By National Refrigeration July 19, 2019
"Weather experts did not expect the hurricane to develop into a major killer but they warned that it could cause massive property damage because of storm surges of several feet above normal tide."
Los Angeles Times, Aug. 19, 1991
The hurricane being reported on was the first hurricane of the Atlantic Hurricane Season in 1991. It developed from a low-pressure area near the Bahamas on Aug. 16 and became a tropical storm that same day, according to the National Weather Service. Hurricane Bob caused extensive damage from the Outer Banks of North Carolina to New England.
By the time Bob hit Rhode Island on Aug. 19, it had been downgraded to a Category 2 hurricane—not a “major” hurricane according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Like all good stories, the big twist here is that Bob became the second most costly hurricane in U.S. history, according to an impact report sponsored by the Rhode Island Department of Economic Development. Rhode Island residents alone suffered $115 million in damages, the report says.
Hurricane Bob is an excellent example of why homeowners and business owners—especially near the coast—need to prepare for hurricanes and tropical storms because the damage can far exceed the severity of the storm.
Here are the 4 most common mistakes to avoid when preparing your HVAC equipment to withstand a hurricane:
Often, the heat pump or air conditioning condenser is outfitted to the dwelling at a convenient spot on the side or back and not too close to any vegetation. Heat pumps are typically placed on a concrete slab when installed. For most areas in Rhode Island, this simple foundation is probably fine. On coastal areas, however, water levels can easily rise above the thin foundation in a hurricane and flood your heat pump with water.
If you live close to the coastline or in an area prone to flooding, consider raising your HVAC equipment higher off the ground.
FEMA refers to the anticipated floodwater line during a base flood as the base flood elevation (BFE). The BFE for your area is easily found on a Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM) and at FEMA’s Flood Map Service Center (https://msc.fema.gov/portal).
After determining your area’s BFE, build a concrete or brick foundation to mount your heat pump on that extends higher than the BFE + 1 foot.
Beachfront homes may need a cantilevered platform to mount the heat pump, which FEMA recommends as a solution.
Second home owners may also consider protecting other mechanical equipment, including hot water heaters and furnaces. If these mechanicals can’t be elevated, FEMA recommends surrounding them in flood-proof barriers or shields, such as a concrete floodwall.
A Category 2 hurricane, like Bob, has sustained winds of 96–110 mph, according to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. Winds at these speeds are extremely dangerous, says NOAA. Well-constructed houses can sustain roof and siding damage and shallow-rooted trees can topple.
Anything hurtling at 100 mph can be a hazard to life and property.
Clear your yard of branches, lawn furniture, toys, potted plants, and everything else not fastened to the ground. Many beachfront properties are seasonal rentals so be mindful of what your neighbors have in their yards because it may not get picked up. To protect against such hazards, FEMA recommends covering your heat pump or A/C condenser unit with a plywood enclosure or at least a tarp to protect it from flying debris.
Every hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale is expected to cause power outages for anywhere from a few days to several months. When the power does return, it can spike or flicker on and off, and both of these events can ruin the circuit boards in your heat pump and air handlers.
Turn off the power to your HVAC equipment at the circuit breaker.
By disconnecting your HVAC equipment from the power grid at the circuit breaker, you can shield your equipment from electrical damage. Second home owners who may not be at the property for a hurricane can install a whole home surge protector to protect your home’s entire electrical system.
Of course your family is going to be eager to get back to normal after the hurricane passes, but don’t turn on your HVAC system! First, give your unit a visual inspection. If there are apparent signs of physical damage, you know a fully insured HVAC technician needs to look at it and possibly replace it.
Unseen damage can occur inside the unit, especially in severe flooding events.
Whether your unit sat in standing water or it became inadequately covered and high winds blew water into the unit, the electrical system in the heat pump could be compromised. Don’t turn a small fix into a critical problem—make an appointment for your regular HVAC service provider to inspect your unit before turning it back on. Find an HVAC contractor offering indoor air quality services to ensure you unit and ductwork is free from mold, bacteria, and other pollutants.
Not on a regular maintenance plan? Hire a nearby HVAC contractor to send a factory-trained, fully insured HVAC technician to perform an inspection. Pick one with a comprehensive maintenance plan, and you’ll find your HVAC system runs better and lasts longer.
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