Commercial HVAC Equipment

Don’t get stuck in the cold: how to prepare for a catastrophic heating system loss in your building

Wednesday, March 8 2017 4:13 PM
By Jon Goering

The loss of a heating or cooling system in a commercial building can create serious problems.

No facility manager wants to think about the catastrophic loss of his or her building’s heating system during the cold, winter months. Or for that matter, a cooling system during the scorching summer. Careful planning, however, can mean the difference between minimal hardship and all-out disaster.

Ask yourself this: Can I afford to take that risk?

If you answered “no,” then it’s time you prepared your building for a heating or cooling loss, which could be due to a system failure, weather-related event or natural disaster, even when it seems an unlikelihood.

In this post, we’ll discuss how to prepare your commercial facility for an emergency - specifically the loss of heat - and what to do when it occurs. Because chances are it will. 

Mechanical Systems Fail

It’s true, mechanical systems break down, no matter how well they have been maintained. And they seldom break down at convenient times, waiting, rather, for the most inopportune time.

Remember this: systems generally fail when they have been brought back online after sitting idle for some time or simply during normal operation. Accept this fact and you will have taken your first step in emergency planning.

Consider next what type of facility you oversee. Hospital? Research facility? These operations typically have backup systems powered by a generator. School or office building? In general, these markets have not prepared for system failure.

Location, Location, Location

You know well the operations that take place in your facility. Now consider your geographic location. Buildings located in the southern U.S. generally don’t experience cold weather like their neighbors to the North, at least not consistently and for as long.

In this case, backup heating may not be as critical. If not, formulate a general plan for meeting your facility’s most basic heating and cooling needs if the system should quit operating. It’s better to have even a basic plan than no plan at all.

In areas where colder weather persists, begin your plan by identifying the rental companies in your area and requesting a live rental equipment agreement.

A live rental equipment agreement prepares your facility for a heating or cooling system loss by completing all the planning, paperwork and funding ahead of time, before a disaster strikes. With the preplanning done, you can move quickly to keep your building up and running.

Whether or not you choose a live rental equipment agreement, you still need to learn what equipment the rental company stocks and if it can meet your building’s heating and cooling needs.

Once you’ve established this information, think again about your building.   

The Heat is On

Identify the systems and areas in your building where heating and cooling is the most critical because some areas require less conditioning than others. For example, interior spaces likely won’t need to be conditioned as quickly or thoroughly as exterior spaces, especially where exterior windows and doors exist.

Once you’ve identified all critical areas, calculate their square footage. This number tells you how much temporary heating and cooling the rental unit(s) will need to produce to maintain the systems, people, and activities being done in your building. Experts suggest calculating for a worst-case scenario.

Do not worry about energy efficiency. Paying a little extra for more heating capacity, for instance, will save you the hassle of repairing the damages from too little heat, such as busted, frozen pipes.  

All Shapes & Sizes

Heating and cooling equipment varies in its capabilities, which leads us to our next point. Determine if a piece of rental equipment can tie directly into your system or if a standalone unit will be required.

If air handling units condition your building, you are fortunate in the event of a heating emergency. A handful of steps can be taken to meet immediate emergency heating needs with air handling systems, such as tieing into the system with a gas-fired fan-coil unit or asking your system to circulate only return air.

Buildings with hot- or chilled-water systems, on the other hand, require a large piece of rental equipment mounted on a trailer. This rental option takes up considerable space, requires longer to set up, and must be operated and checked periodically.

Facility managers can avoid some of this hassle, however. In the offseason, set up a connection point in the hot- or chilled-water system to tie in an emergency boiler or chiller. The connection will be available for quick use should the need arise.

Contingency plans prepare your commercial building for emergencies.

Contingency Plan

As the old adage goes, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

We’ve stressed the importance of planning in this post and what happens if you don’t. Since we can’t control the unexpected, the best thing to do is to prepare for it. Create a contingency plan for your facility that identifies all the necessary steps to be taken should you experience the loss of your building’s heating system. This also applies to cooling.

Some things to consider when creating your plan:

  • Identify the areas in your building that must be conditioned and those that can go without
  • Conduct a financial risk analysis of your building to determine how much it would cost to have the functional areas of your building without heating and cooling
  • Plan for the time when conditioning in your building stops and rental equipment arrives – how will you bridge the gap?
  • Identify the size and type of rental heating and cooling equipment your facility requires
  • Outline where rental equipment will be located and how it will tie into your system
  • Identify the nearest emergency rental equipment providers in your region and have their contact information available
  • Train your staff on rental equipment installation and operation
  • Create a schedule for staff to monitor the rental equipment
  • Have fuel available to power the equipment and how much it uses
  • Create a plan for when your building’s system comes back online and the rental equipment can be removed
  • Review the plan before the start of each heating and cooling season

Record this information in a document, and keep it in a place where it can be easily obtained. Inform others in your building of the contingency plan’s existence, and review it with them in the event you are not available when an emergency occurs. Make sure to review the document at least once a year, or when you have changes made to your building.


Another way to prepare for an emergency is through redundancy. Some buildings utilize only one boiler or chiller to meet processing or comfort needs. When that machine stops running, operators must turn to alternative conditioning like rental equipment or go without.

With redundancy, you operate a second boiler or chiller when the primary machine has stopped. In some instances, the second machine can be smaller than the primary one, saving on initial cost and energy use.

In situations where facilities face long-term rental use, purchasing a second machine as a backup may make financial sense. Simply compare rental cost over the estimated downtime against the cost of the equipment to make that determination.


Emergencies can strike at any time. When your building’s heating or cooling system quits operating, serious problems can ensue. Preparation is key.

By following the steps outlined above, you will have a plan that addresses potential emergencies. And best of all, you will have the peace of mind knowing that you are ready to meet any situation head on.   

What happens if your building’s heating or cooling system shut down today? Would you still be able to operate? Do you have an emergency plan in place?  

For more information, please email Jonathon Goering by clicking here or call 316-265-9655.

Knipp Services works with commercial and industrial building owners to identify solutions to reduce downtime and increase building efficiency. We provide services that enable building owners to have a high-performance building. “Making Buildings Better” sums up the mission statement of Knipp Services.


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