A Wrench in the Works

Several years ago, a maintenance worker in a public school in Canada noticed water dripping from the steam valve of a $100,000 boiler. The facility director shut down the boiler and called an inspector to diagnose the problem.

The inspector removed the insulation around the boiler and probed the vessel with his pocketknife. The blade went right through the wall of the boiler. The water had been leaking for so long that the boiler had virtually rusted away.

According to Operations and Maintenance Best Practices, Release 2.0, produced by the Federal Energy Management Program O & M Center of Excellence, which relates this story, the boiler was a total loss. Had the maintenance department performed an effective maintenance inspection years before and turned up the leak, less than $5 of packing around the valve would have saved the boiler.

In the world of mechanical system maintenance, small oversights can create enormous costs.

Perhaps worse, poorly maintained mechanical systems, such as heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, can damage indoor air quality in a building, making students, teachers and administrators less efficient in their work and sometimes sick.

“Inadequate fresh air causes fatigue as well as eye and skin irritation,” says Samuel Simon, vice president of mechanical services with Pipersville, Pa.-based Worth and Company, Inc., an engineering firm that designs, builds and maintains mechanical systems.

“Another key issue today is energy use,” continues Simon. “While it is important to have enough fresh air, it is equally important not to spend the energy to bring in and condition more fresh air than necessary.”

Welcome to the new world of mechanical system maintenance. Back when buildings weren’t sealed so tightly and energy was cheap, you didn’t have to care so much. Today, you do.

What does mechanical system maintenance mean today? It means conducting assessments that identify various maintenance needs such as recommissioning, carrying out inspections as well as preventive and corrective maintenance and, finally, training and retraining maintenance technicians.

Done right, maintenance can provide a productive air quality environment, restrain utility costs and extend the life of capital-intensive equipment.

Conducting Assessments
“When we start with a new client, we send in project engineers to evaluate the building envelope and the infrastructure in each district building,” says Stephen Weipert, vice president, operations with Gaithersburg, Md.-based Sodexo, a food service and facilities management service provider. “Next we create a facility capital action plan that considers the envelope, roof, windows, the structure itself and all of the mechanical systems.”

Simon notes that mechanical system assessments might consist of visual inspections and performance evaluations.

“In making a visual inspection, I might take 15 to 20 minutes per unit,” Simon says. “How do the belts look? Are the motors being greased? A good time to do a visual inspection is after a preventive maintenance session. Was everything on the schedule taken care of?”

Or you can probe deeper and conduct a performance test. Simon calls it taking a test drive. Are all the compressors and fans operating? You can test the motor to see if the windings are healthy, and take oil samples to check for contamination.

How much does it cost to assess a school building? “I would expect an assessment to take one to three days at a cost of $600 to $800 per day,” says Simon.

It’s not that expensive and it is the first step toward getting a school back in shape.

Discovering Recommissioning Needs
“A performance test can also reveal a need for recommissioning,” Simon says. “Even though the heating system is being maintained well, it is operating at 80 percent efficiency. You are using more energy than necessary to heat the building. You may need to recommission the system.”

Here’s how you might discover that need through an assessment: In a complex chilled water system, multiple air-handling units rely on two piping systems, one for chilled water and one for hot water, explains Simon. First you would test the piping with each air handler individually. Then you would test the system as a whole.

Bring all of the air-handling units on line. Some of the units will feed air into variable air volume (VAV) boxes with dampers, thermostats and heating and cooling capabilities.

The air handler supplies air at a constant temperature, but different rooms in the building need air of different temperatures to maintain the building setting of, say, 70 degrees. The VAV boxes feeding individual rooms make those adjustments. If the room is on the south side of the building where the sun can heat the windows, the room might need a full shot of 55-degree air to keep the temperature at 70.

On the north side of the building, a VAV box might adjust to push a moderate amount of heated air into the room to warm the space to 70 degrees.

Other air-handling units operating in the building are also using VAV boxes to adjust their temperatures of the spaces they are heating and cooling.

A performance assessment determines whether or not a number of mechanical systems — all very complex — are operating at peak or compromised efficiency.

If the efficiency proves to be low, the maintenance assignment would call for a “tune up” or recommissioning to return all components of the overall system to peak efficiency. 

Scheduling Corrective and Preventive Maintenance
“If you don’t already use one, buy a good maintenance management software application,” says Simon. “There are many on the market. You can buy standalone systems or subscribe to web-based services. Either way, I would look for one that will integrate with Wi-Fi devices such as tablets that maintenance techs can carry in the field.”

Called computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS), these applications organize data about buildings and building systems in ways that help to organize corrective and preventive maintenance efforts.

Once you have input data about your buildings’ systems, you can program the CMMS to schedule inspections and preventive maintenance according to the manufacturer’s specifications. Simon recommends a system that will issue work orders to technicians, making it easier to schedule and assign work.

CMMS applications can also store maintenance checklists for each system and component your techs will inspect and maintain.

When an air handler or VAV box breaks down, you can check the CMMS entry for the particular device, evaluate past maintenance activities and costs to help decide whether you should repair or replace the unit.

If you call on third party maintenance firms, up-to-date CMMS files can provide historical information as well as warranty data that will help pay for the visit.

As maintenance tasks, repairs or replacements are completed, someone must update the data in the CMMS. Wi-Fi enabled systems can receive inputs from maintenance techs in the field as work is completed, helping to reduce administrative costs.

Training and Retraining
Of course, the best organization won’t work if your technicians don’t know how to inspect and maintain the systems in your building. As in the case of the boiler in the school in Canada, small mistakes can cost thousands of dollars.

Organize on-going training for techs, Simon says. Take advantage of associations that offer training and certifications. Send techs to vendor training courses.

Never stop training. Suppose a new VAV technology comes along, and the manufacturer recommends a particular lubricant, different from the one you have used for years. A tech will learn about such changes in manufacturers’ training seminars.

Simon recommends setting an annual training budget. “Depending on a facility, training might take up 2 percent to 15 percent of a facility department’s budget,” he says. “The budget for a school might be in the 4 percent to 6 percent range.”

With $270 billion in deferred maintenance in PK-12 schools across the country, facility directors must re-engineer their approach to maintenance with assessments, CMMS organization and training. It is the only way to control rising energy costs, to prevent unscheduled asset replacement costs and to ensure that schools deliver an environment conducive to teaching and learning.