Energy conservation goals at America's education institutions need to be well-rooted in properly functioning, well-maintained mechanical and electrical infrastructure equipment.
As long as tired, old equipment leaves an operation at risk of failure, any efforts to save energy or improve efficiency will result in minimal overall cost savings. In fact, the additional costs of a system that is operating poorly or no longer meets the facility's current need can quickly negate the savings generated through a few well-placed energy-savings ideas.
Many facility managers understand the importance of maintainability. This includes the design and operational guidelines for infrastructure systems targeted to achieve a greater functionality. Unfortunately, true maintainability is difficult to achieve, and facility managers can find themselves caught up in the day-to-day struggle of responding to repairs that keep popping up. When schools have to deal with such problems in a crisis mode, it can consume huge amounts of effort and expense.
In such a crisis mode, schools typically hire design firms to fix particularly troubling systems or pieces of equipment. The fix is sometimes a replacement of the system in kind or an incremental improvement to the system so it can serve the same function in a more efficient way. This approach, though, may focus on the symptoms of a problem and miss the parameters in which the system operates. These parameters can include the overall function of a building, maintenance activities in a building, and short- or long-range goals for a building.
Another approach is to hire an energy contractor, who generally has a limited view of a school's goals. Contractors find outdated lighting and replace it. They find constant-speed motors and make them variable speed. They find inefficient plant equipment and replace it.
After these changes, the school has a fresh face on the symptom of a problem, but has not really resolved it. School officials still do not have a clear understanding of their facility and how all the equipment and building systems should be working together to meet their short- and long-range goals.
A better way
The primary concern of facility departments is to make infrastructure last longer and run more efficiently at less cost. So one of the first steps in creating a functional building is to assure a reliable, safe and maintainable electrical and mechanical infrastructure.
Without proper planning, it is difficult to budget annual operations, plan accurately for operational emergencies and variances, or properly manage a facility. Proper planning provides the facility-management staff with a level of understanding and control, and allows workers to manage efficiently and proactively.
A master infrastructure plan can help determine annual maintenance budgets, form annual capital-improvements budgets, or simply take a snapshot of existing conditions. Whatever the immediate need, the plan can be modified to reflect a school's exact wishes.
So how does a facilities department plan properly? There is no such thing as a standard infrastructure master plan. A thorough customized plan for a facility takes full advantage of a school's particular strengths, and helps support the challenges it faces each day and the goals it hopes to achieve. When complete, the plan provides a roadmap to present and future facilities staff. It can save money that might otherwise be wasted by just jumping into a project to eliminate an apparent problem. The plan is developed so control once again can rest squarely with those that are best motivated and positioned to solve a school or university's facility challenges — the facilities department. The control of the plan rests with the institution even though most or all of the work of creating a plan and carrying it out is likely to be outsourced.
A master plan
What elements comprise a reliable and strategic infrastructure master plan? Because a plan must fit a school's capabilities, desires and financial arrangements, it should have many elements. The plan begins with a thorough survey and evaluation of existing equipment and operations; this includes interviewing and questioning maintenance personnel about their capabilities, needs and challenges. It must take into consideration short- and long-range plans, and past successes and failures.
Only after the information specific to a particular school is accumulated can the appropriate recommendations be developed. When the recommendations are developed, they should be assigned a budget cost.
The cost does not need to be developed into a specific construction budget at this point, but it should be designed to direct school officials in the general scope and scale of the work.
It is helpful to assign a priority rating to the recommendations to help a school understand the urgency of the work. To give the recommendations a framework, schools should develop a multiyear plan that fits all of the findings from site surveys and interviews.
A complete plan invariably will touch on skills that traditionally are not the functions of a design firm. This is where partnerships with nontraditional skill providers are helpful.
These skills may include dynamic-, energy- or load-analysis modeling, electrical coordination studies, computational transport models, fire-risk assessments, detailed indoor air quality evaluations, preventive-maintenance program development, or training and educational seminar presentations. Incorporating these skills into a master-planning exercise brings a synergy that cements the plan to all other characteristics of facility operation.
Mechanical and electrical infrastructure master planning is the most effective energy- and cost-saving tool that an institution can consider. It has the ability to focus intensively on the strengths and weaknesses of a facility's operation, which will improve the efficiency of planning for future needs and goals.
A thorough review of capabilities, preferences and challenges and a simultaneous evaluation of system types, applicability and needs will help school facilities managers create infrastructure master plans that yield great satisfaction, confidence, efficiency and lower operational costs.
Schools will see savings and benefits manifested in lower energy use, fewer emergency repairs, lower overtime expenses, and more satisfied students and personnel.
Furgeson, PE, is a project manager at Fitzemeyer & Tocci Associates, Inc., Woburn, Mass., a mechanical/electrical engineering firm that specializes in educational engineering and design and construction management services as they apply to heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), plumbing, fire protection and electrical systems.
▪ THE QUICK FIX
Often a replacement of a component of a building system.
Focuses on the symptoms of the problem but misses the parameters in which the system operates.
Generally a limited view of the institutional goals — does not focus on the long term.
No understanding of the facility and how it operates.
▪ MASTER PLAN
Can be written to help determine annual maintenance budgets, help form annual capital-improvements budgets, or take current “snapshot” of existing conditions.
Can be modified to reflect wishes of the individual institution.
Takes advantage of the institution's particular strengths and takes note of present or past weaknesses.