Volume 81 | Issue 4
July 2013

Smarter Decision Making in Facility Maintenance

Elizabeth Beltramini

In a recent industry outlook survey published by Buildings magazine, most responding facility managers predicted their maintenance budgets would grow by about 5–10% this year. However, nearly a quarter still predict a 10% cut because of increased labor, utilities, and supply costs. Respondents were evenly divided on predictions for capital funding, and a majority said deferred maintenance inMaintenanceCC 2013 would be consistent with 2012.

APPA: Leadership in Educational Facilities defines six types of maintenance: 

  • Capital (e.g., installing more efficient light fixtures)
  • Planned (e.g., repainting a handrail)
  • Preventative (e.g., cleaning grease traps)
  • Corrective (e.g., repairing a broken table leg)
  • Reactive (e.g., minor sink drainage problem)
  • Emergency (e.g., toilet is overflowing)

Most facility managers want to avoid corrective, reactive, and emergency types of maintenance, but doing so “requires well-planned and implemented processes based on specific strategies with clear goals and objectives, well-defined roles and responsibilities, and an organization that focuses on continuous operations with sufficient resources to accomplish the goal,” according to a 2011 paper prepared for the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).Maintenance1

Knowing that staffing and funds are limited and might not be sufficient, the definitions of goals and roles become all the more important. Is it better for a building to be in a good state of operation or an excellent state of operation? What is the difference and who decides?

According to an article in a 2011 issue of Engineering, Construction, and Architectural Management, “A maintenance operations environment is usually traditional and reluctant to change. … This point is further aggravated by the complexity of methods and tools that are only understood by experts. Yet, decision-makers are rarely experts.”

In this landscape, college union managers are needing to rethink how maintenance decisions are made and take a new approach with more contextual information and additional decision-makers.

Change the Approach

In the same Buildings magazine study, facility managers said they were more optimistic about funding for sustainability improvements. This might offer opportunities to change the maintenance conversation, provided facility managers are connecting maintenance to efficiency. For example, cleaning coils in air-conditioning units might be on the deferred list. However, this could make the unit operate less efficiently and therefore consume more energy—a risk.

According to the Engineering, Construction, and Architectural Management article, “Risk as a criterion for planning maintenance tasks is becoming a popular trend in the research literature on maintenance. It was successfully used in several domains including oil pipelines, power plants, medical devices, etc. One of the main advantages of the notion of risk as opposed to the ‘current state’ notion is its ability to take into account the consequences. As a matter of fact, this is exactly what the decision-maker is concerned about: the possible consequences of his choices. By comparing the risks associated to a situation where no action is taken with the risks associated with situations following the implementation of an action, we are able to describe the potential gain, and thus the interest and usefulness, of an action.”

The article suggests that the problem with other approaches to maintenance decisions is that often the individuals weighing various options are administrators or managers, not the maintenance experts. Therefore, the options are presented as and often reduced to a comparison between costs rather than a comprehensive discussion of the pertinence and consequences of actions. A risk-based approach requires that maintenance actions be presented in terms of their potential consequences: regulatory (conformity with law/standards), technical (functioning of the element), commercial, and environmental (e.g., energy consumption). In this way, decision-makers have opportunities to make better choices given limited funding.

Leverage Data

For facility managers appealing to decision-makers who likely do not have a complete grasp on all the factors at work in a maintenance scenario, more context is necessary. Therefore, collecting and leveraging maintenance data becomes important.

In this endeavor, a Computerized Maintenance Management System (CMMS) might be helpful.

While many physical plant departments likely have a campus-wide CMMS, a union might find it beneficial to track its own needs and actions with a smaller scale system.

Greg Denning, CEO of All-American Mechanical Contractors, a commercial facility maintenance firm, told Buildings magazine: “Sometimes folks will rely on their memories to remember when a piece of equipment was last serviced. The CMMS gets that equipment on schedule to extend the asset life and avoid catastrophic failure.”

Paul Lachance, chief technology officer for Smartware Group, producers of the Bigfoot CMMS, said in the magazine: “You could use Outlook to remind you to go change your filters, but you’re not going to have a trackable history and be able to enter labor, parts, and everything else.”

A basic CMMS enables facility managers to track:

  • Work orders: submit requests, update status, close requestsComponent condition (equipment age)
  • Efficiency and potential asset life
  • Maintenance costs
  • Facility/equipment usage data

Some also offer mobile-friendly and remote access features. According to Buildings, Computerized Maintenance Management Systems can cost as little as $1,000.

A CMMS can help facility managers move beyond traditional preventative maintenance and utilize predictive maintenance. Predictive maintenance is based on the actual condition of the facility component. The Federal Energy Management Program’s Operations & Maintenance2Maintenance Best Practices, Release 2.0, used the analogy of a vehicle oil change to describe the difference between preventative maintenance and predictive maintenance. Most people change the oil in their cars on schedule (e.g., every 3,000 miles). This is preventative maintenance. However, if someone had the oil analyzed every few months to determine its actual lubrication properties, an oil change might not be necessary until 10,000 miles. Such an approach would be predictive maintenance.

Predictive maintenance “will allow a facility to more closely match resources to needs while improving reliability,” according to the Best Practices guide. Additionally, the guide advocated: “A well-orchestrated predictive maintenance program will all but eliminate catastrophic equipment failures. We will be able to schedule maintenance activities to minimize or delete overtime cost. We will be able to minimize inventory and order parts, as required, well ahead of time to support the downstream maintenance needs.”

In practice, a predictive maintenance example would be tracking in the CMMS how often a light bulb must be changed in a particular fixture and replacing a socket in anticipation of it not working at all. Returning to the example of funding for sustainable improvements, Denning said: “You can see if you’re sending a lot of lamps to the landfill and analyze the cost-effectiveness of converting to LED lighting.”

Even if most maintenance activities in the union are the campus physical plant’s responsibilities, a union-specific CMMS can assist managers with scheduling custodial projects such as deep cleaning carpets, décor projects like repainting walls, and procurement necessities such as furniture replacements. Data tracked in such systems also can influence financial decisions such as repair versus replacement of equipment, room rental fees, cost of deferred maintenance, and economic impact of down time. Even storage allocation can better be determined once managers can easily identify through the system whether equipment is still under warranty or whether spare parts are required.

An ideal time to organize a CMMS is during a union renovation or new construction project. “This allows the construction documents to reflect the final equipment IDs and naming conventions and require the installed equipment be labeled consistent with the naming convention employed in the CMMS,” according to the ASHRAE paper. “This can even include the use of bar-coding or RFID tags if these technologies will be used in the operations and maintenance processes.” 

Think ‘Big Picture’

A potential drawback of a CMMS that Engineering, Construction, and Architectural Management warns facility managers about is that “often systems that track maintenance needs of complex facilities are so detail-oriented that each building component is not considered in the context of the whole building.” Therefore, every few years, existing building commissioning can be helpful.
At its most basic, commissioning equipment means ensuring it is functioning optimally. The process requires experts—usually a manufacturer or external consultant—to check settings and calibrate performance. For this reason, and for simple issues of limited access to facility systems, the commissioning process can be expensive. Therefore, many facility components are commissioned when the equipment is installed and then maintained from then on without recommissioning. However, some facilities might do well to consider recommissioning as a valuable investment when possible.

According to the Operations & Maintenance Best Practices guide, common opportunities realized through the commissioning of existing building equipment include:

  • Adjust reset and set-back temperatures and temperature settings – Settings are often adjusted over time based on personal preferences, to compensate for inadequate system operation, or to achieve energy savings. In addition, sensors require periodic recalibration.
  • Staging/sequencing of boilers, chillers, and air handling units – Equipment should be operated in the most efficient combination of chillers, boilers, and fans at varying load conditions.
  • Adjust and repair dampers and economizers – Malfunctioning or poorly tuned dampers (including seals, actuators, and linkages) and economizers result in (1) increased supply air fan energy in the closed position or require additional air heating and cooling when open too much, (2) undesired building operating conditions due to lack of outside air, and (3) premature equipment degradation and replacement.
  • Modify control strategies for standard hours of operation – Motors, pumps, fans, and air handlers often operate on a 24/7 schedule even though not required by either the building tenants or the building operating plan.
  • Eliminate simultaneous heating and cooling – Heating and cooling systems for the same space can compete against each other due to improper setpoints.
  • Air and water distribution balancing and adjustments – Systems require rebalancing due to drift and changing building/workspace mission and/or tenant requirements.
  • Verify controls and control sequencing including enabling and re-enabling automatic controls for setpoints, weekends, and holidays. Verify that overrides are released.

Many of these facility components require recalibration because the spaces are not used as originally intended, needs have changed, or they were optimized individually but not as whole systems. Another indicator for the health of total building systems can be identified through facility condition assessments, which can be used for long-term planning and for establishing benchmarks for building components’ service life.

According to APPA, the facility condition assessment is a “ratio of the cost of remedying maintenance deficiencies to the current replacement value.” To identify this ratio, one needs “the total dollar amount of existing major maintenance repairs and replacements … [to] buildings, grounds, fixed equipment, and infrastructure needs. It does not include projected maintenance and replacements or other types of work, such as program improvements or new construction; these items are viewed, as separate capital needs.” This is then divided by the full replacement cost for a complete facility to “meet the current acceptable standards of construction, and comply with regulatory requirements. … Insurance replacement values or book values should not be used.”

This defined value offers another data point to be used when discussing the merits and costs of various maintenance efforts. It also should be incorporated into any long-range maintenance plans (typically 2–7 years, according to American School & University) and capital improvements.

Be Inclusive

When such long-term maintenance and capital improvement plans are being drafted, it also is important that the right people are at the table to make decisions. One example of this is in designing plans to renovate a facility. Senior staff will certainly be involved in that conversation, but front-line maintenance personnel might not.

Given their 24/7 nature, student unions are often considered “critical facilities” that must be “concurrently maintainable”; that is, maintenance and repairs must be accomplished during normal business hours without taking the building “off line.”

The maintenance staff will likely be the most knowledgeable about ensuring a facility is concurrently maintainable in practice. This would include “providing adequate transport routes and rigging capabilities for replacing any and all equipment, installing isolation valves and electrical disconnects in strategic locations so equipment can be removed while systems remain online, and providingMaintenance3 redundant or back-up monitoring and control systems that can eliminate these systems from becoming single-point failures,” according to the ASHRAE paper.

When the design process includes maintenance staff, the program document can not only identify “high-level requirements such as system redundancy, ability to operate (and for how long) without offsite utilities, space planning and use, occupancy levels, etc. [But also, it] can capture many operations and maintenance considerations, such as system/equipment naming conventions, valve and switch tagging requirements, storage and spare parts requirements, as-built and closeout documentation requirements, etc. When programming combines the design and operations and maintenance considerations in the same process and discussions, it quickly becomes obvious where synergies exist in delivering the physical facility and provisioning for operations and maintenance concurrently.”

Smarter Decision Making

While a college union is more than a building, a facility is likely its largest capital asset. When working to maintain a facility effectively, managers want to ensure they’re making the best use of available funds and staff time. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix to such inherently complex facility maintenance decisions. However, facility managers can better position themselves for success by identifying the risks related to various options, tracking and utilizing maintenance data, balancing such data with assessments at the macro level, and including the necessary voices in strategic decisions.


BeltramElizabeth Beltramini is ACUI’s director of content curation. In this role, she serves as editor of The Bulletin, advises the Education Council, and manages curriculum development of several programs, acui.org, social media, and video production. Beltramini also is working with volunteers on a museum celebrating the Association’s centennial in 2014.