Our family-owned business, Professional Building Services, is an exterior remodeling company based in New Hampshire, just north of Boston. We have multiple deck-building and siding crews, and to attract and keep good employees, we offer good benefits and incentives, including the opportunity to work full time year-round.

But New England winters can be harsh, with double-digit negative air temperatures and even lower wind-chill factors. A couple of years ago, we had to deal with over 9 feet of snow in a single month. To keep our decking crews operating efficiently all 12 months of the year, we’ve had to adopt some wintertime tactics that keep our guys comfortable (mostly) without sacrificing too much efficiency.

Selling the Work

Although we would all like to do an equal number of projects each month to balance out the work over the course of the year and provide a steady cash flow, there are definitely busier and slower times here in New Hampshire. In early spring, the phones ring off the hook with people trying to get a new deck completed before a graduation, a backyard wedding, or some other long-planned event. In the fall and winter, of course, nobody is thinking about a new deck - which is where a little salesmanship comes into play.

When replacing an existing deck, the author tries to schedule demolition in the late fall, after deck season but before cold weather sets in. In New England, though, Mother Nature sometimes has other plans.
When replacing an existing deck, the author tries to schedule demolition in the late fall, after deck season but before cold weather sets in. In New England, though, Mother Nature sometimes has other plans.

We explain to our customers that winter is a perfect time to build a deck, because it’s less noisy (windows are closed, and the snow muffles the sound), and because it’s safer, since most children aren’t out playing in the backyard. But the biggest lure is that come springtime our crew will be long gone, and they’ll be able to enjoy their new outdoor living space the very second the weather allows, instead of having to wait a prolonged period of time for us to even get started, especially for our larger projects.

We generally have about a one to two month backlog, so we start our winter planning in August. Since our clients’ outdoor season usually ends in late October or early November, this is when we schedule any necessary demo work if there is an existing deck. We also try to schedule all of the foundation work – typically 20 or so projects – in November and December before the frostline goes too deep into the ground, even though we won’t start many of them until later in the winter. We have some flexibility here, though, since 90% of our projects use helical piles, which our subcontractor is able to install year-round.

Most of the author's decks are supported by helical pile foundations, which can be installed after frost sets in if necessary.
Jeff O'Rourke/Goliathtech New England Most of the author's decks are supported by helical pile foundations, which can be installed after frost sets in if necessary.

We hold off on dropping stock until we are ready to start framing, and will generally do multiple drops of framing, decking, and railings depending on the size of the particular project. We make sure our suppliers are well-equipped with tarps when they leave the yard, with instructions to cover the load if no one is on site when they deliver it. We also ask them to make sure that materials are up off the ground and well-supported by dunnage.

To keep materials dry and frost-free, the author equips his crews with plenty of tarps.
To keep materials dry and frost-free, the author equips his crews with plenty of tarps.

If we’re building an elevated deck and we have a second means of egress issue, we will build a temporary set of stairs out of KD wood or plywood as we only need it to last a short period of time.

Keeping Warm and Dry

In October, days when it only reaches 30 degrees feel horrible, but come February, when the thermometer reaches 30 degrees, it feels like a heatwave. Our crews have to learn to acclimate themselves to the weather, but we also do everything we can to keep them warm and efficient.

During the interview cycle, we make sure that all potential employees know that we work outside 12 months a year. In our regular safety meetings, we discuss frostbite and strategies for staying warm, and on days when it’s particularly cold the on-site foreman regularly monitors the crew for any signs of distress. If needed, he’ll call for a mandatory warm-up period.

Some of the crew wear heated jackets, which plug into a standard DeWalt 20v battery pack. The jackets come with an LED controller with three heat settings.
Some of the crew wear heated jackets, which plug into a standard DeWalt 20v battery pack. The jackets come with an LED controller with three heat settings.
Most of the author's crew wear Carolina insulated and waterproof work boots.
Most of the author's crew wear Carolina insulated and waterproof work boots.

Having the right winter work gear makes a big difference in how productive you are in the cold. We supply jackets, hats, gloves, sweatshirts, and undershirts, and train our crews in how to dress in layers. Some in our crew have electrically-heated jackets that plug into the DeWalt battery packs, and if they prove to be durable we may decide to add them to the list of work wear we supply.

Most of our guys do not like the feel of bulky work gloves, as they can’t grip a nail or screw. But we’ve found a couple of brands that work pretty well, including Ironclad Cold Condition gloves and Atlas Therma Fit gloves. The Atlas gloves are a little less expensive and probably not quite as warm, but seem to be preferred by my crew, who find them a little easier to work with.

To keep feet warm and dry, most of our crew wear Carolina's model CA321 9-inch insulated boots, which are waterproof and have Vibram soles.

The crews are equipped with snow removal equipment and pop-up shelters to keep work areas dry and snow-free.
The crews are equipped with snow removal equipment and pop-up shelters to keep work areas dry and snow-free.

As anyone who has put up siding underneath a dripping eave can tell you, wet weather is often worse than cold weather, so we will tarp a site if the wind isn’t blowing too hard. Our crews also have pop-up 10x10 shelters that they can set up onsite to keep the saws and equipment dry. Each of our work trailers is equipped with a snowblower, shovels, and leaf blowers for clearing off snow.

Tools of the Winter Trade

To make sure the crews have fresh battery packs in the morning, the foremen bring all of the tool batteries back to the shop for overnight charging. Sticking with a single tool platform – DeWalt’s Flexvolt 20v system – makes keeping track of the 15 to 20 battery packs that each crew uses easier.

Very cold weather doesn't bother oil-less compressors like Porter-Cable's small pancake compressor (left), while larger oil-lubricated compressors may have difficulty starting.
Very cold weather doesn't bother oil-less compressors like Porter-Cable's small pancake compressor (left), while larger oil-lubricated compressors may have difficulty starting.

Smaller oil-free electric air compressors work better in the cold than larger oil-lubricated compressors, so we tend to use them more often in the winter. When it’s super-cold out, the larger compressors just won’t turn over without the help of blasts of hot air from a torpedo heater. To keep our nailers operating smoothly, we use cold weather air tool oil, an antifreeze lubricant designed for use only when temperatures dip below freezing.

If the homeowner allows it, we sometimes keep tools and supplies in a foyer or a garage to keep them warmer. If this isn’t an option, we have plywood warming boxes that we’ve insulated with rigid foam and wired with an outlet so that we can heat it with a light bulb.

A high percentage of our decks are very customized and often feature curves. In the past, we tried bringing our Trex ovens to the job and bending the decking and rails onsite, even in very cold weather. But heat-forming in the winter is very difficult, because it takes quite a while to heat a literally-frozen board up to where it is hot enough to bend. And, in sub-freezing weather, the working time while the heated board remains pliable is greatly reduced. Now we do as much bending as possible off site by making patterns on site and transferring them to our jigs back in the shop.

Most framing and trimming tasks can be completed on-site in cold weather, though the author's crews do any needed heat-bending back in the shop.
Most framing and trimming tasks can be completed on-site in cold weather.
Because composite and PVC products are temperature sensitive and will expand when the weather warms up, it's especially important to follow the manufacturer's gapping recommendations during cold-weather installation.

The Bottom Line

Are we as efficient in the winter as we are in the other seasons? Of course not, but we’ve tried to make our cold-weather jobsites as efficient as possible. When we first started working year-round, we probably operated at about 80% efficiency, depending on the severity of the winter, but now we strive for only about a 5% loss in efficiency. Of course, we still have to shovel out a site after a good snowfall, but now we have the equipment to speed the process along, and we delegate that task as much as possible to our lower-priced labor. We’ve also found that some homeowners like to get involved in the process and have the site cleared for us when we get back, especially if it’s a weekend storm, when they are generally home from work.

It is definitely not easier to build through the winter, but it’s better than the alternative, which is laying the crew off or giving them a fraction of the hours that we promised when we hired them. We want our team to stay happy and intact as long as possible, and keeping them busy and paid is critical. I know that they all have bills and responsibilities that depend on a reliable paycheck. As an owner, I feel it’s my responsibility to give them that as long as it’s safe to do so.