From Clipboard to Computer: Inspections are Invigorated with Technology

May 27, 2014

Tablet documentation, electronic compilation, and controls integration work wonders for walkthroughs.

Technology Use for the Tablet Averse

If you don't have a tablet, there are other options on the table

Bernie Daily has been in facilities management and building operations for over 30 years. He's seen plenty of fads come and go. For now, he's stayed off the iPad bandwagon.

"I still prefer the pen and paper method for data gathering," Daily says. "You may not want to bring a $600 piece of equipment with you, balance it in one hand, and type in the information with the other."

But that doesn't mean Daily has abandoned technology altogether. Upon returning from the field, he passes his log to a clerical employee for data entry and afterwards double-checks that all information was transferred correctly.

"We do have a browser based data entry system that can be used in the field, but I also have the same form in a paper format," he explains. "I'll take the clipboard any day."

What results from the process is an Excel spreadsheet that documents every piece of equipment, its status, and miscellaneous notes. It acts as a historical file for the entire system and components, and it also produces a prioritized, itemized work order. The files can be accessed by team members at his central location on either computer or paper.

"It allows them to find a nice, easy task or two and become self-directed," adds Daily.

If you want to take steps toward a more efficient, long-lasting HVAC system, the process literally entails walking. To identify energy-saving strides and life-extending advances, you must inspect your system on monthly and semi-annual walkthroughs. And to maximize the effectiveness of those walkthroughs, seize the benefits of various computing technologies.

Your inspections don't need to be overly technical, troublesome, or time-consuming – you should be able to perform them yourself or with in-house staff and they should only take roughly an hour.

There is an art to the walkthrough, but it's increasingly becoming a science. Technology fits into the equation in several ways. Monitoring and management systems can track data and feed them to several mobile devices. A tablet is also helpful for recording findings in the field. But if you don't yet have one in your arsenal, consider compiling your discoveries in a computerized document. It can act as a historical file of system components.

Before getting started, it is essential to pinpoint objectives for your inspection, utilize tools and resources for utmost effectiveness, and engage expert guidance. Read on to gauge your goals, harness the how-to help of consultants and manufacturers, and tap into tablets and technical expertise. These principles will ensure that your HVAC system sets the pace for a high-performance site.

Measure Your Motivations
"The overall goal is to raise the level of awareness," says Bernie Daily, president of Daily Operations Inc., a consulting firm that provides monitoring, preventive maintenance, and training. "Get to know the facility better and better. That's how you optimize the system."

Setting goals and considering your motivation helps you get the most out of your inspection.

"You can't do anything until you have a clear objective. I look at three of them," explains Jim Woods, indoor environmental consultant and former executive director of the Building Diagnostics Research Institute. "First, you could be responding to an occupant complaint. Secondly, you might be performing a post-occupancy evaluation to assure a healthy environment. Lastly, and maybe most importantly, there can be an economic or energy motivation. Impacting the bottom line is an important consequence of being in operations."

Performing this walkthrough doesn't require being a highly skilled mechanic or technician, adds Daily. You just want to gather a baseline, a process that can be expedited with digital tools. "The more frequently you do it, the better you get at it and the more you'll get out of it," he says.

Tap into Tools and Resources

The Hierarchy of Needs in Building Terms: Take Your Building from Basic to Self-Actualized

There's plenty of talk about viewing your building as a living, breathing entity – but who knew you could apply human psychology to it?

Through the lens provided by renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow, James Woods reimagines building improvement. A routine walkthrough may help you unlock and realize your system's potential. Using the hierarchy of needs as a foundation, take your facility from fundamental to phenomenal.

The first stage describes the physical requirements for survival. If they are not met, the entity cannot function properly and will ultimately fail.

"This is setting the baseline for your facility," Woods adds. "Follow codes and standards, and make sure you've taken care of the very basics."

A sense of security is essential for overall health and success.

"Buildings people have a need for predictability and orderliness," explains Woods. "At this stage, you want to set some guidelines, so that workers have guidance."

"People like to work together to do good things," Woods says. Connection and acceptance can foster a culture of productivity and collaboration in the building environment.

Every aspect of the system should be valued and respected. Every person and component can contribute. At this level, achievement breeds confidence.

"You're adding value through implementation of successful strategies," says Woods.

Here, an entity accepts its potential and strives to fully realize it. The final stage is marked by accomplishment, creativity, problem solving, and acceptance of facts. Imagine what monthly walkthroughs could help you unlock.

"Start with the basics and get your baseline. To achieve the upper three, you have to set objectives," Woods explains. "It's almost a personal thing. Success is different for everyone."

The next step hinges on equipping yourself with gadgets and enlisting outside expertise.

Tablet computers have become important devices in the facilities or energy manager's toolbox. They can serve several functions in the field, but be careful out there.

"I still prefer the pen and paper method for data gathering," Daily says. "You may not want to bring a $600 piece of equipment with you, balance it in one hand, and type in the information with the other."

But a clipboard can only take you so far. Internet connection and documentation programs like Excel could allow you to feed information to your servers in real time. Computerized devices also offer more far-reaching benefits.

"Tablets are a great way to keep your reference material handy. I don't think I could do my job without an iPad," Woods explains. "All specifications, design drawings, and product information can be gathered on it and accessed on-site. In the past, you'd have to search through file drawers in your office and make two or three trips back and forth from the actual equipment."

If you're focused on energy management, certain apps and algorithms can help with your calculations, adds Woods. These are typically unique to certain consultants and manufacturers, but they can advance your walkthrough the extra mile.

"Companies have different controls platforms available. There is a lot of variety in terms of what they can achieve. You can develop custom strategies, because off-the-shelf programs don't always work for boilers, pumps, temperature reset schedules, variable speed drives, and so on," explains Erin Sperry, commercial heating product manager for manufacturer Fulton Heating Solutions Inc. "Other packages can hook into local area networks or a wireless connection so that the manufacturer can monitor systems, issue reports, and make recommendations for improvement."

Your inspection will entail a significant amount of data collection, which helps establish your baseline. But make sure your journey doesn't stop there. Go one step further by turning the information into actionable items, which may require outside expertise.

"It's important that you're not just monitoring and measuring," Sperry says. "To optimize the system, you need to analyze the info. A consultant or engineer can make suggestions and provide real, relatable feedback. That's where the extra value comes from."

There's no shame in admitting when your knowledge has topped out. "Know what you don't know. Know where to draw the line and when to call for help," Woods adds. "When you don't know what you don't know, you're in real trouble."


Harness the How-To of Experts
You shouldn't be waiting every six months or one year to perform a walkthrough. They should be simple and convenient enough to do about once per month – "anything longer than an hour, and people won't do them as often," says Daily.

"Focus on boilers, motors, pumps, fans, compressors, and cooling towers," recommends Bill Thomas, global sales manager for SKF, a supplier of bearings, lubrication, and maintenance products. "Little red flags can be temperature, noise, vibration, and visual conditions."

Have an easy, line-of-sight sequence. If you enter the boiler room and the water meter is the first thing you see, note what it says. Pay attention to any anomalies. "If the red light that says the exhaust fan is running is lit up, but the fan isn't on, that's an anomaly. Any question you have might be a concern. 'I don't know' isn't an acceptable answer," Daily says, adding that he utilizes a simple six-step process.

Step 1: Create an Asset List
Assemble a basic list of all equipment you will encounter. It should include the parameters that you will use to inspect each individual device. For some devices, it might be a simple on/off switch, whereas a boiler would have a variety of considerations.

As you encounter a new piece of equipment or go to a new location, add the necessary information to your list. After your initial walkthrough, your list will change substantially from year to year.

"There is about a 5-10% annual change in equipment, just based on normal wear and tear," explains Daily. "That can be compounded if you wait to do your cataloging. Neglect makes the problem bigger."

Step 2: Do a Preliminary Walkthrough and Plan the Route
Determine a logical route that is as direct as possible. Each piece of equipment along your path must be addressed. You should be able to stand in a mechanical room, take your boiler readings, turn in another direction, and go to whatever piece of equipment is next.

"To check out two air handling units at a college, I had to take an elevator to a mezzanine level, climb a 15-foot ladder onto a roof, then another 10-foot ladder through a hatch onto another roof," Daily says. "Those pieces are now checked every three months, instead of being on the routine route. If something is too difficult, it won't get done."

Step 3: Create a Log
All of the preceding information should be compiled electronically into a historical file (see sidebar).

A commonly used platform is an Excel spreadsheet. You can then access this log via tablet computer or print one off for your clipboard. Type as many notes as necessary or jot them in the margins.

Step 4: Walk Your Route
Making the trek monthly helps you to get a feel for your assets, the sounds that they make, and whether anything has changed since the last walkthrough.

By developing a documented monthly inspection of all equipment, you have a significant record to rely on when requesting funds to replace or repair a particular piece.

Step 5: Use Another Pair of Eyes
"When you bring your log back to the central location, have a second person look through the readings to see what potential trouble may be brewing," Daily says.

In these occurrences, the log identifies the job that a mechanic needs to do, exactly where to go, what piece of equipment to examine, and what parameters on that equipment are important.

Step 6: Create a Work List
Start an equipment history as soon as you use the walkthrough and follow up on it. Work orders can be either for repair or investigation.

"The first time I do a walkthrough, I might come back with 30 items to fix or look into. I can lay the list down for my team members to pick up and see what to do when they come in," says Daily. "It allows them to find a nice, easy task or two and become self-directed."

Whereas repair work orders are relatively straightforward, the investigative ones lead to the optimization of your site, Daily adds. Digging into deeper projects will yield many significant strides. You'll become increasingly familiar with the facility and always be thinking ahead.

"Preventive maintenance doesn't really prevent anything, because you still have a list of major repairs every year. I like to use the term 'planned maintenance,'" says Daily. "Extending lifecycle comes from planned inspections and upkeep. If equipment is routinely monitored and repaired, you can achieve 30- to 40-year service lives for major assets."

Chris Curtland is assistant editor of BUILDINGS.

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