Winter Maintenance

School maintenance is a year-round issue. But, generally, it's the winter season that presents the most problems. Here are the reports from a city school district, a county-wide district and a state-wide program on how they cope, especially when the weather is not all that jolly.

Jim Baucom, assistant director of Maintenance and Operations for the Yakima School District, Yakima, Wash., reports that his district has 28 buildings with just less than 2 million square feet. The earliest built in 1947. The maintenance staff consists of three heating and air conditioning technicians and two plumbers.

Eastern Washington is known for its wide fluctuations of weather, sometimes in the same day. It's been said that people going outdoors on a day off should take skis and golf clubs, since they don't know how the weather will turn out.

What happened a few years back is that the snow piled up so high after several days of heavy snow that the roofs of buildings, like one Wal-Mart, caved in. The Yakima schools didn't face this disaster, but the maintenance staff has to be ready for anything.

More typical problems, Baucom explains, result from the older buildings not being as well insulated as they might be, resulting in pipes freezing. Or, if the air handler is not working properly and, over a non-work period, such as a weekend, the coils freeze, they can burst. "We have a pre-winter checking and preventive program, so we're not hit all at once," says Baucom.

Special problems result from the antiquated roofing and draining systems, which are continually being upgraded. Heavy snowfalls can clog up the drains, then freeze, so when it melts, it can flood the building and require extra manpower to clean it up.

A more immediate problem is simply the heavy snows. "We do our own snow plowing and sanding on the parking lots, and use snow blowers on the sidewalks," Baucom says. Maintenance and office operations work together in a staff team effort, he adds. "We work overtime which gets into all-night shifts, if necessary, to make the school grounds safe."

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District, in Charlotte, S.C., and covering all of Mecklenburg County, has 649 buildings on 4,892 acres, says Chip Irby, director of Maintenance, Engineering and Energy Management. The facilities encompass over 20.5 million square feet, of which more than 900,000 are mobile classrooms. The buildings come in all shapes and sizes, including some that are approximately 1,200-square-foot mobile facilities. Some buildings are over 75 years old, a few more over 50, while the rest are more recent, including those constructed just a year or so ago.

"Our biggest challenge is the one faced by most districts — budget cut backs and reduced staff," Irby says. “We have 90,000 work orders a year, but we have the same staffing for 20.5 million square feet as we did for 8.5 million. Thirty heating and air conditioning mechanics and other technicians work the 179 schools.”

The solution for the problem of fewer people being required to do more, Irby explains, has been utilizing ISO principles of gradual but continuous improvement — becoming much more efficient by using key performance indicators and charts, and holding each of the staff accountable for specific work assignments.

Snow is not a major problem in his area, Irby say. What is, however, "is sleet and freezing rain. This creates problems from several perspectives. One is power outages, which can lead to damages to the mechanical systems. We have to know when to shut them off. Driving and walking on the grounds are safety hazards. All of our maintenance staff are considered essential personnel. If they can get to the school safely, they scrape and sand the entrances, exits and parking lots to make them as safe as possible."

Irby says his district has an annual preventive maintenance program. For instance, in January and February, the staff is preparing the chillers for the upcoming warm seasons, while before the start of the really cold season, the boilers are checked out and made ready to go. These are all scheduled to be ready by Nov. 15. Because weather conditions can vary considerably over the county, some schools don't request the heating until later, but the boilers will be ready. "Some of the older schools have a two-pipe system, so we have to manually convert them," Irby says. Suppose a school asks for heating before Nov. 15. Will the maintenance staff comply? Irby's response: "Absolutely."

The Ohio School Facilities Commission, based in Columbus, has a somewhat different orientation. Maintenance and Commissioning Administrator, Mark Wantage, says, "We cover the entire state of Ohio and provide preventive maintenance programs and long-range planning for the state's school districts." Because there are so many districts, of varying sizes, and where weather conditions can vary greatly from one end of the state to the other, there is no master plan of one-size-fits-all. Each particular program is evolved with each particular district. For instance, in an area with a lot of snow, the district might have its own snow removal equipment. If the snowfall is relatively light, it might be more efficient to outsource that particular service.

There are 612 school districts in Ohio, each one averaging about five facilities. The buildings range from about 50,000 to over 400,000 square feet — the average being about 97,000. The buildings go back to the late 1900s, and in about the past 10 years, many have been upgraded. "We're about half way through renovating or replacing buildings, starting with the low-wealth districts and building up," Wantage says.

The process the commission follows, Wantage explains, begins with zero-based budgeting. Then, the district and commission build up from there in terms of what is needed in terms of equipment, staff, etc. "We build up from there, looking at everything from critical life saving to operational to aesthetic issues," he says. Skill sets and available budgets are analyzed.

"We use a Web-based tool that tells us about the equipment and other information about a facility," Wantage explains. "We upload to produce what is required, in terms of manpower and costs. From there, we rely on advisors to look at the uniqueness of each facility, the unique staff, environments and conditions at each one. All of this is blended into the right sourcing process, whether it's best to contract out for any particular services or to add more training in-house. A big part of what we do is advocate continuing education and ongoing training. We want our maintenance people to be on a par with the educators. There are tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars in equipment, all kinds of health and safety issues and new technology issues that need to be mastered. We expect to have and maintain a culture or professionalism." A school master plan is available online to articulate the necessary standards.

Both preventive maintenance and disaster recovery plans are in effect. "We have a phone chain set up," Wantage says, "and know in advance who does what, and when or who will go out at what time in the morning to survey the campus site and look for potential slip and fall areas or vehicle access.”

Conditions vary from one part of the state to another. For instance, snow overloading rooftops is always a concern, but a more common occurrence is snow falling off roofs. Yet, in low-lying areas, the greater risk is flooding from melting snow or rain. "Snow can be a high-water event in these areas," Wantage says," which can compromise a building. All contingency plans need to be developed well in advance." Modern techniques are used, such as thermal scanning around the roofing, and even joints, to identify potential leaks.

Has the weather ever taken Ohio by surprise? "About a year-and-a-half ago, a hurricane that came up from the Gulf sent 80-mph., hurricane-force winds through Ohio, the first time in recorded history," Wantage replies. "Our highest winds had been 65 to 70 miles an hour. We did have some roof-related damage, but nothing catastrophic. You can't prepare for everything but, if you are prepared, it's easier to adapt to the unexpected."

Wantage says that some other states, such as Washington and Oregon, have some state control over district building programs, but of a different type. New Mexico, with a small population, has more central control than many states.

The Commission came into being in 1997, and the maintenance initiative started in late 2003. "We're about halfway through getting districts to become involved," Wantage says. "At one time, it appeared to many districts as a ‘big brother’ program. But, I believe that the reason it's been so successful is because there is no force. We provide a basis. It's really a collaborative effort."

Wantage reports that for the past two years, the program won the LEED Silver award. "We're shooting for the Gold," Wantage says. "The technology has continued to grow over the past few years in terms of energy management, daylight and air quality. We're not doing patch-ups. We're renovating and maintaining schools, so they'll be in good shape for the next 40 to 50 years."