As lovely as falling snow looks from inside a warm apartment, maintenance crews face a messy (and sometimes dangerous) cleanup when winter storms strike. How can they do the job right? HappyCo spoke with operators who revealed their snow log best practices.
From RE Journals to Multi-Housing News to Multifamily Insiders, leading real estate publications have all shared similar sentiments when it comes to snow cleanup; plow shifts are grueling, established policies are tough to tweak, and injury lawsuits are an ever-present threat.
Needless to say, operators may feel they’re walking on eggshells each winter season, trying to get everything right so no one gets hurt. To be sure, juggling resident safety, employee accountability, and budget constraints against a ticking clock and unpredictable weather is a tall order. With these concerns in mind, HappyCo spoke with operators spanning Utah to Maine to learn about their best practices for snow inspections and cleanup. Here’s what they revealed.
Keeping techs’ well-being top of mind: Trilogy’s strategy.
“Snow sucks! That’s the best answer I can give you.” Maintenance Operations Manager Jeff Hessler lets out a laugh when first asked about snow cleanup challenges. Yet, he changes tone quickly, making clear from the outset: Trilogy Residential Management always prioritizes maintenance crews’ well-being when setting any kind of snow log strategy.
“It’s always site-specific, but if we know a big storm will be developing overnight, our goal is to have every common area cleared by 7am.” From there, Hessler will hatch a plan the night before, warning maintenance team members to drive safely, dress appropriately, bring a change of clothes, and arrive by 5am.
However, Hessler stresses: “if it’s too cold, if the wind is blowing too hard, our team members’ safety is the top concern instead of a strict 7 a.m. deadline. My crew can always come back later in the morning when conditions improve.” Once on the job, Trilogy maintenance techs are also guaranteed multiple breaks, overtime pay, and hand and foot warmers to keep safe in dangerously cold temperatures. Hessler sums up the equation this way: “it’s hard, but it’s what we signed up for.”
Fortunately, Hessler says his maintenance crews’ diligence checking stairwells, mailbox areas, walkways, handicapped access ramps, parking lots and more is made all the more valuable thanks to Inspections. “I like Inspector because it’s live time. In the digital environment we live in, people always joke, ‘there’s an app for that,’ but with Inspector, you really can easily pop in and out to find all kinds of snow log data and act on it quickly.”
Hessler remembers well the first time Inspector paid off for him personally — on an especially snowy weekend one year ago. “It was during a really bad storm, so I was out working on a Saturday. There was four or five inches of snow on the ground, and it was so cold, but I still had to take off my gloves to put the inspection info into my phone.”
However, Hessler still recalls how the benefits quickly surpassed the sacrifice. “When I got into my car and filed the report immediately and realized I was saving paper and ensuring I wouldn’t forget anything important on this crazy weekend — that was such a relief!”
As a supervisor, Hessler finds Inspector key to his budgeting work. “One of the biggest things is that we can finally understand how much salt we use. It’s honestly a numbers game, and can be costly, so we want to keep track the best we can. We can’t burn through a pallet of salt for no reason.” With Inspections, Hessler says his crews can now follow best practices for properly salting walkways or stairs when snow reaches one to two inches versus seven to eight.
Finally, Hessler underscores the value of having time-stamped proof that every part of a property was cared for equally. “For insurance and safety purposes, we always ensure that if we apply salt to one breezeway, we apply salt to all breezeways.” Maintaining that it’s “really a fair housing issue,” Hessler explains: “at Trilogy, we’re here to help everybody.”
Braving storms, building trust: Mountain States’ insights.
Heading west to the Rockies, Mountain States Property Management faces a distinctive set of challenges during wintertime in operating both residential and commercial properties. Maintenance Supervisor Jake Nelson describes how, “depending on storm timing, things can be especially tough for cleanup when you’re at a commercial site. If a storm starts at 6am, we can’t clear cars in a parking lot. People are in for the day working, so we may have to go back at 5 or 6pm to clear walkways.”
Nelson notes the biggest winter risk areas are sidewalks and stairs, but he says Mountain States also “pays a lot of attention to other common areas, like mailboxes.” When it’s not possible to push snow during a bad storm, his maintenance crews still “clean up the walkways the best we can.”
So far, Nelson says Mountain States has set up several commercial sites with a Inspections snow log template, but just one residential site for now. Still, Nelson says he’s got high hopes for that tech transition. “I know when we get our residential properties set up with snow log templates that it’ll be a game-changer when they can put the date in, note specific snowfall inches, plus when and where they applied salt — all with time-stamped pictures.”
Nelson believes the switch to digital snow inspections at residential properties will really improve Mountain States’ potential to mitigate risk. “If we plow snow and someone complains about a fall in that same weekend storm, for example, we’ll be able to challenge the claim by saying that our crews made their best effort to salt the area to prevent anyone from getting hurt.” He’s also excited about the level of detail these reports will provide: “we’ll be able to go right into a log and say we started pushing at 4am and were done at 8am — here are pictures.”
On the subject of employee accountability, Nelson stresses that Mountain States is proud of its maintenance teams’ determination to keep residents safe during rough storms. “Even on Thanksgiving, we missed our family dinners because of snow, having to push it and come back again, too. But we earned double pay and luckily for me, there was even still a hot meal waiting on the table!” Nelson adds that his maintenance crews always get overtime on these occasions, sometimes even earning enough hours to stay home the rest of the week.
However, Nelson says he’s glad to see the ways Inspections is already magnifying team members’ efforts at Mountain States’ commercial sites. “The best change I’ve seen so far doing our snow logs with Inspections is the way our supervisors can get the messy part of the job done so much faster. They’re entering the data quickly after they check out areas our vendors have done on sidewalks, etc. That way, they can move on to the repair work they really enjoy.”
Nelson says there’s even potential for digital snow inspections to further improve Mountain States’ positive relationship with residents. In his view, “we also see Inspections helping with retention. One of the biggest goals we have in multifamily is keeping residents happy. So, when a building has 450 units and we can prove in a detailed report that our maintenance guys are doing the slippery stairs, icy walkways and having been pushing snow non-stop all morning, this kind of record is a huge step to build trust with tenants.”
Reducing risk, boosting accountability:
Princeton Properties’ approach.
Meanwhile in New England, Princeton Properties VP of Operations Kurt Shillington makes clear: storm cleanup is quite a complicated puzzle in his neck of the woods. “We’re right in a belt of nasty weather, and we get lots of different types of precipitation. Even in the same storm, we can experience rain, snow, and sleet, varying hour by hour. It means we have to have a flexible abatement strategy, depending on the needs.”
Against this backdrop, Shillington says his on-staff maintenance teams work diligently to manage walkways and stairs, “keeping areas clear before, during, and after a storm.” Additionally, Princeton Properties contracts with a snow removal company for its parking areas and roadways.
As Shillington explains, “the contract spells out specific time increments for clearing snow, what types of precipitation to check for, when final cleanups need to happen, etc.” Shillington emphasizes that Princeton Properties is especially conscientious when researching its vendors: “we always ensure that they have stringent insurance requirements of their own.” Shillington concludes: “all told, these contracts can run about five to six pages so that we can ensure resident safety and prevent risk.”
In the realm of risk management, Princeton Properties uses Inspections for its pre-season and post-season Addendum walks. Shillington breaks down the process: “our contractors and maintenance teams walk sites together to assess conditions with Inspections — from walkways to the grassy areas where snow is typically cleared. These documents need to be signed by both our on-site staff and the vendors.”
Through daily snow logs, Princeton maintenance crews “note the time and date of snowfall, their specific efforts to clear it, their start and finish times, and a description of the kind of precipitation that accumulated.” Shillington describes the powerful results of having all of this snow data in one place: “it really helps us on a portfolio level down the road…being able to study trends from property to property.”
Above all, Shillington feels grateful this digital approach offers data he can trust: “when we were doing these walks in our pen-and-paper days, we had our on-site teams scan in the photos they’d taken, and that really resulted in a piece-meal approach of collecting data.” Additionally, in swapping a clipboard for a mobile phone or tablet app, Shillington’s teams find “the whole inspection process is so much more seamless. It’s much faster than the old days.”
Like Nelson, Shillington believes digital snow inspections offer a major upside when it comes to preventing hefty lawsuits. In his view “this digital approach also helps us with insurance premiums, as we can better navigate the slip-and-fall lawsuits that happen in our industry by having time and date-stamped documentation about conditions.”
Indeed, Shillington and his maintenance teams keep resident safety and satisfaction top of mind during wintertime. “When we’re facing a two-day storm or 20 inches of snow, we’ll communicate by an email blast to keep residents informed of the procedures we’re taking to keep everyone safe.” He admits, however: “getting cars moved, especially on a weekend, can be a Herculean effort. To get people out of their warm, cozy homes to move their cars is very difficult.”
Yet, Shillington’s crews know well that parking lot access suddenly grows very important for residents once Monday strikes. “When it comes to the work week, we’re hearty folk here in New England! So, Princeton teams want to be sure our residents are able to get out the door and into their cars safely, to do the jobs they commit to — even in bad weather.”
Glennis is a writer/producer from San Francisco. Taking the city’s trains and buses with riders of all ages and backgrounds inspired Glennis to go into journalism and share people’s stories for a living. After graduating from Johns Hopkins University in 2013, she worked at CBS San Francisco as a program coordinator, public affairs producer, and ultimately full-time news writer for the KPIX 5 Morning News. She’s excited to enter the bustling startup world and tell HappyCo’s stories across channels.