Maintenance: Staffing, Methods & Practice

Reaping the Rewards of Zone Maintenance

Zone MaintenanceIn 2011, administrators at Slippery Rock University (SRU) in Pennsylvania made a decision to implement zone maintenance. “When I interviewed for the director’s job here, the president asked what zone maintenance was (from my résumé) and, after I was hired, he expressed interest in implementing it,” says Scott Albert, assistant vice president of Facilities and Planning. “I explained to him the benefits were improved communication with customers, improved relationships with customers because they see the same employees on a daily/weekly basis and staff accountability. He liked those three points because he understood, based on feedback from faculty and staff, that they were areas in which the maintenance department was lacking.

Similarly, administrators at the University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando moved to zone maintenance in June 2012. “Zone maintenance is not new,” explains Larry T. Simmons, CFM, assistant director of Facilities Operations Maintenance/HVAC. “Operationally you can organize by central shops or zones. There are pluses and minuses to both. It benefits us in the areas of accountability and esprit de corps.”

As Simmons indicates, zone maintenance is different from central shops, with the difference being that a campus is divided into groups of buildings geographically and a team of multidisciplined skilled tradespeople is assigned to each zone. A manager who oversees the work of maintenance and repair within the zone directs each zone. Tradespeople perform routine maintenance tasks, such as replacing light tubes, carpet and baseboard repair, repairing office and classroom furniture, and replacing broken outlets or switch covers. “Our zones are set up so that they’re comparable to one another,” he says. “While each geographic assignment is a zone, we refer to the staff as teams.”

With more than 2.5 million square feet of built space in nearly 100 buildings, SRU is broken into four zones. Each of three zones focuses on corrective maintenance, preventive maintenance and minor construction. The fourth zone is a dedicated project team made up of specialty services, such as locksmith and painters, who work all across campus, focusing on larger requests, like office remodeling.

UCF, currently boasting almost 10 million gross square feet in 173 buildings, has six zones organized by location, occupancy, square footage and type. Zone 1 is mostly administration buildings, along with the library and some classroom buildings. Zone 2 is mostly classroom buildings. Zone 3 is all of the laboratories and research buildings. These buildings have specialized equipment, and higher-skilled staff is placed there. “Zone 4 has mostly auxiliary buildings, where we get paid for the work we do,” Simmons says. “Zone 5 is an afternoon shift zone having no geographical assignment, completing assignments all across campus that are best done after business hours. It also allows us to provide coverage for 16 hours out of 24. Zone 6 is the support shop, staffed with the most highly skilled team, including the locksmith, sign shop and fire alarm tech people.”

Benefits Abound

As Simmons already indicated, zone maintenance comes with benefits. One is reducing the amount of time required to travel from a central location to the work site, which reduces response time to the customer. “Ninety-five percent of our work orders go directly to zone maintenance technicians,” confirms Dan Olthaus, director of Maintenance at Morgantown-based West Virginia University (WVU). “As first responders, they determine if they can complete a job or if it must be sent to the central shops.”

“Another benefit,” says E. Lander Medlin, executive vice president of Alexandria, VA-based APPA (, “is the ability for maintenance staff to form relationships with their customers, who are the eyes on the ground and can let staff know about things such as burned-out light bulbs.”

Roy Christian, CEFP, director of Operations for Ohiobased Kent State University (KSU), notes the benefit of isolating specialized equipment. “For example,” he says, “we have a science zone; it’s the only zone that has to maintain science-specific repair parts. You also create a level of expertise within the zone maintenance group as they get to know their buildings better.”

Setting It Up

“There’s no one right way to set up zone maintenance,” says Medlin. “There are many factors to take into consideration, such as personnel and their levels of expertise, types and sizes of buildings, systems to be maintained and the equipment available for maintaining them.”

For example, at KSU, a lot of the trades are still centralized. “One of the reasons is that we just don’t have the critical mass to distribute the trades into the zones,” says Christian.

Conversely, WVU kept its central shops because it owns all of its own infrastructure, such as substations, steam system distribution and central chiller plants. “We do all our own work,” Olthaus explains. “We don’t contract out much.”

Reaping the Rewards

Both Simmons and Albert have been pleased with results garnered since implementing zone maintenance. “When I started here in June 2012,” says Simmons, “the main campus, not including housing, was between five and six million square feet, and we had 62 positions, including supervisors. As of today, we have 53 positions, including supervisors, and we’re maintaining the same work level, so we’ve realized a 15 percent staff reduction.”

Simmons notes that equals roughly $500,000 in savings, which they’ve applied to operational expenses. “We’re spending more on material than ever before,” he continues, “which means we’re doing more work. We’re changing more light bulbs with fewer people, so work orders are being expedited and customers are receiving quicker responses. More importantly, our P&L isn’t about P&L, it’s about the students: If they’re getting an effective education, we’ve done our jobs.”

Albert can similarly boast. “We used to have 1,600 open work orders per month, both preventive and corrective maintenance,” he begins. “Now when I run my open work order numbers at the end of the month, there are 400 to 600 preventive maintenance orders going to the trades and 200 to 300 to the grounds crew. A good portion of those are new, so the numbers are not a true reflection of the backlog, but I’d say it averages 1,200 per month, which is equivalent to a 25 percent backlog decrease.”

Albert’s annual overtime costs have also decreased. “We added a second shift, which allowed us to reduce residence hall call-outs,” he indicates. “The implementation of zone maintenance allowed us to move much of our preventive maintenance to first shift, and that change accounts for approximately 20 percent of a $1,000,000 reduction in overtime through the last seven years. Also contributing to the overtime savings is better management oversight and our customers realizing that, with our budget challenges, it is not realistic to expect our project team to perform their remodeling work on overtime when they are not paying for the labor costs.”

Albert also appreciates that systems are being maintained rather than Band-Aided. “In the old structure, the foreman would bounce people around campus putting out fires, and there was no time to make correct repairs the first time,” he explains. “From a size perspective, if we had a more compact campus I don’t know necessarily that I’d have gone to zone maintenance, but we have a fairly spread out campus on 660 acres and, with travel time, it makes sense.”

“For a number of years,” Medlin concludes, “we’ve sliced and diced efficiency all around, streamlining processes and realizing greater efficiencies. But we’re not at a place of effectiveness. Today, we have to ask how we can we be more effective in the way we use our staff, our systems and our equipment.”

Zone maintenance is one way to do that.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .