5 Realities of Construction During the Winter
1. the ground is frozen
When the ground is frozen, it runs about a foot deep of solid ice mixed with rocks and dirt. It is almost impossible in some situations to dig even with an excavator. One solution is to rent a “ground thaw” machine. This machine runs on diesel (some are electric but are not as effective). The engine heats a water / glycol mix, which then courses through a length of rubber hose up to 300 feet long. You lay the hot hose down on the ground in and loop it back and forth over the area to be heated, and cover it with concrete blankets to keep the heat down. Depending on the depth of ice, this needs to run for a few days. Then you can excavate for a day, but at the end of the day you need to put the hose back down and cover it, otherwise the newly exposed ground will freeze again and you are back where you started. Once you get a foot or so down, the ground is not frozen and you can excavate like normal, as long as you heat and cover the newly exposed dirt at the end of every day.
2. Concrete is designed to bear on unfrozen ground
If the ground is frozen when you install the concrete, as the ice thaws in spring the ground under the concrete will shrink or move and it will compromise the concrete bearing. This can cause the entire house to shift, or sink, and can create cracks in the walls and cause doors inside to bind. One solution is to again use the ground thaw machine and insulated blankets to prevent the ground from freezing at all, and then pour the concrete. You can also add anti-freezing components to the concrete mix. When doing a winter concrete pour, the concrete give off a huge amount of heat as it cures, and when covered with the concrete blankets that heat can be trapped and allows the curing process to happen normally. After the excavation and concrete is complete, you should quickly backfill the excavation to prevent freezing.
3. Electrical wire casing can crack
While most electrical work can be completed during the winter, the wire casing itself can crack and split in very cold weather, and it is also hard to manipulate through all the studs and joists. Houses contain miles of electrical wiring and it has to be “pulled” from one side of the house to the other, through, around, over and under all of the framing and other components, so it needs to be malleable.
4. Snow removal takes time and costs money
One line item that needs to be in any budget on a project that is happening in the winter is Snow Removal. Many builders and homeowners forget this item (some builders do not include it to make the budget appear low only to charge you later as additional work). Each time it snows, the site needs to be completely cleared. Not just the driveway for deliveries and parking, but sometimes the walkways around the building for worker access. Any scaffolding or staging that is left up during a snowfall needs to be shoveled off, sometime several days in a row. As an example, if you have a construction site with 5 carpenters working inside and out, along with other trades, and it snows overnight, typically the carpenters and laborers will shovel snow first thing in the morning ideally while the snow is light and dry. Imagine it takes one hour to clear all the walkways and scaffolding. One hour for a crew of men can cost $200. If the project runs all winter, and there are 50 days of snow removal needed, this can cost up to $10,000! This is not an insignificant number, and can really kill your budget if you don’t allow for it.
5. Simple tasks become not so simple
In general, when working in cold conditions, the work slows down. The workers have to be properly dressed, and if you can imagine searching for a pencil deep inside one of your pockets, the gloves come off, the outer layer unzipped, and reaching into your pockets takes a few extra seconds, then it all needs to be zipped up and gloved again. This is one man on one occasion. Imagine small incidents happening like this all day long among several workers.
Materials need to be covered up overnight, and then uncovered in the morning. This takes times (and many large tarps!). Sometimes a worker will drop a small component in the snow and have to spend time searching for it. Ladders don’t stand correctly and snow needs to be shoveled (often frozen snow) just to get a ladder to stand up straight.
The simple task of setting up a ladder to go install an exterior light fixture in winter can take two or three times the amount of time that it would in summer.
Also, when it snows, people take longer to get to work, deliveries are often postponed, and sometimes people don’t get there at all. I add 25% additional schedule time for winter work when scheduling. And don’t forget to account for all of the big holiday breaks that occur in winter-Thanksgiving, Christmas through New Years, and spring break with the kids.