When Is a Good Time?

People take little things for granted; a light will turn on when you hit the switch, a sink will drain after you pull the plug, and fields will be groomed and ready for action. Of course it takes a team of technicians to keep your campus up and running. Time was facility managers took advantage of the offseason to complete major projects, but now summers are just as busy as the rest of the year. How can a campus be safely and efficiently maintained under this new schedule?

“Our summer program is basically a third semester now,” reports John Lorette, work control supervisor, Physical Plant, Keene State College, a small college in southern New Hampshire with about 70 buildings and 1.7M sq. ft. “We used to pull residences offline over the summers and do preventive maintenance like changing out faucets and the like. We can’t do that anymore.”

The shift has been going on for a while now. “We went through this metamorphosis about 10 years ago,” tells Pete Van der Have, retired assistant vice president, Plant Operations, University of Utah, about that 6M sq. ft. campus. “We were on the quarter system, then the semester system, and now we have graduation in May and summer session starts right after that in June. There is no down time.”

Alternate Uses Keep Summer Months Busy
A third semester is not the only thing happening on campus during the summer months. Camps and conferences also pick up steam when the weather gets hot. The other times of the year seem busier too. “Our parking lots are as full at nine o’clock at night as they are during the day,” says Jack K. Colby, assistant VC for Facilities Operations, North Carolina State University (NC State). “Extended and unusual class hours are just the norm now.”

Research institutions like NC State, which has 14M sq. ft. of buildings, must account for equipment and experiments. “Researchers work all times of the day and night, and even when they aren’t in the building, their work has to be kept in a controlled environment,” says Colby. “Researchers are under the impression that a building never goes off line.”

So how do facilities and maintenance people get work done under these conditions?

“We’ve become excellent communicators,” explains Mike Steger, director, Physical Plant Services, National Management Resources Corporation, at Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida. “We reach beyond our usual bounds and think about every person and group that our work might touch.” Of course this communication flows both ways. “Our constituents have to keep us in the scheduling loop, too,” continues Steger. “We’ve suffered through a few failures where some group was moving in for the summer just as my team was arriving to do some work.”

Steger isn’t the only professional who’s experienced that snafu. “Last summer we scheduled a fire alarm renovation in the residence halls and didn’t know that a soccer camp was moving in,” tells Lorette. “We had to scramble to finish, and in the end wound up hiring subcontractors to help us get the job done.”

Relying on Outside Help
Other schools also turn to contractors, particularly after their own rosters have been cut. “Our painting staff was down from 17 people to 10,” recalls Van der Have. “Even with working overtime and weekends they just couldn’t get everything done. But a contractor with the right crew can come in, hit the job like a white tornado, and get out faster and cheaper.”

“We will pay our own people overtime to get things done on the off hours if we deem it too disruptive to the school schedule,” says Colby. He also builds that proviso into contractor contracts. “We are conducting an energy performance audit right now using contractors, and we stipulated that the work be conducted at night and over the weekends.”

Night, Day, and Christmas
Some things need to be done during the day for safety reasons. “We schedule outdoor maintenance like mowing, edging, and weed eating during class time so we can safely get to the landscaping,” says Steger. “People shake their fists at you for running equipment while they’re in class, but we can’t do it when they are out on the grounds.”

Van der Have holds a different opinion. “Facilities workers need to be sensitive to the people whom they serve,” he says. “If there is a night class with an open door, for instance, they need to be quiet when they’re working in the hallway.”

“I would love a program that lets you use your smartphone or other device to see which classes are empty or full at a given time,” wishes Colby. “That would allow us the ultimate efficiency and convenience.”

Emergency work will get done no matter the time or place. “If there’s a problem, people let you in no matter what,” says Van der Have. Savvy schools are trying to cut down on emergencies with a robust preventive maintenance schedule.

“We’ve given each of our techs ownership of their work and individual buildings,” says Lorette. “That’s been a huge success. Fewer things are breaking, it’s saving money, and my staff is really rising to the challenge.”

“We are all trying to stay ahead of the preventive maintenance curve,” agrees Steger. “With budgets the way they are, we have to be as proactive as we can.” That means that the people who write the checks understand that bigger equipment like an air hammer might need replacing while it’s still running. “Murphy’s Law dictates that a piece of equipment like that will die three days after class starts, and it takes four to 12 weeks lead time to get a new one,” says Steger. “A temporary air system will really bring the cost up.”

The days of taking whole buildings off line to complete major tasks are clearly over. “Maybe for major renovations,” says Colby. “But now you might get away with taking just one small part down at a time.” There is, however, one time of year when maintenance professionals can have all the access they want. “We are very busy during that two-and-one-half-week Christmas break,” says Steger. “My staff may call me ‘Scrooge’ but it’s a great unimpeded time.”