Freeze Frame

By Randy Gaddo

Editor’s Note: This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues and ask the leaders among the readership to share their knowledge and experiences.


When to winterize? That is a question many parks and rec maintenance professionals ask almost daily as the fall breezes hint at the upcoming colder weather.

It’s a conundrum, really, a catch-22. If you take all the normal precautions—close outdoor facilities, drain the water, put antifreeze in the pipes, and turn on the heaters—and the temperatures remain in the 60s, you look like Chicken Little. If you don’t, and everything freezes, you’re left with frozen egg on your face as pipes burst and facilities flood.

An old axiom suggests that if you don’t like the weather, wait a minute and it will change. That may be an extreme analysis, but I think most people will acknowledge that winter-temperature
 patterns have generally trended to the warmer side in the past few years. Places that normally experience cold temperatures in October or November have been basking in 70-degree temps well into traditionally cold months.

This makes the decision to winterize even more challenging. Winterizing, like so many other aspects of parks and recreation, is a process that varies depending on where in the world you live.

A Regional Issue
In colder climates, like in the states along the U.S./Canadian border, winter makes itself apparent; maintenance pros generally know that when the first cool winds blow in from the Northwest, it’s time to break out the antifreeze.

“We usually start to winterize our facilities by mid-October,” comments Greg Behling, Operations Ranger for Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources’ CopperFallsState   Park work unit. His territory covers nearly 8,000 acres, which include many different outdoor facilities in northern Wisconsin, not far from the shores of Lake Superior.

“We host a marathon the second week in October, and generally start closing things down after that,” he says. In his neck of the woods, winterizing means not only draining a few lines and adding antifreeze, but actually disassembling fixtures, taking valves out, and soaking them in antifreeze. “We have to make sure pretty much every drop of water is out of our lines,” he explains.

Behling acknowledges that the weather patterns have changed. “The last few falls, we’ve had warming weather later into the fall, less snow—sometimes it’s been the end of December before we’ve seen any measurable snow,” he notes, adding that the springs often stay colder longer. This April a record 54 inches of snow was recorded, and the weekend before Memorial Day was a 20-inch snow event, with frost warnings in June!

“In the southern part of the state, it was 60 degrees and people were mowing their lawns, and up here we were wondering if we’d be able to open our facilities,” he declares.

In other areas, such as the southeastern states, fall may linger well into November, December, or even later.   Sometimes in these areas, other than a few cold days, winter never really seems to hit.

“Come January, our winterization process is to tell people to wear a coat,” jokes Phil Gaines, Director of South Carolina State Parks. “Seriously, along the coast we do very little winterization in the classic sense compared to what they do in northern states. We may close some facilities or areas in December, January, or February because they’re not used as much, and we do minimal winterization, such as simply cutting water off.”

Gaines notes that further north in the state, winterization might include draining water lines and adding antifreeze, but “the biggest challenge in the South is often dealing with dramatic weather fluctuations.” He notes it can be 80 degrees in February, or, as happened this spring, it was still in the 40s at night in May. “The uncertainty makes it challenging to get facilities opened quickly when people want to use them,” Gaines says.

The greatest chore for people living in “transitional” areas, where winter hides around the corner waiting to attack the unprepared maintenance pros, is anticipating when cold weather will start and end. Patrons generally want facilities open for use long after the calendar indicates it’s time to prepare them for winter. “People expect the facilities to be open and ready for use, especially on the coast,” says Gaines.

There are many types of facilities to prepare for winter, and some are more challenging than others—such as public restrooms, gazebos, pavilions, and shade structures.

Public Restrooms
Public restrooms probably pose the greatest challenge because, well, when you gotta’ go, you gotta’ go; families using parks for several hours at a time, whether playing, eating, or drinking, need a fully functional restroom.

Well-designed and reasonably budgeted public restrooms normally are heated and cooled to accommodate changes in weather, and are used often. However, when budgets are tight, such amenities are frequently either value-engineered out of the design or not maintained properly.

Uncooled public restrooms that aren’t cleaned frequently can become acrid, but generally won’t cause maintenance issues, although they will inevitably be a source of justifiable complaints. However, unheated restrooms are only a burst pipe away if they aren’t winterized before a freeze.

In many instances, water pipes going into the facilities are not insulated, making them susceptible to freezing.  They may also be either in the slab or above the ceiling, making a break more difficult to find and fix, or creating more damage if the pipes do burst.

Pavilions And Gazebos
Open-sided pavilions or gazebos may also have water, generally for fountains, which can be even more exposed to the elements than enclosed facilities. Other winterizing tasks may be necessary, such as ensuring electrical outlets are disconnected or barbeque and picnic facilities are protected. These items can often be overlooked in the heat of predicting the first freeze.

Shade Structures
People may not think about shade structures needing winterization, but to prolong the life of the fabric, it is worth considering. These structures, normally meant to be seasonal, won’t last long if left out in harsh winter conditions, even in warmer climates. Exposure to the sun, wind, and other elements all summer long can break down the fabric, and if you add in the effects of cold weather over several months, the fabric can become brittle, thin, and torn. Taking the fabric off, cleaning and drying it thoroughly, and storing it in a dry place for the winter will prolong its life. This is also a good time to mend any tears in the fabric, and clean, tighten, and lubricate the frame as well to protect it.

So what do you do in your part of the world to get ready for winter? If you have suggestions or special memories—such as northern Wisconsin’s record 54 inches of snow in April—share them here at PRB .

Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He developed, wrote, administered, and presented maintenance plans as well as recreation master plans during that time. Gaddo earned his Master’s in Public Administration, and now lives in Beaufort, S.C. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email