Toronto Winter

Toronto ice storm pelts residential managers

Tenants and assets were both vulnerable due to the cold
Thursday, January 9, 2014
By Barbara Carss

Property managers who have experienced difficult summertime power outages — whether due to last July’s severe rainstorm and flash flooding in the Greater Toronto Area or the massive electrical system shutdown of August 2003 — commonly reflect thankfully on the timing of the events, noting that consequences could have been more extreme in the cold and dark of winter. The December 2013 Toronto ice storm, which also covered much of southern Ontario, validated those observations, particularly for residential landlords.

“It was very, very challenging and it just kept getting progressively worse as the days went on,” reports Randy Daiter, vice-president of residential properties with M&R Holdings, which owns and manages nearly 4,000 rental apartments in Toronto.

Approximately one-third of M&R’s portfolio was without electricity, heat and hot water for periods ranging from several hours to five days. Buildings in the latter category became virtually uninhabitable as management was forced to drain even the domestic cold water system to guard against frozen and burst pipes.

“I have never in 35 years experienced a power failure that lasted four days, and we didn’t really know what was going on any more than the tenants did,” concurs Steve Weinrieb, senior property manager with Park Property Management. “If you know the power will be off for three days, you have one kind of plan, and if it’s off for a few hours, you have another kind of plan, but we didn’t know when it would be restored. On top of that, each building has a different set of variables.”

Park Property’s buildings on the east side of the city in Scarborough and the central Annex neighbourhood were hardest hit, while many downtown properties never lost power. To the west in Etobicoke, buildings that saw extensive flooding during the July 2013 storm and power outage fared better this time as generators kept the essential building systems running.

“Natural gas generators, in my opinion, are really great,” Weinrieb says. “Our diesel generators are in our downtown buildings, which didn’t lose power.”

In contrast, a larger number of residential buildings that don’t have generators were plunged into darkness after a few hours when battery packs operating emergency lights were depleted. Inoperable elevators and loss of heat and hot water were among the first noticeable inconveniences for tenants, while incoming cold air through boiler room dampers, laundry room dryer vents and the garage door made building managers and operators increasingly nervous.

“The majority of these buildings were built in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, and the majority have domestic hot water and boilers in the basement. We were monitoring on a very frequent basis the temperature of the outside walls and the radiators at the perimeter walls. Once they hit about 40° F (4.5° C) we had to drain the base building hot water (heating) system,” Daiter recounts.

Since garage door controls weren’t operating, property managers had to decide whether to leave doors open or closed. Propping them open would enable residents to get their vehicles in and out, but would also bring in cold air that could freeze the sprinkler system and potentially open the way for interlopers who could compromise security. Suburban properties with larger surrounding lots typically had more flexibility to keep doors closed.

“In the Annex there was no other place to park. All the trees were down along the street,” Weinrieb says. “We left the garage door open, hired security and monitored the sprinklers.”

The potential for frozen equipment in boiler rooms created other risks.

“The dampers were open and all this cold air was blowing in. Throughout the city, it was very common for headers on boilers to blow,” Daiter says. “I got a call on Christmas Eve that one of our boiler rooms had two feet of water in it.”

For the future, M&R is looking at connecting air intake vents to motorized, spring-loaded dampers that could be closed without electrical power. Daiter also suggests that building operational equipment (excluding life-safety systems, which would not be eligible) could be wired to an external black box that a portable generator could plug into. This would allow the landlord to rotate a portable generator around the portfolio as needed rather than investing in a stationary one at each site.

“There are some simple things we can do,” he maintains.

Similarly, Weinrieb recommends property managers should have battery-powered chargers for superintendents’ cell phones, as well as a stock of photoluminescent glow sticks that emit light for eight to 10 hours and can be taped up along stairwells and hallways. He commends Toronto Hydro’s diligence in restoring power, but also urges more vigilance in monitoring and pruning trees near hydro wires.

“I hope we can all learn from this,” he says.

Meanwhile, managers and operators in Toronto’s downtown core and other commercial nodes faced few challenges. Power outages were rare and short-lived in the Financial District; nor was it deemed necessary to activate the Independent Electricity System Operator’s (IESO) crisis management support team.

Unlike the circumstances underlying the July 2013 power outage — when flooding at the Manby transformer station affected the capacity to supply electricity, spurring Toronto Hydro and the IESO to ask commercial consumers to curtail consumption — ice storm fallout affected distribution at the localized level and knocked so many customers off the grid that citywide demand dropped anyway.

“The summer event was more of a threat for the downtown core. One of the main transmission stations feeding some of Toronto Hydro’s substations actually went down causing a loss of nearly 900 megawatts of electricity in the affected area. The overloading of the system could have caused failure in other connected grids,” explains Bala Gnanam, director of sustainability and building technologies with the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) of Greater Toronto. “This time, the downtown was pretty sheltered. The biggest concern was probably when they were bringing systems back on-line across the city because that can cause a certain amount of instability on the grid.”

Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management and Building Strategies & Sustainability magazines.

1 thought on “Toronto ice storm pelts residential managers

  1. Having worked in the industry, I can appreciate the property managers' plight. It seems to me that emergency generators could be used much more effectively. Convert to natural gas where possible, as noted. I recall also that generators in multi-res buildings are often under-loaded, so other essential systems could be wired to run when the life safety equipment doesn't need the extra capacity, to at least make the building livable, systems such as domestic water booster pumps, corridor heating, power to common rooms, additional elevators. The cost of required upgrades could possibly be recouped by enrolling in the province's demand response programs, using the emergency generator to reduce the building's load on the grid when required, and "generating" an ongoing stream of capacity payments.

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