Cold Weather Building Operations in South Texas

It is rare that South Texas experiences severe cold weather, which typically means below freezing temperatures. When these conditions do arise, there are some factors that affect the operations of facilities. Some of the problems are internal to the facility. Somoe of the problems are external.

Freezing temperatures are not a design consideration for buildings in South Texas as these are rare and short-lived. Quite the opposite, buildings in South Texas are designed for high temperatures and high humidity. Utilities and mechanicals will, therefore, be optimized for those conditions.

Factors That Affect Buildings in South Texas

Commercial installations will have plumbing wrapped in insulation just as standard practice. Therefore, freezing plumbing is not a major concern, especially given how short-lived freezing conditions last. Exposed plumbing may include outdoor hose bibbs and irrigation systems. Burst pipes are not common during South Texas freezes.

Electricity is a major concern. Just as excessively high temperatures can stress the electrical grid, low temperatures are also stressing. The difference is that people can tolerate 90 or 100 degree weather with the use of showers and fans. Freezing temperatures, on the other hand, require some form of heating for even the poorest of households. Homes that would not use air conditioning in hot weather will absolutely use heaters in cold weather. This can result in blackouts, brownouts, and power surges. For this reason, backup power systems and line conditioners should be installed.

With respect to blackouts, one concern in a commercial building is having multiple HVAC systems start up simultaneously. In our situation, the building has 30 rooftop units. As you can imagine, if power comes on and suddenly you have 30 heaters lighting up at the same time, there is a guaranteed spike on the grid. Therefore, a controlled startup is preferable. For this reason, it is necessary to cut off power at the breakers to prevent a sudden startup. This is particularly important as power companies will implement rotating outages to help reduce the load. Therefore, there is the potential for multiple blackouts throughout the freezing period.

Another complication from freezing weather is in server rooms. Many facilities will cool their server rooms with a combination of standard HVAC and mini-split systems for redundant cooling. The problem is that both of these systems fail in freezing weather. Refrigeration stops working below a certain outdoor temperature. While the building may switch over to heating for the comfort of its occupants, the servers will still require cooling. Without adequate cooling, IT installations can reach dangerously high temperatures.

Building security is another concern. Without power, the access control system only works on backup power. If the batteries give out, then the doors need to be changed over to key access only. Internal access control will also be nonfunctional.

Prolonged outages also present a problem for Internet and network services. Batteries will only get you so far. Once those are depleted, your servers providing network services will need to shut down, taking down Internet access with them.

Obviously, much of this can be mitigated by implementing some form of backup power system. But, unless your building operations are mission critical, it may not be worth the expense of installing and maintaining backup power.

Snow has not been a problem in South Texas. On the super rare occasion that it does snow, it is in minimal quantities for brief periods. Therefore, there is no investment in salt for sidewalks or snow clearing implements. Typically, if there is any ice or snow we simply wait for the sun to come out and solve the problem.

These are some of the more glaring problems affecting a building in South Texas during freezing conditions. There may be other practical problems that arise, which we have yet to experience.