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Preparing Your Self-Storage Facility for Wild Weather

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Wild weather can wreak havoc on a self-storage facility, whether it’s under development or up and running. Proper planning and maintenance can go a long way toward reducing problems, particularly when it comes to snow and ice. A Wisconsin owner shares his advice.

One of the things you’ll realize about owning a self-storage facility is the reality doesn’t always look like the pretty pictures we see in the industry magazines and manufacturers’ brochures. There are times when Mother Nature creates challenges, and we just have to deal with them. Depending on where you operate, you may encounter storms, wildfires, earthquakes, flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes, power outages and more.

With extreme-weather events escalating across the globe, now’s the time to think about how to protect your self-storage buildings, staff and customers. Following are some strategies to help you subvert problems before they occur.

Snow and Ice

My self-storage facility is in Wisconsin, so I’m going to start with a topic that’s on my mind for nearly six months of every year: snow and ice. When planning your property layout, it’s important to ensure no water drains off the rooftops in front of unit doors on the north side of buildings. The sun will melt the snowfall on your roof. When that water hits the ground on the shady northern side, it’ll eventually freeze, and tenants won’t be able to open their doors. An ice-melter will only damage your doors further, so that isn’t a good option.

Ideally, your buildings should be laid out north to south, so the sun can do its work on both long sides. If the buildings must run east to west, use a low pitched “lean-to” roof design to bring all the water to the south side.

While we’re on the topic of roofs, consider snow when choosing your pitch. You might think a high-pitched roof is a good idea, as it doesn’t allow snow to pile up. In reality, what tends to happen is the snow does pile up to a point, and then slides off the roof all at once—after your snow-removal contractor has already been through the property, of course.

If you have gutters, the snow will likely damage them. When you get enough snow sliding off a steel roof, it could also harm doors and customer vehicles, and might even injure someone. Snow guards can help prevent this situation, but it’s better to order a lower-pitched roof. Your building manufacturer will design it to support snow per your local code requirements.

Snow and ice can wreak havoc on all kind of property components, not just roofs and doors. Think about your gate, for example. A vertical-lift gate will experience fewer issues than a sliding gate, but after a snowfall, you’ll need to make sure snow isn’t getting packed into the mechanism or obstructing any safety beams and sensing strips.

Keypads are also problematic in winter. Some models are heated, which can reduce glitches. You can also purchase a silicone cover to keep water out of the buttons. Ask your installer what’s needed to keep your site up and running. I’ve learned to keep a spare of each keypad and controller on hand so I can swap out parts for troubleshooting. Then I also have a spare to use while waiting for any needed replacements.

Finally, snow can damage your parking lot, sidewalks and driveways. If water seeps under your asphalt or concrete, it can cause heaving or potholes. Sealing cracks and expansion joints will reduce the amount of moisture that gets under the drives, and sealcoating will extend asphalt life. Other issues to watch for include frozen pipes and snow piling on any low HVAC exhaust pipes.

Understanding that snow and ice can cause so many problems, let’s talk about removal. You need a plan for it. Salt and steel buildings don’t mix, as salt will lead to rust. Plowing and shoveling promptly after a snowfall is the key to keeping your facility clean and safe. Once snow is packed down by vehicle traffic, it’s much harder to remove, and that packed snow will likely become ice.

Ask yourself: How far can your plow service push 12 inches of wet, heavy snow? Where will they put it? Will it block water from draining? Strategic placement of buildings and fences can make cleanup much easier and faster.

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Fire and Power

On the opposite side of the spectrum from snow and ice is fire. No self-storage operator likes to think about what it can do to their facility, but you must be prepared. To begin, you’ll need to plan for how local police and fire crews will access your property. Many cities require that you install an emergency key box that’ll contain keys, gate codes or lock combinations for all areas of your site. The fire department then has a single key that opens the emergency box. I created a simple code for my property and shared it with the police and fire departments.

With storms come lightning, which can be a real danger. Not only can it cause fire, it can create power outages, which affect your security and other equipment. During construction, every building should be properly grounded. Ask your electrician about this. All sensitive equipment should have battery-backup surge protectors, too. At my property, batteries can power my gate, cameras and egress lighting for a short period; but my policy is if the power is out, the facility will be closed to public access. If you’re in an area where outages are a major concern, you may want to consider a generator.

For self-storage properties in areas where wildfires are a concern, consider your landscape planning. Regularly remove dead branches and tree limbs, and eliminate flammable leaves and debris from around buildings.

Most fires we see in the self-storage industry are caused by tenants using electricity. Adding outlets to some units for trickle-charging vehicles is a popular amenity, but it does come with risk. If your property has interior unit-level lighting, avoid using fixtures with common screw-in bulbs, as tenants can easily install adapters to plug in items. Auto repair and welding shouldn’t be allowed on your site, and space heaters must absolutely be forbidden.

During property walk-throughs, watch for signs of unusual activity such as extension cords plugged into your maintenance outlets. Most properties have these, but they should be shut off when not in use to prevent tenant abuse.

Wind

If your self-storage facility is in a zone plagued by tornados or hurricanes, pay attention to the wind rating of your large unit doors to ensure they aren’t a weak link. Roll-up doors should be rated for wind loads as required in your location. This is sometimes overlooked by builders, and not all roll-up doors are wind-rated.

If you’re in the process of building, make sure your erectors pay attention to weather forecasts. High winds have been known to blow over partially assembled buildings, and you want to ensure your structures are stable at every phase. Make sure you have builder’s risk insurance to cover against any loss.

No matter where your self-storage property is located, you’ll eventually face some sort of natural disaster or wild weather event. Whatever it may be, think about it in advance and prepare your facility to minimize risk.

Steve Hajewski the marketing manager at Trachte Building Systems, which designs, manufactures and erects a full line of pre-engineered and customized steel self-storage systems, including single- and multi-story, portable storage, interior partition and corridor, and canopy boat/RV. He’s also a partner of three facilities in Wisconsin and a frequent contributor on Self-Storage Talk, the industry's largest online community. For more information, call 800.356.5824.

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