The ailing economy has spared few schools and universities. Faced with funding cutbacks, most education administrators have had to make difficult choices about where to allocate dwindling resources. Even in the best of financial times, educating students is the first priority.

When money is tight, school maintenance and operations programs have to try to keep facilities safe and clean even if there are fewer workers and less equipment to carry out the job. That means managers must take steps to improve the efficiency of their M&O programs.

"Good maintenance practices can generate substantial energy savings and should be considered a resource," says the Federal Energy Management Program’s Operations & Management Best Practices guide. "Improvements to facility maintenance programs can often be accomplished immediately and at a relatively low cost.

Getting in front of the problem

With only limited resources, many managers may be tempted to adopt the "run it ’til it breaks" method of addressing maintenance issues. A school or university using this maintenance method saves money in the short term because as long as equipment and systems are functioning, the institution isn’t spending funds on maintenance.

The "Guidelines for Maintenance of Public School Facilities in Maryland," prepared by the Interagency Committee on School Construction, explains the penny-wise-pound-foolish nature of this reactive approach.

"In reality, during this time we are really obligating ourselves to greater expense than under a different maintenance approach, because we are shortening the life of the equipment, resulting in the eventual need for more frequent, more intensive, and more costly replacement," the guide says. "The labor cost associated with this repair will likely be higher than normal because the failure will require more extensive repairs than if the equipment had not been run to failure. If critical equipment fails during off hours or close to the end of a normal work day and needs to be put back on line immediately, emergency overtime expenditures will be required."

In a worst-case scenario, a maintenance breakdown could shut down a facility, and force students and staff to relocate while repairs are pursued.

More preferable ways of addressing maintenance needs are preventive and predictive approaches.

The Maryland guide defines preventive maintenance as "actions performed on a regular schedule to detect, prevent, or mitigate deterioration of a component or system in order to sustain or extend its useful life by reducing wear to an acceptable level," such as lubrication of parts, filter changes in mechanical equipment, or visual inspections of roofs and drains.

"By performing preventive maintenance as the equipment designer envisioned, the life of the equipment will approach or exceed the designed life expectancy, barring any unforeseen events," the guide says. "While all catastrophic equipment failures cannot be entirely eliminated, the number of failures will decrease. Extending the useful life of equipment and minimizing equipment failures both translate into maintenance and capital cost savings."

Using preventive maintenance strategies instead of reactive ones can generate savings of 12 to 18 percent, the guide says.

A predictive maintenance approach is considered superior to reactive or preventive strategies. Predictive maintenance, the Maryland guide says, is "a process of investigation and measurement to detect the onset of equipment or system degradation, thereby allowing stressors to be eliminated or controlled before they cause significant deterioration in the physical state of the components."

With predictive maintenance, the need for maintenance is determined by the actual condition of the equipment or system rather than by a pre-set schedule.

"A well orchestrated predictive maintenance program will all but eliminate catastrophic equipment failures," the guide says. "Maintenance activities can be scheduled to minimize or completely avoid overtime costs, to minimize inventory and parts orders to only those that are required, and to support future maintenance needs well in advance. The operation of the equipment can be optimized, saving energy costs and increasing plant reliability."

The downside of a predictive maintenance program is the startup cost.

"Much of the investigative equipment that is needed requires an initial cost in excess of $50,000," the guide says. "Since personnel must exercise greater judgment and discretion than in a preventive maintenance program, training of in-plant personnel to effectively utilize predictive maintenance technologies will require considerable funding. Program success will require an understanding of the principles of predictive maintenance and a firm commitment to make the program work."

Computerized tracking

One key to an efficient maintenance program is keeping track of all the various jobs that have been performed and still need to be performed. Computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS) enable a school or university to oversee more easily all the various activities being carried out in a maintenance department.

"A CMMS integrated into daily operation with well-trained personnel and persistent management support will yield considerable benefits in the form of improved maintenance, more efficient use of staff resources, better inventory control, better maintenance of equipment performance, reduced downtime, and extended equipment life," says an O&M Best Practices guide put together by Better Bricks, an initiative of the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance to promote energy efficient practices.

CMMS software programs will have varying features. The Federal Energy Management Program’s Operations & Management Best Practices guide says typical programs will include functions such as work-order generation, prioritization and tracking; historical and sortable tracking of all work orders; tracking of scheduled and unscheduled maintenance; storing of all technical documentation or procedures by component; real-time reports of ongoing work activity; calendar- or run-time-based preventive maintenance work-order generation; capital and labor cost tracking by component; and a parts and materials inventory control with automated reorder capability.

Schools and universities should be careful when selecting a CMMS, the Federal Energy Management Program says. Among the potential pitfalls:

Selecting an inappropriate vendor. "This is a site-specific decision," the guide says. "Time should be taken to evaluate initial needs and look for the proper match of system and service provider.

Inadequate training of the O&M administrative staff. "These staff need dedicated training on input, function, and maintenance of the CMMS," the guide says. "Typically, this training takes place at the customer’s site after the system has been installed."

Lack of commitment. "A commitment needs to be in place for the startup/implementation of the CMMS," the guide says. "Most vendors provide this as a service and it is usually worth the expense."

Lack of commitment to persist in using and integrating the CMMS. "While CMMS provides significant advantages, they need to be maintained," the guide says. "Most successful CMMS installations have a ‘champion’ of its use who ushers and encourages its continued use."

  • Read the "Speak Their Language" sidebar to learn how to convince decisionmakers that the resources will be used wisely.

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Sidebar: Speak Their Language

One element in establishing an effective operations and maintenance program is convincing decisionmakers in an education institution that the resources being sought are needed and will be used wisely.

“O&M managers need to be fluent in the language spoken by management,” says the Federal Energy Management Program’s Operations & Management Best Practices guide. “Projects and proposals brought forth to management need to stand on their own merits and be competitive with other funding requests.”

Some of the terms O&M managers should know:

•Simple payback—The ratio of total installed cost to first-year savings.

•Return on investment—The ratio of the income or savings generated to the overall investment.

•Net present value—Represents the present worth of future cash flows minus the initial cost of the project.

•Life-cycle cost—The present worth of all costs associated with a project.