On Top of the Learning Curve

July 7, 2005
Key strategies for managing HVAC in K-12 institutions

Ever notice that no one pays attention when an HVAC system is working well? It doesn’t really matter what purpose the building serves, or who occupies it; if the heating and ventilation systems are running smoothly and humming along without a hitch, you won’t hear about it.

But even the best system will break down from time to time - and then that’s all you may hear about! The good news is that, with some well-formed planning practices in place, many HVAC repairs can be predicted, whether the organization is large or small, public or private. More importantly, major breakdowns can often be prevented.

Of course, planning ahead for the care of an HVAC system of any institution with a large building portfolio is a challenge. Add to that hundreds - if not thousands - of children, aging structures, and limited budgets, and it doesn’t get much more demanding than HVAC systems at K-12 school districts.

The need for planning is great. Like other public institutions, schools are in a head-to-head competition for limited taxpayer dollars. It can be difficult to prioritize not only which school in the district needs money, but also which maintenance project ranks higher on the budget. HVAC system repairs can often be pushed until the last possible year in order to allocate resources elsewhere, resulting in minor band-aid fixes that can add up. Escalating energy and fuel costs only exacerbate these funding woes.

Expenses also rise due to the physical set-up of K-12 campuses. In a typical school district, the facility staff is responsible for a large building portfolio, comprised of smaller buildings spread out geographically across a town or state. Obviously, instead of one centralized system for heating or ventilation, each school has its own HVAC program. These systems are often smaller overall and tend to have a greater cost of heating or cooling per square foot because they are unable to leverage the advantages of centralized equipment

HVAC system care is subject to schools’ schedules. School districts have a very short window of replacement, typically a week or two over the winter and 6 to 8 weeks over the summer for more significant construction work. The ability to forecast repairs in advance of breakdowns, and then time those projects accordingly, would ensure smoother operations during the school year.

Some districts argue for the purchase and installment of new HVAC systems, making the case that a major investment now will pay off in fewer repair costs. However, this is not always the optimal answer. School buildings across the nation are aging, and the older buildings are not necessarily equipped to handle newer heating or cooling technologies. In some cases, it becomes more costly to add in a new system than to install one in new construction.

Even the very best investments can have unintended consequences. Jay Readinger, facilities specialist for the Maine Department of Education, points to window replacements as a prime example. In older buildings, the windows themselves were part of the HVAC system, allowing more airflow and supporting the natural ventilation. Replacement windows may increase energy efficiency - a top concern with today’s rising fuel prices; however, the moisture that used to be able to escape now cannot. This creates the ideal environment for mold.

In addition, some school districts are not equipped to support certain investments. Technology keeps getting better and better, but at the same time, school buildings are getting older and older. Can a 30-year-old high school support a new filtration system? And even if the necessary repairs can be made, does the school district have the knowledge base to run and maintain the system? As new HVAC systems have become more efficient and sophisticated, they require more sophistication to operate - otherwise the investment could easily go to waste.

So, the questions arise: What can a facilities professional do to ensure a fully operational and effective HVAC system for a complete K-12 school district? How can a facilities professional improve programs already in place - without reinventing the wheel?

Know What You Have
While this may sound elementary, the reality is that far too many school districts do not have a solid handle on the conditions of the HVAC systems under their stewardship. Between the construction of new schools and the addition of temporary structures to house classrooms in overcrowded districts, there are numerous HVAC systems for school districts to operate and manage.

Conducting a detailed, visual audit of each HVAC system is an essential first step in mastering this challenge. The audit should be conducted on a methodical basis, allowing for valid analysis. Otherwise, a “satisfactory” rating given to one school’s heating ducts could signify an entirely different situation (with the associating different needs) at another.

The audit should not only quantify what you have (i.e. how many HVAC systems and related parts are under your stewardship), but also add qualitative information. This could include factors such as: How old is each part in the HVAC system? Has any part been repaired recently? Is any one system more susceptible to breaking down? Can the facility support a new HVAC system, or would significant upgrades to the building be required? This information will be invaluable in making and supporting decisions about HVAC maintenance and investments going forward.

Build the Institutional Memory
One of the biggest challenges facing K-12 school districts is the lack of “memory” regarding school buildings and their systems. The typical rate of turnover is comparatively higher within education than within other organizations. At the Maine Department of Education, for example, superintendents are in office for 3 years, and school board members are the same. As a result, no one authority holds knowledge of a building’s history when it comes to repairs and ongoing maintenance.

In addition, because repairs are impacted by vacation schedules and budget constraints, they often occur piecemeal. Obviously, if one small part breaks down, you don’t need to replace the full system, you invest in that part. As the years pass, however, and staff turnovers occur, school authorities may not know which repairs have been made where or which breakdowns may be likely to occur next. By creating a history of HVAC data, school districts are in a much better position to put the entire scope of repair “pieces” together and identify upcoming projects and requirements - before significant problems erupt.

Centralize Data
Once this information has been gathered, it will be most useful if held in one central and easily accessible location. Web-based software systems - often called capital planning and management solutions - are available, and can be customized to feature the data you need. With this type of software in place, facility staff can access the most recent HVAC data with a few clicks of the mouse instead of poring through past spreadsheets. As a result, you can see the HVAC system as a whole instead of just one particular building. This helps to bundle repairs together, which cuts down extra costs.

For K-12 school districts in particular, a single, centralized database is a must to gain more insight and accuracy on repairs. With school buildings spread across a district or state, having multiple databases of information will lead to redundancies and inefficient planning (at best).

Tie in HVAC with the Facility
Once you have a handle on your HVAC conditions, it’s important to tie any needs directly to the building it is supporting. Consider also the environment around the school building. Is it tropical year-round? Subject to flooding - and therefore mold, if not properly ventilated? How long is the winter, and how long is a heating system needed?

When an HVAC system is retrofitted, for example, this can help facility authorities determine the optimal design. Design of humidification, as well as distribution systems’ size and location, will depend on many factors. Climate control is a delicate balance: too dry and the air may become contaminated with dust and airborne pollutants; too moist, and mold takes root. Properly maintained systems for cooling, heating, and ventilating school classrooms can improve indoor environmental quality, save energy, reduce peak demand, and reduce pollution for a county or district. Above all, well-operated HVAC systems ensure students have a healthy environment in which to learn. It is critical to view HVAC systems as a part of the greater whole. Having all facility data in one central location can alleviate this pain point.

Plan Ahead - and Plan Effectively
K-12 school districts have a very short window of replacement. Summer vacations provide the most extensive timeframe; however, even that span is typically only 2 months on average. Choose a facility planning program that allows you to bundle projects together, thereby cutting down procurement costs. In addition, plan ahead for what might break in the coming year. If the heating system has passed its expected lifespan, making anticipated minor repairs over the summer could extend the life of that system to last through the next winter.

Accurately predicting and planning for needed repairs delivers another, more high-profile benefit: more on-target funding requests, which can be validated by the information compiled in the facility database.

Staff Support vs. Tech Investments
Before committing to a full system upgrade, ensure your staff will receive full training and have access to “Help Desk” and customer service resources. This also applies to capital planning software investments; consulting and other related services ensure data is gathered and analyzed effectively well into the future. The more advanced the technology, the more savvy the user will need to be. Knowing that help is only a phone call away can reduce some of that stress while expanding the facilities team’s knowledge base.

Of course, every school district faces its own unique set of challenges and hurdles. However, by following the outlined tips, planning, managing, and investing in HVAC systems can become a smoother process. And, as a result, you can transform reactive facility processes into proactive strategies that will help to reduce - and in some cases eliminate - further problems in HVAC care down the road.

Lisa Raffin is vice president at VFA’s Professional Services Group. Boston-based VFA Inc. (www.vfa.com) is a leading provider of software and services for facilities management and capital planning.

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