Mastering the Art of Facilities Maintenance

managing time and resources effectively


I’ve just canceled a contract with a customer that has been in cutback mode for the last two years. I won’t mention who they are, but they are a property management company that also happens to own and manage commercial real estate. The economy has forced them to have to cut back their operations.

Needless to say, my services were part of what suffered. one of their buildings was poorly constructed from the beginning and has a track record of high utility costs and poor HVAC performance. When I first took over the HVAC maintenance contract, I submitted to them a complete and rather comprehensive strategy for making repairs, upgrades and changes that would have brought the system up to spec.

My strategy called for them to spend roughly $20K over a one-year period. We planned to address everything from incomplete control systems, poor air balancing, and system programming.

Instead the customer opted to do nothing, and then spent the next two years periodically calling me “Can you just do something to get them temporarily through the season without charging too much?”

I understand the cash crunch we’ve all been in, and I understand that they didn’t have the money to make necessary repairs- but one of the things I didn’t see coming is that in the eyes of the tenants and customers, the contractor is the one responsible for their comfort (or lack thereof) and that soon the perception would be that I basically couldn’t fix their problems. Nevermind that I presented several proposals to make repairs- they just saw me in the building repeatedly with nothing changing.

So, I’m wondering how to avoid getting into this situation in the future? Ideally I would simply qualify my customers better, or include repair clauses in my contracts- but in tough times sometimes you can’t afford to be too picky.

I don’t have all the answers for this one- I’m still thinking about it. Let me know what you think.

January 3, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Remote Monitoring

Having a computerized monitoring system in your building can be a great way to have continual, updated and current information about your facility and the systems that keep it running.
Today’s embedded devices are lowering the cost of remote monitoring, and it is no longer necessary to have a complete building automation system in order to connect your equipment to the internet for text, email, or web alerts. Here’s a few examples of some really great products to get you started:
The IP-PC 101 from Mamac Systems is a small embedded router with sensor inputs that you can connect directly to your existing ethernet network. This is great for monitoring a set of pumps, a boiler, rooftop unit, etc. I have one that I use for testing and I really think it is a powerful application of xml and embedded software.

The IOLogic W5340 from Moxa is another great application of embedded technology, and has the added feature of built-in cellular connectivity. Although it is a little pricier than the MAMAC device, it has a few more bells and whistles and can be a “standalone” device meaning you don’t have to use an existing ethernet connection if you connect it to a cellular plan. With built-in GPS, it can also be used for monitoring and tracking mobile assets.

If you need to monitor multiple devices across a campus, you may want to take another step up in functionality (and cost) and look into a Red Lion G3 System Interface connected to wireless Banner input devices. These can be connected and networked wirelessly to create a more comprehensive monitoring (and control) network of devices.

Whatever the application, remote monitoring can be a way to create peace-of-mind when full-time staffing isn’t a practical option, and receive alerts for system outages, set up sensing points to monitor voltage, temperature, humidity, pressure and a seemingly limitless plethora of sensing devices.

October 29, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Importance of “Jobbing”

If you work in a facility full-time as a maintenance technician, you know what it is like to walk up three flights of stairs, or across a campus, and realize that the pipe wrench, screwdriver, cordless drill, etc. is laying back on the desk in the maintenance office where you left it.

HVAC, Mechanical, and Plumbing contractors can multiply the impact of a forgotten item tenfold when the office is across town from the shop during rush hour.

Regardless of how far the office is from the work being done, some serious time, effort and cost can be saved by taking a few minuted to go through a checklist and make sure you have everything you need to do a job.

First ask: What is the task? Whether you’re hanging a new picture in the office lobby, or installing a new water heater- there is still a list of items you will need to do the work.  Taking time to think about what you are going to be doing and what you will need to bring with you to do the job can can be the difference between finishing the job and feeling good about the accomplishment and not getting the job done and feeling like you didn’t accomplish anything.

Next ask: What are the tools I am going to need? Run through the inventory. Hammer, Drill, screwdriver, specialty tool, or tools that need to be signed out from the office, or rented. If you’ve ever assembled a piece of furniture, or a bookshelf- you’ll remember that the first thing in the instructions are the tools you’ll need.

Finally, when you arrive at the work site, go through your material and tool inventory one more time, and take the time to lay them out within reach of the work. Bring along a small mat, towel, or dropcloth so you aren’t laying your tools and material on the customer’s hardwood/ ceramic/ tile floor.

It is inevitable that you will run into situations where you need a different screw size, or pipe fitting, or piece of material than what you planned- but having a plan and an inventory for the project will still keep the material or tool trips to a minimum. Following these thought processes, and taking a few moments to think about the task, the tools, and the materials necessary to do a job beforehand will save you time and effort, and help you create a successful, polished, completed project every time.

August 4, 2010 Posted by | facilities maintenance, organization, tools | Leave a comment

The Stanley Fubar

I just picked up a Stanley Fubar

Stanley Fubar

The FUBAR from Stanley

At Lowe’s today, and I’m anxious to try it out. In the HVAC and mechanical trades, sometimes it is necessary to do a little drywall/ trim demo to get to piping or ductwork buried in the walls.

I’ve done some building, and I’ve got a prybar and a hammer, but I’ve been eyeing this thing every time I go to a big box hardware store wanting to try out the claw at the business end of the Fubar.

I’ll post updates and photos once we get a chance to try it out- stay tuned.

June 21, 2010 Posted by | buildouts & remodeling, tools | Leave a comment

Managing work orders and work flow

Managing workflow, documenting work, and providing for compliance with record keeping can be a tough tract to manage when spring and summer work picks up. Maintenance technicians can be overwhelmed and can handle as many as 60-70 work orders in a single day. How do you manage all of these work orders?

My thoughts go back to property managers scribbling addresses on a post-it note, or concierge desk attendants handing “while you were out” notes to maintenance technicians. The tech then proceeds to put the note in their shirt-pocket and then realizes days later that they forgot the call…

The best way to handle a work-order system with maintenance techs is to provide a written work order.  A written work order program can also include the following:

  1. maintenance request forms
  2. door hangers
  3. work orders
  4. make-ready boards

Tenants and customers can fill out a form to make a maintenance request (they can be placed in the lobby, at a concierge desk, or at the property manager’s office) and then the actual work order can be assigned to the maintenance tech. The tech should always leave behind a document that tells a tenant or owner that a tech was in their unit, and door hangers can be used to notify pending work, that a tech is currently in the unit, or that a tech visited earlier.

Finally, in managing workflow, tracking and make-ready boards can be used for punch-out tracking ,special products and for assigning tasks with multiple technicians and vendors.

John Tindale and Maintenance Mastery were not compensated for mentioning Great American Property Management Products.

April 1, 2010 Posted by | buildouts & remodeling, facilities maintenance, organization, safety, tools | , , , | 3 Comments

Who’s your heat guy/ gal

Years ago, companies hired maintenance staff to handle the ins/ outs of routine maintenance, perform preventive maintenance, and occasionally call in contractors for specialty trades like electrical, vertical transportation, plumbing, and HVAC among others.
Contractors would develop one-on-one relationships with maintenance staff and directors, and the technicians performing these services would often form friendships with the maintenance directors and engineers they served. Occasionally these friendships turned into collusion and price-fixing but more often they simply became a way for the contractor and the customer to develop a trust-system where the contractor would teach maintenance staff how to better maintain their systems, and thereby provide assurance that when the contractor was called- both parties understood that the contractor would not overcharge for service, and that the maintenance staff would not abuse the relationship.
However, with an ever-evolving world of new technology, trends in outsourcing, and budget constraints- many times there is no maintenance staff onsite, and the technicians lose that personal sense of contact.
So I guess, the question is- how do you develop a relationship, and a “trust-system” when a service tech is simply responding to a site, opening a door with a key fob, and working on equipment for a faceless client?
A couple of ways I have found some success is to communicate frequently through email- and to be active in social media. My twitter account gives my customers (and potential customers) a chance to communicate with me on a regular basis, and develop a “friendship” that gives them a sense of security about having me service their equipment.
My customer can get to know me, find out what sports I like, who my “driver is” and have a sense of not just what I do, but who I am.

February 15, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

Preventive Maintenance Database

Preventive maintenance is work that is done to equipment and machinery on a regular, recurring basis. A common example would be getting the oil changed in your car. In order to keep most  machines working properly, companies and people create programs based on the manufacturers recommendations for the specific tasks, checks, and adjustments necessary. For a given facility or company, all of the preventive maintenance tasks, scheduling, and tracking is managed through a preventive maintenance program. Some companies use photocopied task sheets, others use spreadsheet programs, and still others use a computer-based program.

I have worked with several preventive maintenance database projects, several commercial products for preventive maintenance, and have even used the old manual programs- but I think that there is much room for improvement in how PM is performed, managed, and tracked.

First, I think a PM database should be easy to load. The supervisor or technician who initially sets up the database should not have to wade through lines and lines of similar tasks in order to set up a PM for a specific machine or piece of equiment. I think that there should be a se of generic preventive maintenance programs pre-loaded, and then the user should be able to add a few custom tasks as needed.

Next, I think the person performing the PM should be able to enter the data into the tracking system live, instead of writing on a printout. I also think that the person performing the PM should be able to make adjustments to the program on the fly. If the system says “change belts” and the unit has been converted to a direct drive system, then the person performing the PM should be able to remove “change belts” from the program.

Finally, system reporting should done through a console, showing tasks completed, tasks modified, tasks pending with percentages. The console should be configurable for administrators, supervisors, and maintenance techs, and you should be able to drill down and view more specific data as needed. PMs should be able to be sorted by category- like location, machine type, person performing the PM, etc.

A good preventive maintenance program supports the equipment and the people who service this equipment- but for all of the PM programs I have seen, the priority seems to be reversed. I think that the people performing the PM end up supporting the people who manage the program, and it becomes more about the tracking and the administration than it is about the actual work that needs to be done. It seems to me that a simple, elegant program that is easy to use and administer would capture the market.

October 18, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Reading a set of gauges

One of the things with which new HVAC & Refrigeration techs constantly struggle is to learn to take the mystery out of reading a set of gauges and interpreting the information that they are seeing- but the trick is in paying attention to the fundamentals before trying to move on to more advanced diagnostics. Learn about the refrigeration cycle- memorize it, learn to draw it without looking at it- and don’t just draw the components, but be able to say what state (gas or liquid) the refrigerant is in at each point in the cycle.

Remember to practice safety principles- never let any refrigerant come in contact with your skin, inhale it, or get it in your eyes, flash freeze and chemical burns can occur. Also, never vent a refrigerant to the atmosphere, always recover refrigerant when opening or evacuating a system, and be aware that local, national, and international laws apply to the handling of refrigerants, and heavy fines can be assessed if you don’t know what you are doing. Most municipalities require that you take a refrigerant recovery test before handling refrigerant.

The whole point of any refrigeration system is the removal of heat. We are using scientific principles of heat transfer to remove the heat from one area (bedrooms, milk, chicken, buildings) and then reject it somewhere else (usually outside) Refrigeration does this in exactly the same way steam does it, it’s just that refrigerants boil at a temperature lower than water at atmospheric pressure.. It is generally referred to as the vapor/ compression cycle. In the evaporator, the refrigerant picks up heat and boils. this gas is then compressed, and cooled at the condenser, and sent back to the evaporator to boil again.

I know a few old rules of thumb, where techs have some calculation based on the outside air temperature, or something else- which may be enough to get the system running, but may be overcharged or still undercharged when outdoor conditions change.
The best thing to do, is to carry a thermocouple type thermometer, and a pressure-temperature chart and watch what the system is really doing. Remember that the point of any refrigeration cycle (no matter how complicated, or how new the refrigerant is) is all about heat exchange.Here’s a few things to consider:

When charging a system, take temperature readings of the system you are trying to cool. What sort of degree split are you trying to achieve? If you’re running and air handler, with a split system- the best you can achieve is a 15-20F or 8-11C degree split. If it is more or less than this- you are going to have problems down the road. The same thing is true with most walk-in boxes and rooftop units.

Have a look at your suction pressure, and the corresponding temperature. Once you begin adding refrigerant, and you start to get readings on the evaporator section, go back out and read your gauges. Does the suction pressure correspond to a temperature above 32 degrees? If not- is your system designed with a defrost timer or circuit board when appropriate. (A heat pump when charged properly will run a suction temperature lower than 32 degrees during some winter days)

Finally, learn to charge by measuring superheat and subcooling and using the superheat/subcooling method of charging. It is the best way to determine whether a system is properly charged. It requires that you take readings of the suction pressure and two temperatures — “the evaporator boiling temperature at a given pressure and the temperature of the refrigerant at the outlet of the evaporator on the suction line.” Print the linked article and carry it with you until you are 100% sure how to do it every time.

take some time to monitor how different systems run. Walk-in boxes that run on r-22, will have identical pressures/ temperatures to a residential R-22 system when they are first started (indoor temp of the box is 72F or 29C). Get in the habit of carrying a notebook and make cheat-sheets, taking notes when observing how different systems run. Pick up a copy of Modern Refrigeration (Amazon also has used copies) Remember-it’s all about temperatue change, boiling refrigerant, and the transfer of heat!

April 11, 2009 Posted by | refrigeration, tools | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Commercial door closers and hardware

I recently had the pleasure of trying to adjust a commercial door closer, and I had a flood of memories come back of all the Rixson hardware I used to maintain at Nordstrom. It doesn’t seem like much, but door closers can be somewhat complicated. To get started, there are basically three components to the action of a commercial door.
1. back ckeck. this is what provides force against you when you try to open a door, basically if there was no back check, you could just as easily break a door opening it, as you could slamming it shut.
2. Sweep. This refers to the speed with which the door actually closes when you let go of the door. The sweep needs to be controlled, so that the door doesn’t slam shut.
3. Latch refers to how the door actually closes. If a door is working properly, you can actually observe the door close slowly, and then at the last minute the sweep control will let go to let the door accelerate slightly just enough to let the locking mechanism catch.
I remember spending hours trying to adjust glass doors so that they have the same backcheck, the same sweep, and the same catch speed, and how seasonal changes would wreak havoc on the hydraulics, and cause the doors to open and close at different rates.

Because doors have a tendency to be easily forgotten, I suggest that you include in your regular PM program, a provision to check your doors. things that you want to include may be;

1 Open door to check proper back check, and that door does not swing fully open freely

2. allow door to close, verify that door closes gently

3. observe latch speed to ensure that door and latch mechanism are working properly

4. check closer for visible signs of wear or hydraulic fluid

Every door closer is different, but they all have a way to adjust each element of the function of the door, and you can usually find set screws in the closer for changing these settings.For more information about adjusting and installing door closer hardware, consult your manufacturer, or check out for a pretty good overview of how they work

March 12, 2009 Posted by | facilities maintenance, Uncategorized | , , , , | 3 Comments

Thoughts from a site visit

I reviewed a site today to create a PM program for their HVAC systems, and I have to say that I was rather impressed with their systems.

They were using a ground source heat pump system with Honeywell controls, Yaskawa variable-frequency drives, McQuay water-source heat pumps, and two AAON units on the roof for fresh air and supplemental AC in the warmer months.

Although they haven’t received LEED certification yet, This building is still a long way from older less efficient systems. Another thing I noticed was the attention paid to safety in the installation of thier equipment. All of the equipment was accessible by catwalks and access doors, and you could tell that quality engineering went into the design of their building.

I can’t brag too much about the building yet, and since we’re only bidding on the project, I’ll have to wait before I say too much more about it!

February 26, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment