Many years ago, I went to Wisconsin to do reconnaissance on a self-storage facility I was preparing to buy. When I pulled up to the property, I noticed there was about 200 feet of unused road frontage. I immediately started planning how I’d develop that area. The deal was looking good to me with so much room to expand.
A month later, I returned to the site only to find that gorgeous open space was completely gone. In its place was a mountain of snow! The entire facility was plowed out, and the only place to pile the detritus was that frontage. It was a memorable lesson in how weather—specifically winter weather—can impact a self-storage property.
Winter puts stress on buildings and people. The good news is preparation can help limit damage to your self-storage facility. The bad news is no amount of planning can prepare some people for working in the cold, and that includes me! Here are some tips to help you get through the winter and make it to spring with your business intact.
Evaluate the Site
First, listen to weather forecasters and read the “Farmers’ Almanac.” Then ignore everything you learned because none of it matters! In reality, your winter-planning process needs to protect your self-storage facility no matter what conditions are predicted.
I begin my preparations as soon as summer comes to an end by inspecting my property with winter in mind. Start at the office and work your way out to the perimeter and beyond. Examine your buildings, driveways, gates, fencing, etc. Look to the sky as well as the ground.
On buildings, start at the roof and work downward. With ice and snow, water intrusion is always a concern. Check your roof fasteners for signs of deterioration, especially if they use rubber washers. Gutters can also be a source of leaks, as can your self-storage unit doors, so check these carefully. Examine the corners of every building to ensure they’ve survived another year of first-time rental-truck drivers. Finally, be on the lookout for possible pest-entry points. When it gets cold out, anything that expects to survive will be looking for a cozy place to stay.
Here are a few other items to evaluate:
- Gutters: Do they need cleaning? If so, don’t wait until all the leaves are off the trees or it may be too late; and then you’ll be cleaning gutters in the spring!
- Trees and foliage: Trim these so they don’t hang over your buildings.
- Driveways: Seal any cracks in summer when the weather tends to be drier, as it’ll help prevent heaving during winter. For gravel drives, grade out potholes and add rock next to doors.
- Exterior metal: Fix any building parts that stick out in front of drivers!
- Overhead power lines and camera cables: These can sag over time, and ice can build up and lower them further. Ensure these are high enough so they won’t get hit by a snowplow.
- Bollards: The way some of our tenants drive, it’s no wonder that some of these may need straightening.
- Gate mechanism: Lubricate this before it gets cold outside.
- Door weatherstripping: Replace any suspect stripping that could lead to leaks.
- Door ropes and handles: Replace these if necessary. They’re extra useful during winter when there may be some snow or ice piled next to unit doors.
Based on this detailed, winter-prep walk-through, prepare a summary of potential facility repairs.
Now Get to Work!
Once your self-storage winterization plan is complete, dig in and get started. You may even need to get things rolling earlier this year due to ongoing supply-chain issues. Don’t wait to order anything you might need for repairs and upgrades. Some items can be difficult to find, so you may have to do a little searching. For example, metal-building parts are typically in low demand and can be a challenge to obtain.
Make sure you have whatever you need on hand for Snowmageddon! This means finding your snow shovels and taking inventory of ice-melting products. If you’re low, buy more now. I have a bad habit of waiting until after snow has fallen before I look for these things. Don’t be like me! Trust me, when it’s too late, all the stores will be sold out.
Next, contact your snow-removal vendor. (If you don’t have one, find one immediately.) Verify that the company is still in business and check to see if you need to sign a new contract. Rates will almost certainly increase this year, so budget accordingly. If you’re lucky, your provider will be willing to shovel around your self-storage gate and gate operator, but confirm this. If yes, then celebrate!
Lighting is particularly critical during the winter months. It should be checked all throughout the year, but it’s even more critical as we head into the dark season. In northern states, darkness can last more than 14 hours per day. So, check your lights to ensure they’re working, including those on your self-storage signage. Don’t forget to clean up cobwebs and any accumulated debris.
Winter also brings challenges for temperature-controlled buildings. Fall is the best time to have your HVAC systems inspected. Though vendors suggest annual inspections, I normally do mine every few years. That said, there’s a lot you can do to maintain healthy performance between formal visits. Change filters routinely, ensure drainage systems are clear, and replace batteries in the thermostats.
Finally, make sure your facility entry doors seal tightly and replace any insulation as warranted. Pay particular attention to areas of intrusion, such as vent pipes, electrical conduits and communication wires. A can of spray foam can be worth its weight in gold when it comes to sealing gaps.
Brace for Disaster
Finally, expect the unexpected. This is mostly a mental exercise, but it can also result in onsite work. For many self-storage operators, the most likely winter disaster is a sustained power outage due to downed power lines. Consider how you’d handle this.
First, think about your gate operator. Does it have a battery backup? If so, when’s the last time you tested and replaced the battery? If there’s no backup, will you leave your gate open or turn people away? These are the types of questions that should be answered now rather than during an emergency.
Next, think about how you’ll handle communication with tenants without electricity. Will you text them using your mobile phone? Will you email them from some other location? Signage is a common way to let people know of a temporary facility closure. Make those signs now while you have power and a working printer, and create a plan for how and where you’ll display them. Winter can be a damaging season. Snow and ice combined with cold temperatures are hard on self-storage buildings, drive surfaces, and mechanicals like gates and kiosks. A little forward planning will helps limit the negative impact and ensure you make it to spring with your business intact!
Gary Edmonds is owner of Pike Co. Storage, which operates 17 facilities in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin. In 2020, he launched The Storage Manager, a third-party management company specializing in remote operations. With nearly 20 years of industry experience, he has extensive knowledge related to running unmanned properties. To reach him, email [email protected].