Beating the winter parking blues

A strategic approach to fighting the elements

Richard Kinnell, AIA
Vice President
Rich and Associates
Southfield, Michigan

If you live in the north, you know how tiresome winter can become after a few months of snowstorms and ice cold weather. By February, the landscape is covered in dirty snow, city streets are often caked in ice, and patience is generally wearing thin.

Winter is particularly tough on parking administrators and managers. Few types of buildings are as vulnerable to winter as parking structures. More often than not, structures are created with open designs which expose both their interiors and exteriors to the elements. This is particularly problematic during snowstorms when heavy snow can drift onto parking decks, creating hazardous conditions for drivers and pedestrians alike. And heavy snowfall on roof parking areas can render them unusable if effective snow removal plans aren't in place.

Equally troublesome are the salt and other chemicals that are applied to our city streets to melt ice and snow. Day after day cars track these corrosive materials into parking structures, which can threaten their long-term structural integrity.

Winter is one of the toughest adversaries facing parking administrators and planners. However, there are a number of strategies that can be implemented to minimize winter's impact on a parking structure.

Snowed Under
For skiers and snow lovers, winter is a time of joy. But when it comes to parking, snow can be a source of misery. Heavy snowfall can make rooftop parking areas impassable, and the loss of an entire floor of parking, even for just a short time, can have a disastrous financial impact.

Solving the problem is no small issue, particularly in urban areas where garages are ringed by city streets and walking paths. You can't just plow snow off of roof parking decks onto city sidewalks and streets.

Interior light cores can double as safe and convenient snow removal chutes during winter months.

Fortunately, there are solutions available. One of the most effective is the inclusion of a light core in the design of a new facility. A light core is an opening that runs from the roof to the basement of a parking structure. Its primary purpose is to introduce natural light and ventilation throughout the facility. However, a light core can also serve as an excellent snow chute. Rooftop snow is merely plowed down the chute into a basement storage area.

One of two things can then be done with the snow. First, it can be left there until it melts on its own. Cores that are oriented from north to south experience more effective melting because they receive more direct sunlight during the day. Also, snow melts more quickly in shorter structures because sunlight is better able to penetrate to the basement. Regardless, snow will eventually melt on its own no matter how large the structure is.

A second approach is to melt the snow mechanically. There are a number of technologies available to help the melting process along. For instance, the City of Grand Rapids, Michigan utilizes a snow-melt system that relies upon waste steam from a local power plant. The steam is diverted into pipes ringing the storage basin, and the melted snow drains out into municipal sewers. Similar melting technology is also available using electric heat or heated water.

When light cores are used for snow removal, the design should include mesh coverings for openings on parking levels. Covers serve two purposes. First, they keep clumps of snow from spilling over and hitting parked vehicles. They also prevent curious individuals from sticking their heads into the light core to see what's inside. This could be disastrous if it happened during the snow removal process.

Of course, the light core strategy must be implemented when the garage is being designed. You can't add a core to an existing structure. However, there are snow removal options for older facilities. One effective option is the addition of snow melting equipment on rooftop parking areas.

The Student Services Parking Garage at York University in Toronto offers an excellent example of how snow melting equipment works. The structure includes a heated container on the roof into which snow can be plowed. Melted snow is then channeled through the structure's runoff system. While simple, this system is very effective.

These types of snow melting systems can also be good solutions for new structures being constructed on tight footprints. If there isn't sufficient space to include a light core, a snow melting system may be the most effective approach.

Clean Sweep
The second major winter concern is salt and other corrosive elements. For decades, doctors have told us that too much salt in our diets is unhealthy. The same holds true for parking structures. The salt and other corrosives that are spread on our streets to melt snow and salt are extremely unhealthy for garages. These materials seep into floors and corrode the steel within the concrete slabs. Over time this will lead to serious deterioration, costly repairs, and can create unsafe conditions for your customers.

Unfortunately, there is no way to keep corrosive materials out of a garage. Every time a car enters a parking structure during the winter months, it is likely to be carrying in—and depositing—these materials. This is why it is important to use corrosion prohibitors in new structures and to remove corrosive materials from parking floors on a regular basis.

Hose bibs should be strategically distributed throughout parking structures. In addition to providing fire protection, they also serve as the foundation of a winter maintenance program by permitting the removal of salt and other corrosive materials.

Every garage that is located in a region that experiences cold and snowy winters should have hose bibs to permit frequent wash-downs of parking floors and entry ramps. Hose bibs are essentially large-scale versions of the water spigots that most of us have on the outsides of our homes. Hoses can be attached to these bibs and parking decks can be washed down with a combination of water and special cleaning solvents. Regularly-scheduled cleanings also provide the additional benefit of keeping the structure cleaner, and thus more attractive to customers.

However, just including hose bibs is not enough. It is just as important to develop a maintenance manual that outlines schedules and procedures governing the cleaning process. These manuals should be developed by the structure's designers to assure that they meet the unique needs of the individual garage. Cleaning equipment does no good if it isn't used properly.

Winter Maintenance Basics
There are additional strategies to make winter maintenance more efficient and effective, including heating systems on entry and exit ramps to minimize icing and heated pedestrian walkways to enhance winter safety. However, these approaches can be costly and are considered luxuries.

The real keys of winter maintenance are being able to remove snow from rooftop parking areas as safely and efficiently as possible, and keeping parking floors free of corrosive elements on a regular basis. By concentrating on these two considerations, parking administrators can lengthen the useful life of their structures, maximize revenue during winter months, and ensure safe conditions for their customers.

Richard Kinnell is Vice President with Rich and Associates, North America's oldest firm dedicated solely to parking design and planning. The firm can be found online at Richard can be reached at (248) 353-5080 or