building systems

Safeguarding vital building systems during floods

Majority of Calgary facilities still maintain an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality.
Thursday, March 30, 2017
By Dave Swan

Spring has sprung in many parts of Canada and temperatures are now rising, causing snow to melt and flood. In Manitoba, for instance, a wet winter has caused major overland flooding the past couple of weeks, while thaws also increase the chance of damaging facility basements in more populated areas like Winnipeg. When river levels are high, sewer systems can’t keep up. Looming summer rainfalls can also overload sewers, wreaking havoc on vital building systems and equipment.

Such consequences can devastate a facility’s ability to function and cause loss of business and interruption to both occupants and owners. In many circumstances, facilities cannot function because essential equipment was placed in basements, sub-basements or ground floor levels that flooded. In some cases, components of vital systems were elevated well above the floodwaters, while other elements such as boilers, fire suppression systems, transformers, transfer switches, fuel tanks, pumps, etc. were placed at lower levels, leaving them susceptible to flooding and rendering the systems inoperative.

Unfortunately, even after the devastating flood in Calgary in 2013, the majority of facilities continue to maintain an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality, choosing to defer to insurance companies, rather than be proactive and prepare for what could happen next. But while insurance covers loss of business like material equipment for example, it doesn’t give facilities the return of their occupancy and doesn’t address displacement and the inconvenience it causes clients and occupants who have to relocate after an event.

Flooding removes from service, items that address comfort, usability, life safety, fire prevention and compliance with general occupancy requirements.

Compromised systems often befall a domino effect that impacts life safety systems and the general health of buildings. For instance, components that control elevators are usually located in basement areas. If the hydraulic reservoir and electronic control panels are flooded and the cab (brains of the elevator system) is damaged, elevators will be immobile and stairways will have to be utilized. But if there is no generator to power back the lighting system, occupants will have to rely on emergency exit lights that typically run under 30 minutes, which may not be enough time to safely leave a facility.

Another ripple effect results when flood water in a parking garage carries in contaminants. In turn, vehicles stuck in the garage contain gasoline that could also float out with the water. This creates an environmental issue where thousands of square footage is polluted. Often, issues within a building take priority, and contamination is left to antimicrobial clean ups that don’t necessarily remove all unhygienic elements.

Facility managers may not be aware that items that have become inoperable due to flooding may remove the legal right of occupancy.  Life safety equipment, lighting, fire suppression and warning devices all could be affected if the main control panels and backup systems are compromised. Without these items in place, some jurisdictions would remove the legal right of occupancy until they are restored.

In such matters, communication between onsite staff and facility managers can often be fragmented. Onsite staff usually knows a facility intimately, but external management does not fully understand what the heart and soul of a building consists of. Yet one problem that occurs is that onsite staff isn’t aware of building and fire codes or jurisdictional requirements for the locale. At the same time, management doesn’t know all the ins and outs of them either, and no one wants to knock on the door of a fire department to hear all the bad things about their buildings because this often leads to dolling out extra budget funds.

Protecting vital components from flooded control rooms

One suggestion would be to install flood rated panels over the ventilation areas of rooms that house critical systems. This, along with sealing any utility perforations, will fully conceal a room against flooding.

During the floods in Calgary, an eight-foot-high parkade in a condo complex flooded right to the roof. Every single system in the building was out of service. Had there been flood proof doors on the elevator control room, boiler room, electronic control room and sub-basement area, most of the systems would have been saved.

If feasible, it’s best to protect the entire room with this safeguard because there can be several units in a control room or distribution area. It’s also important to look at closing the “holes in the boat.” There can be holes in the exterior walls that run directly to electrical, gas, plumbing and hydro. Even if these lines are underground, as water rises, it can fill below and come up through these holes.

To replace the components of a full elevator system that has flooded (hydraulic reservoir, control panel) can cost upwards of $150,000. This also puts an elevator out of service for an indefinite period of time while trying to arrange for service technicians. Moving components above basement level is prohibitive in most cases due to location and can cost a minimum $40,000 to $85,000 versus the under $10,000 it would typically cost to safeguard the room with the flood proof door and panel.

Preparing for emergencies

Emergency preparedness assessments can help identify systems’ vulnerabilities using a comprehensive flood mitigation approach and plan to account for loss of power. It should educate staff on code requirements, new construction flood code requirements and local EM recommendations, and investigate historical flooding on a specific location. Basically, it should ensure that facilities remain operational during and after a major event and reduce damage and disruption.

Preparation should also address the bigger picture. Not long after the Calgary flood, the downtown area experienced a major power outage, which had nothing to do with the flood. Many businesses couldn’t operate because they had no back-up generators. Disasters aren’t just natural; they also highlight failures in municipal infrastructure like hydro lines.

For floods, once accurate elevations are obtained, a proper prevention strategy can be developed. This could involve many different items, including exterior tube barriers, door panels, flood proof doors, exhaust vent enclosures, permanent berms or barriers, monitoring and localized warning systems.

Dave Swan is an emergency planning consultant for Flood Risk Canada



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