Maintaining the equipment in your building’s systems is a critical if not routine practice as an FM. Instead of responding to breakdowns, strategic maintenance tactics could eliminate some of the costs and headaches associated with reactive maintenance. Is a proactive maintenance plan right for the equipment in your facility?
A Proactive Approach
As one might expect based on its name, proactive maintenance is a more involved process because it focuses on anticipating issues that might arise, considering root causes of equipment failure and identifying when a problem might occur.
Therefore, placing systems in a proactive maintenance plan can involve scheduled checks and maintenance over regular intervals, predictive analytical technologies and continuous condition monitoring based on the needs of each piece of equipment. In a perfect world, this approach would be enacted in all of a building’s systems, but doing so is not always feasible.
“Proactive maintenance is really a combination of all those technologies; the difference is the application on an asset-by-asset basis,” says Ken Stack, Vice President of Solutions & Transitions at C&W Services in Auburndale, MA, referring to the other modes of maintenance. “We would like to perform proactive maintenance on anything that isn’t bolted down, anything that moves or anything we can tag, but most of the time we don’t have the staff or the budget to perform that level of proactive maintenance. That level also probably isn’t the most effective from an outcome and financial basis. We take each individual asset and really understand its applications, its criticalities and its effect on the operations.”
This level of care for all systems and equipment is usually not sustainable for entire facilities because of budgetary restraints. However, the inability to implement it fully does not mean that proactive maintenance is not a responsible option for your facility – it just means that you need to be careful and judicious when selecting what is covered under a proactive maintenance plan.
Therefore, the decision making process behind proactive maintenance should be based on assessing the financial ramifications of a particular system or piece of equipment not working properly.
“What you’re really doing with a proactive maintenance program is managing risk,” explains Stack. “These unplanned maintenance items can crush a facility’s budget vs. being proactive, budgeting and spending a fraction of that breakdown cost.”
While you might find comparable results from similar proactive maintenance plans, results are truly dependent on the specific attributes of individual buildings. What may work well in one building might cause unnecessary costs in another.
“It’s a different impact based on different applications, but in the end you make a determination to the degree you want to prevent unplanned failures of that piece of equipment,” says Stack. “Then you develop a proactive maintenance strategy to manage those risks of downtime or unplanned cost.”
The threat of downtime is one of the most critical factors that goes into considering a proactive maintenance plan. How well would your organization handle an equipment-based failure that shuts down operation?
Tom Mooney and Tim Campbell of Alliance Mechanical, an HVAC maintenance company based in Essex Junction, VT, both stress how proactive maintenance can save time and money by preventing downtime. And by developing and adhering to a plan, you can expect fewer breakdowns with better energy efficiency, fewer service calls and longer life expectancy of equipment.
Campbell notes that typically with HVAC equipment “proactive maintenance equates to less than half the cost of reactive maintenance.” The most critical systems in your facility will be the most valuable candidates for a proactive maintenance program.
“The best bang for the buck is where the maintenance activities are going to have a direct impact on either downtime or energy costs,” Stack explains. “In a lot of scenarios where there really isn’t an impact on downtime and energy, you’re trading dollars between either proactive maintenance or reactive maintenance. If you choose not to go with a proactive maintenance strategy, you’re going to have increased corrective maintenance from breakdowns. You might be saving in the short term by not performing proactive maintenance, but in the long term you end up paying the piper while experiencing increased equipment failures and degradations on equipment life.”
Consequently, systems that are more complicated and require more involved maintenance practices than your own facility staff might be able to conduct are likely stronger candidates for proactive maintenance. According to Campbell, “The more moving pieces of equipment in a building, the more need you have for proactive maintenance.”
Conversely, systems that are smaller and simpler might not require the same level of attention.
“If you have a building that has almost no equipment, you’ll need a little bit of service,” explains Campbell. In the case of HVAC systems, “some simple buildings may just have heating only with a piece of radiation, a boiler and a pump.” Mooney adds, “If you have a large package unit, a large built-up air handling unit, a big cooling tower or things of that nature, they demand maintenance.”
Nevertheless, even the simplest systems and equipment need regular maintenance, and some FMs might get by with facility staff taking care of filters and smaller maintenance tasks. But in the realm of HVAC and other systems, training and certification may be required to perform key actions on equipment, and your staff might not be able to conduct that maintenance.
In most cases, you’ll simply need to look closely at the difference between reactive and proactive maintenance individually. If a reactive maintenance program turns out to be more cost-effective – meaning service calls or equipment upgrades become more expensive than fully replacing broken equipment – you also need to consider whether it’s worth the downtime involved in waiting for technicians to arrive and fix the issue.
“A lot of times where it doesn’t make sense is when the cost to maintain the repair starts to approach the cost to replace the equipment,” says Stack. “For example, you have an exhaust fan in your office restrooms. Those cost about $1,000, and maintaining that equipment typically costs $100-150 each time you get a technician to go up there and look at that piece of equipment. You can count the number of times that it takes before you’ve spent more than the value of the asset. And from a criticality standpoint, the restroom exhaust fan is probably not going to shut down your business. Is it going to be inconvenient? Possibly. But a lot of times it will just go unnoticed. So at that point, are you just spending good money just to prevent a failure that would be almost irrelevant?”
Proactive HVAC Maintenance
While proactive maintenance might not be for every component of a building, it is significantly more likely to pay off with an HVAC system than others in a facility. Because HVAC is critical to sustaining occupant wellness and productivity throughout the day, it is often the best and most obvious system to receive proactive maintenance in a given building.
“HVAC systems are the heart and lungs of your building,” says Mooney. “That’s why having a good proactive maintenance plan in place is going to ensure that those things are being achieved, so your tenants, customers and occupants are all happy.”
Furthermore, better maintenance of HVAC systems will reduce amount of energy that they consume.
“A lot of times with HVAC equipment, you get degraded energy efficiency and performance when you don’t perform proactive maintenance, so you’ll see an energy savings if you maintain your HVAC equipment,” says Stack.
Inadequate or even crudely measured HVAC maintenance practices will have a big impact on energy usage by the system. When not checked regularly, these systems can needlessly expend much more energy than your building actually requires.
“The energy savings come when we get into these buildings and find specifically designed systems that run and consume a certain amount of energy,” says Campbell. “With neglect, these systems can be running out of control, overheating or overcooling, moving too much air or not enough, or moving too much water in pumps or not enough, and they consume more energy than what the building really needs to satisfy the space.”
A proactive maintenance program can also safeguard your building against some insidious threats to your occupants. Mooney notes, “Just recently in New York City they had a bad problem with Legionnaires disease with cooling towers that weren’t cleaned and hadn’t been maintained. The water wasn’t treated, and what they circulated made people sick. There’s a lot of liability in it.”
If you look into proactive maintenance and find it to be an appealing prospect, just remember that transitioning to it can be a bit of a balancing act. Even if you do want to change the vast majority of your maintenance practices, it probably won’t happen overnight.
“Folks usually don’t have the maintenance budget to flip that switch and go 100% proactive maintenance when they are in a reactive mode prior to that,” says Stack. “It’s typically a journey to identify where the risks are and progressively get to the point where more and more of your assets are being maintained on a proactive basis.”
Justin Feit email@example.com is Assistant Editor of BUILDINGS.