In the dead of Chicago winter, Wrigley Field lies beneath a dusting of snow. Ice hangs from the foul netting behind home plate, and the famed ivy vines on the outfield walls hang brown and dormant. The scoreboard that looms above the bleachers is a blank slate of green. The air compressors that turn its numbers have been moved to storage until spring.
And yet, even on the coldest days of winter, the ballpark hums with activity. Chief Operating Engineer Alex Brandt and his team are tending to the facility, ensuring the ballpark will be ready to go on Opening Day.
After the Last Batter
After the last ball game is played, Alex and his team get busy with the winterization process. They work their way methodically through the empty grandstand concourse, tackling an immense offseason to-do list.
Alex's most immediate task is draining the pipes that supply water to the ballpark’s restrooms, concession stands and field irrigation. "What we really worry about in winterization is water," Alex says. "Most of the water pipes throughout the whole ballpark aren't in a climate controlled space, they're all outside. And with the Chicago temperatures, we just have to get the water out. We have a high zone of water pipes coming off the pumps and a low zone running through the whole concourse, and a separate system for the bleachers. So we are pretty much squeezing out every little drop of water that's left, because if there's any left, it will freeze."
Then Alex and his crew treat the drains, whose traps retain water through the winter. “So, we go through and put antifreeze in all the drains that are exposed underneath toilets, floor drains, pretty much any outside pipe that could hold water. We make sure there's antifreeze in there to protect them,” he says.
Other areas of the field needs attention as well. Alex's team will remove the television monitors that hang over the concession stands and pack up the padding that lines the dugout walls. The premier seating behind home plate must be covered to protect the cushions from the wind and sun. They will pack up the kitchen equipment and move it to a heated storage area.
Safety in a Harsh Climate
Alex’s team is always working to address the risks that come with exposure to the elements. As Wrigley Field is right by the lake, Alex says "it's the wind and the ballpark being so close to the lake that can make it pretty nasty in the winter. We always worry about ice on the field netting. We're in constant contact with our structural engineers to see if we should worry about weight on the system that's holding up the netting or should we take the netting down because of a big storm coming in.
The ice that can coat the field’s plazas presents another risk. “This year we're teaming up with engineering and grounds crew to do snow and ice removal we're buying three different types of salts now," he says. "Some liquid salt sprayers for our paver areas and signs that change colors when it gets below a freezing temperature to let people know it could be slippery.”
"When it comes down to it for everyone, for the guys, for me personally, it's about going home to your family," Alex says. "We really want to make sure you get home safely to your family, and it's been a big effort to make sure that safety procedures are built-out and being followed."
Draining the Ballpark
Wrigley Field has over 200 valves controlling the water. “We really spent a lot of time going through the ballpark this year and building out an operating procedure,” Alex says, “These valves are hidden throughout the ballpark. So we're really focusing on building out that SOP (standard operating procedure), what valves to close and what valves need to be locked out and tagged out." They want to be sure that the valves coming from the water pumps are drained and the supply pipes empty.
Wrigley Field’s fire sprinklers present a unique challenge: the system can’t be drained in the winter. It needs to continue protecting the ballpark through the off-season. But filling the overhead pipes with antifreeze isn’t a solution, either: the propylene glycol that would keep the system from freezing is also flammable. “Some of the fire sprinkler system is heat traced, but we were still getting a lot of freezing” Alex says, referring to the strip of electrical heating element that runs along each sprinkler pipe, preventing the water inside from freezing. “We worked with our fire sprinkler contractor and this will be the first year where the fire sprinkler water runs through a heat exchanger to try to keep the water above 50 or 55 degrees Fahrenheit."
Being a Good Neighbor
Wrigley Field is part of the neighborhood. So when winter storms dump snow on Wrigleyville’s sidewalks, Alex’s team springs into action. “We plow the parking lots, we plow the alley behind some of our other buildings, but we do a lot of sidewalks and neighboring streets and alleys,” he says. “We try to be good neighbors.”
Looking to Opening Day
Alex hopes the preventive maintenance will pay off next season. “I just get a feeling of pride, just knowing they're either cool or warm, depending on the temperature outside and no water pouring out of a toilet or a pipe or a kitchen machine,” he says. “Just seeing the game being played and really not getting too many calls over the radio is just a proud feeling.”