FirstService Residential Case Study: Fall Maintenance at Residential Communities

Property operators share advice on how to prepare properties for fall.

Depending on your location, fall’s arrival requires special preparation to ensure the safety and functionality of each property, regardless of the building’s age, be it 100 or just 5 years old. A thoroughly prepared fall maintenance plan tells the residents that the property is well-run and signals to prospective residents that they will be well looked after.

So, which are the tasks every property manager should perform at this time of year when large temperature swings are increasingly present? FirstService Residential operators from across the country weigh in.

Autumn variations—Chicago is not Carolina

Brian Butler

“As experts in residential communities, our managed buildings can be 100 years old or just 5 years old, and they all need to be looked at individually based on their own systems.” Brian Butler, Senior Vice President, High-Rise, FirstService Residential Illinois. Photo by Andrew Collings, courtesy of FirstService Residential

Brian Butler, senior vice president for the high-rise division at FirstService Residential Illinois, talked about the specific needs Chicago buildings have. For those built from the mid-’60s to early 2000, fall is the time when properties switch from AC to heat. These buildings have two-pipe HVAC systems, meaning that residents do not have access to heat and AC at the same time. The cooling weather can create uncomfortable in-unit temperatures when a building cannot easily switch back and forth between air conditioning and heat. To cover this need, they have an active management partner that knows how to manage the community’s AC, heat and communication with residents.

FirstService Residential’s portfolio of properties includes vintage and new developments, so, in addition to HVAC specialists, they work with structural and mechanical engineers and other experts and consultants to ensure preventive maintenance before the heating season starts.

Moreover, due to climate change, buildings face more extreme weather conditions—the days are hotter for longer, with heat pressure starting earlier in the season and lasting further into autumn. “In Chicago, new cooling ordinances have been adopted, which require that buildings that can’t have their AC available 365 days a year and must have special cooling spaces for residents,” Butler said. “These spaces, which could be in the lobby, party room, or another common area, are especially important for communities with an older resident demographic or special health concerns. Hot days can occur year-round, even in the fall and spring seasons, and buildings should be prepared to condition these areas accordingly.” 

Property characteristics also play a role in determining the types of work that need to be performed at the end of summer. In high-rise settings it’s important to ensure the building is appropriately balanced and properly air-pressurized, said Butler, as it can greatly impact energy efficiency. Otherwise, residents can experience unusual odor filtration from other units or garbage chutes, doors slamming or failing to close properly, or even cold spots.

Andrew Sytnik

“Of the 40+ high-rises we manage in Philadelphia, roof inspections are monthly. Depending on the location of the building, more thorough inspections are needed.” Andrew Sytnik, Regional Director, FirstService Residential Philadelphia. Image courtesy of FirstService Residential

Over in Philadelphia, some properties have their fall maintenance of HVAC systems covered by part of the association fees. “The maintenance checklist is shared, so residents have peace of mind knowing their equipment is serviced by professionals and according to the manufacturer standards,” said Andrew Sytnik, regional director, of FirstService Residential Philadelphia. In addition, in August, the team had a lunch-and-learn meeting with an MEP (Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing) design-build firm, which presented potential energy savings through HVAC and plumbing system upgrades. The team was educated on new technologies and how to navigate the ever-changing landscape of green energy initiatives from the local, state and federal governments.

Fall maintenance in the Northeast translates into boiler inspections and cleaning, so that they can be turned on immediately, shared Ashlee Friedmann, account executive, multifamily rental management division at FirstService Residential New York. 

Moreover, in New York City, there are strict regulations governing cooling tower inspections and maintenance. While all-year cooling towers can be cleaned, as usual, the seasonal cooling towers must be cleaned and closed for the season, she explained. On the other hand, heating plants should be checked for proper operation, according to Ed Ermler, managing director, of Manhattan condo/co-up division, FirstService Residential. The city requires all boilers to undergo an annual efficiency test and tune-up, and this is the best time to conduct this test. “Steam boiler tubes should be cleaned and vacuumed to improve efficiency,” he added.

Fall maintenance for pool and outdoor amenities

“Many communities we work with have a mix of lighting that is controlled by photocell sensors or timers. The lighting systems on timers are readjusted to coincide with the changes in daylight and for daylight savings.” Dennis Abbott, President of FirstService Residential Carolinas. Image courtesy of FirstService Residential

As soon as the summer months pass, property operators focus on planning for pool off-season and hurricane preparedness, said Dennis Abbott, president of FirstService Residential Carolinas. Many of the communities close their outdoor pools for the winter. However, since pool covers aren’t generally needed in warmer climates of North and South Carolina, the pools are still maintained chemically and are cleaned each week. 

“The Farm at Wescott in Summerville, S.C., closes the community pool on September 30th each year, but the amenity center and facilities remain open for the more than 800 homes in the community. There’s a plan in place that’s triggered during the fall season to winterize the pool and the outdoor facilities. The community shifts to utilizing the large outdoor space for community gatherings and seasonal events. As part of the hurricane plan, much of the outdoor furniture is secured indoors,” according to Abbott.

In addition, in cooler climates any property with an outdoor pool or terrace must weatherize its facilities. “This may include removing seasonal furniture, covering outdoor barbecue grills, or partial closure,” Friedmann said. “For pools, we always hire third-party experts to properly weatherize, which involves fairly sensitive plumbing and mechanicals that are costly to replace.” 

Reminders are communicated to residents, too, to ensure furniture on balconies is secured or moved to storage to prepare for unpredictable weather. “We ensure residents are reminded that windows and doors should not be left open if the resident is not present, as temperatures can drop unexpectedly. While typically a winter issue, frozen pipes and other damage caused by traveling residents who leave their windows open could impact dozens of units,” added Butler.

In Illinois, fall maintenance is also the opportunity to winterize the outdoor spaces and keep them secure from those who shouldn’t access them during the off-season. Fall is for cleaning and winterizing barbecues, draining pools and performing any necessary and other off-season maintenance, said Butler.

Outdoor amenities at Arthaus Condominiums in Philadelphia include a greenhouse and fireplace. Photo by Don Pearse, courtesy of FirstService Residential

“At Arthaus Condominiums in Center City Philadelphia, the management team is prepping the outdoor amenities on the 6th floor for winter, including the outdoor terraces, landscaping beds with irrigation, barbecue grills, residents’ gardening plots and the greenhouse. The barbeque grills will be cleaned, inspected and closed down as the cold weather sets in; there are several landscaping areas with irrigation systems, which will need to be cleaned of debris and each irrigation system will be winterized. The outdoor gardening plots in the community garden will be cut back and any vegetation that could sustain pests through the fall and winter will be removed,” shared Sytnik.

Mind the roof & window insulation, sweep the leaves

In Philadelphia, roof inspections are monthly, according to Sytnik. Still, depending on the location of the more than 40 high-rises the company manages in the metro, more thorough inspections might be needed.

Ashlee Friedmann

“New York is a coastal region susceptible to hurricanes or surprise snowstorms, so we always encourage our boards and owners to purchase emergency supplies before the weather takes a turn for the worst.” Ashlee Friedmann, Account Executive, Multifamily Rental Management Division, FirstService Residential New York. Image courtesy of FirstService Residential

In New York, Ermler said the building’s superintendent makes a roof walk as part of their weekly building inspections. This helps spot any issues with the roof’s surface while also keeping the drains clean and free of debris. Friedmann reminded that Local Law 11 requires roof inspections to be completed every five years.

It’s not just roofs that are a source of waterproofing failure, but exterior window sealants, too, added Butler. “With extreme temperatures and more intense weather, exterior sealants are under immense pressure. Extreme heat, as well as fall rainstorms, are affecting high-rises more often, which can cause sealants to fail when they haven’t been properly maintained or routinely replaced. If you aren’t on top of these ongoing projects, waterproofing failures will appear in the fall season.”

Daylight hours dwindling also dictate new property lighting. Many communities have a mix of lighting that is controlled by photocell sensors or timers, shared Abbott, and these are readjusted to coincide with the changes in daylight and for daylight savings. For example, at The Farm at Wescott, the community’s neighborhood monument signs are controlled by automatic photocell systems. Yet, its amenity center—which serves as a lifestyle hub—has mostly lighting systems controlled by timers, so the duration can be managed by the hour instead of on a dawn-to-dusk schedule. “The association’s staff adjusts these timer systems several times each year, as needed,” he added.

Emergency preparedness

“In New York, the building’s superintendent should make a roof walk part of their weekly building inspections. In addition to keeping the drains clean and free of debris, a weekly roof walk will help spot any issues with the roof’s surface.” Ed Ermler, Managing Director, Manhattan Condo/Co-op Division, FirstService Residential New York. Image courtesy of FirstService Residential

FirstService Residential has its proprietary communication platform used by the managers to distribute voice alerts, mass text messages and email blasts. “Communication needs are different from building to building and resident to resident, so it’s important for managers to have access to a flexible system that can reach mobile, tablet and desktop devices,” said Ermler.

With New York susceptible to surprise snowstorms, property operators in the area encourage their boards and owners to purchase emergency supplies before the weather takes a turn for the worst. This includes everything from flashlights and salt to glowsticks and a healthy supply of bottled water, according to Friedmann.

Fall is synonymous with hurricane season in the Southeast. So, it’s essential that property operators have an updated hurricane plan in place each year. “These plans are created in conjunction with community leaders and reflect the specific needs and conditions of the property,” said Abbott. These are typically split into three main categories: Evaluation, communication and delegation.

Evaluation means prompt and efficient disaster mitigation. Assessment of damage in and around a building or community. Photographing and documenting damage is essential, as is arranging for mitigation at the earliest opportunity with the right contractors to pump water, clean hazards and remove debris.

Communication means getting the word out there, even when some systems of communication might be down, even if that means physical paper notices in several locations around the property. Once electricity and service are restored, digital communication remains the main method to transmit any urgent messages.

Delegation refers to dealing with an association’s insurance company, which, according to Abbott, is a huge part of recovery and “often the most daunting.” 

“Your property management company should take the lead role in initial notifications, preparation of records, coordinating with the claims adjustor and facilitating the process so your association gets the best possible settlement as quickly as possible,” he said. “Community managers should assign/award work and coordinate with repair vendors, then provide oversight of repair operations and the vendors.” 

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