Streamline Service Calls with Internet of Things Functionality

June 21, 2017

How your department can work smarter, not harder.

It’s often said that FMs are invisible until something goes wrong. There may be some truth to that – building occupants naturally take it for granted if their workspace is the right temperature and the lights aren’t flickering, but when there’s a problem with the building, the facilities department must answer the call.

The steadily growing Internet of Things, however, could change the way you respond to service calls by gathering valuable intelligence and analyzing service trends.

How IoT Impacts Service and Support

Internet of Things (IoT) devices aren’t very useful on an individual basis, explains Andy Meadows, Principal and Director of IoT and Mobility for Ad Victoriam Solutions, a cloud technology integration company: “They collect metrics about a particular set of data points: temperature, humidity, liquid flow, air flow, dust particles, etc. It is the aggregate of data points from these devices that allow for some very powerful customer and machine service and support scenarios.”

However, depending on the IoT system you opt for and the type of data you choose to gather and interpret, IoT devices can deliver easier and faster solutions for a number of FM functions. The devices fall into two basic categories:

Mechanically driven: This device type monitors equipment function and diagnoses problems, such as error codes or unexpected noises that indicate a malfunction. This IoT category overlaps quite a bit with building automation systems (BAS), which focus entirely on building infrastructure systems. “All BAS is IoT, but not the reverse,” explains Jimy Baynum, Director of Market Development, North America for Essity Professional Hygiene Business, a hygiene and forest products company that produces an IoT-enabled restroom maintenance solution. “IoT devices also include your Fitbit or your Nest at home, where it’s just a sensor generating data.”

People-driven: Data is used to influence a specific behavior, like informing a cleaner which paper towel dispensers are nearly empty and how many packages of hand towels are needed to service them, Baynum explains.

Three key FM services are an especially good fit for IoT: troubleshooting and investigating complaints, data analysis and predictive maintenance, and streamlining the placement and servicing of work orders.

Investigate Complaints and Troubleshoot Problems

A great way to start implementing IoT devices is gathering data in trouble areas – for example, where occupants frequently complain about temperature or where you seem to be changing lamps more often than you do in other areas. It may very well be that there’s a larger HVAC issue in a room that’s too hot, but without data to lead you to the source of the problem, you could continue to constantly readjust the thermostat and waste energy.

“The No. 1 complaint FMs receive are hot and cold calls. Managing that is painful because quite often the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and that might not be the right thing to do,” says Tanuj Mohan, Founder and CTO of Enlighted, an IoT developer that produces its own smart building platform. “Today, there are companies with apps that periodically have people weigh in on whether they’re hot or cold, and based on where they are and how many people are complaining, the system decides what action to take. Sometimes facilities personnel are tempted to say, ‘Oh, this person is a complainer.’ Now the solutions are more data-driven and real.”

Another option is to take your IoT plans outside the mechanical and electrical sphere and branch out into accountability tracking or other behavior-based analysis. Sensors that can monitor foot traffic can let you know where your cleaning staff visits, for example, while other technology can track whether a paper towel dispenser was refilled and how long it sat empty, Baynum says.

“If someone was in the restroom and didn’t refill the paper, how can you improve your staff to make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing, especially if you’re hiring a third-party contractor who maintains your buildings in the evening?” Baynum adds. “With night shifts, you would likely assume everything was completed, whereas with IoT tools you can just look at your dashboard and know if dispensers are still empty from the night before.”

What Should I Track?

Tracking performance metrics allows you to see if your IoT devices are helping drive down complaints or streamline service responses. Depending on the application, it might be helpful to track any of these metrics:

  • Uptime or downtime of equipment

  • Volume of support requests

  • Deployment of service resources

  • Immediate ROI (perhaps compared to the cost of inaction)

  • Length of service calls

  • Response time (how much time passes between receiving an alert or service request and resolving it)

  • Resolution time

  • First time fix rate

Predictive Maintenance: Analysis to Action

As you gather data, you can gradually transition from using the system to diagnose existing problems to predicting and avoiding future ones. Predictive analysis is one of the most valuable tools an IoT setup can offer, as it allows you to be proactive instead of reactive. In the case of the late-night cleaning staff example, Mohan suggests using IoT data to optimize the cleaning schedule.

“See which areas are heavily used vs. lightly used and direct janitorial services to focus on the areas that are heavily used,” Mohan suggests. “Some conference rooms or offices may not be used for a whole week, so you can save time and money by not having people vacuum those rooms.”

Frequent service calls for one area or on one type of equipment could indicate a need to dive deeper, Meadows says. Longer-term analysis of incoming intelligence leads you toward data-driven maintenance practices and can even help you make the financial case for investments.

“Let’s say that in an average month, you’re spending X amount on routine services and Y amount in repairs. You can break down the repairs into ‘This unit just failed’ vs. ‘That unit failed due to a lack of maintenance because this person never called to say they needed maintenance,’” explains Meadows. “If you look at those numbers month over month in an IoT solution and start to automate those service calls, now you can say, ‘We’re not going to wait for you to call and tell us the unit died, we’re going to come out and service it.’ Your amount of service will go up a little more, but your cost expenditure on purchasing or repairing equipment might go down to 20% of what it was.”

Once you’ve got the hang of using analysis for predictive maintenance, start looking for other places to leverage your data collection to lower costs or simplify workflow. Even life safety and security – an area of crucial importance that’s also notoriously difficult to view in financial terms – can be made easier and less expensive by tracking the right things.

“We’ve all seen fire drills in buildings where we know how long the building should take to empty out completely, but there are always repeat offenders who don’t leave,” Mohan says. “IoT devices can help direct a security sweep to find that person, or if there’s a real earthquake or fire you’ll know who didn’t get out and target them. If everyone vacates in a timely manner, you might be able to lower your insurance premiums by proving how safe your building is.”

Make Your Job Easier

Sensors that track foot traffic or room entry can point to peak usage times where the facilities department might need to step up refills, cleanings or other services, Baynum suggests. Over time, definitive peaks will emerge that will allow you to easily predict upcoming service needs and adjust your schedule or supplies accordingly.

“What times and days are peaks happening? Does the men’s or women’s restroom have more traffic? This allows whoever is maintaining the area to understand the traffic pattern, which then relates to the cleaning pattern that’s needed,” Baynum says. “If you knew that on Mondays the peak hours are 9 a.m. to noon and on Fridays the peak hours are 3 to 5 p.m., you could schedule the cleaners to come at the time you think they’re most needed. That allows them to be more efficient with their staff because some restrooms may need attention once a day or six times a day. This is information they would not have had prior to incorporating IoT into the restroom unless they had someone stand outside every restroom for a week and count the number of people.”

Implement IoT in Your Building

Don’t jump into IoT implementation all at once. Chris Conway, Director of Marketing for Digital Lumens, an IoT development company that produces a cloud-based intelligence platform, recommends starting with limited capabilities and scaling up – otherwise, the volume of data will quickly become overwhelming.

“Start small – assess and understand exactly what you’d like to achieve over what period of time,” Conway suggests. “Second, make sure that there is a project champion and cross-organization support. Third, despite starting small, invest in a platform that’s easily scalable. IoT already plays an essential role for many businesses, and you want to partner with a provider whose solutions can be expanded beyond your pilot project.”

Most FMs who are investigating IoT solutions for the first time start out by trying to solve a specific problem, then branch out once they notice other areas where more data would be useful, Baynum adds.

“Don’t limit yourself. You may have one problem and look for an IoT system that solves that one problem, but then find that the system can benefit you in nine other areas,” says Baynum. “There are things you’re going to learn you could improve upon that you never thought of prior to having an IoT system. Be open to the system’s potential and you’ll do much better.”  

Janelle Penny [email protected] is Senior Editor of BUILDINGS.

About the Author

Janelle Penny | Editor-in-Chief at BUILDINGS

Janelle Penny has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with a special emphasis on covering facilities management. She aims to deliver practical, actionable content for facilities professionals.

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