Getting With The Program

Oct. 1, 2003
Having a formal maintenance program can help schools and universities get the most out of their equipment and facilities.

Like many education institutions, the Richland, Wash., school district was saddled with the problem of aging facilities and equipment wearing out faster than the maintenance staff could fix it.

“Our facilities were run down,” say Robin Emmingham, executive director of support services. “We were trying to play catch up, patching things just to keep our heads above water.”

Things began to turn around last year when the Richland district initiated a preventive maintenance program at several of its schools. By establishing a formal plan to monitor facilities and equipment and take care of problems before they became major malfunctions, the district is closer to its goal of extending the useful life of its buildings and equipment.

“You don't ever have it down to a science,” says Emmingham. “It's a work in progress.”

Supplies and equipment are important for effective school maintenance, but the best equipment won't keep facilities in good shape if it is used inefficiently by workers who haven't been trained thoroughly. Sound planning and ongoing training will help schools and universities get the most out of their maintenance resources.

“Facilities problems are less a function of geography or socioeconomics and more directly related to staff levels, training and practices — all of which can be controlled by the organization,” says the U.S. Department of Education's Planning Guide for Maintaining School Facilities. “Every school district should plan to meet the challenges of effective facilities maintenance.”

Making a list

The first step in getting a handle on what maintenance an education facility needs is to gather data about the structure and its contents. How old is the HVAC equipment? How often do filters have to be changed? When was the carpet in the hallway installed?

“Because the definition of what constitutes “proper maintenance” changes over the life of the equipment or building, knowing the age and condition of a facility or piece of equipment is a prerequisite for maintaining it properly,” according to the Planning Guide.

In the Richland district, the preventive-maintenance program:

  • Lists all equipment to be inspected so workers can prepare a basic plan.

  • Establishes a route so workers can inspect all units of equipment efficiently without backtracking.

  • Determines how much time to allocate for each service to be completed.

  • Reports results so work orders can be generated to correct any deficiencies uncovered.

  • Monitors repairs generated by the program; if the program is effective, scheduled work should increase, and emergency work should decrease.

  • Monitors the actual time a job takes, compared with the time allotted in work plans to help regulate the maintenance workload more efficiently.

“The key elements are creating a database of knowledge and establishing a workable cycle or actually doing the monitoring,” says Emmingham.

Ongoing training

For a maintenance plan to succeed, what is written down on paper must actually be carried out in the building. The best way to make that happen is to have workers trained carefully to handle equipment properly and safely. In the Merced (Calif.) City School District, maintenance workers attend training sessions regularly. Most months, the Merced district holds a meeting of custodians to focus on a safety topic.

“We look at general safety, ladder use, lifting techniques, chemical safety,” says Philip Brittain, director of maintenance for the Merced district. “We are very proactive in training programs for injury and illness protection.”

Merced also relies on videos and other media to provide training to its workers.

Training for maintenance workers shouldn't be confined to orientation when employees first get their jobs. Technology can make equipment more complex to operate, improvements in products and supplies can alter how those are used, and new cleaning strategies may be created to help workers do their jobs more efficiently. Giving long-time workers regular refreshers on work techniques and safety procedures will enable them to perform to the best of their abilities.

“The fact that a person has been taught how to perform a specialized task doesn't mean that he or she will be able to perform the task in the future, especially if the task is not a regular part of his or her routine,” says the Planning Guide.

Setting priorities

When budgets tighten and administrators must find candidates for cutbacks, school maintenance often finds itself in the crosshairs. It's more palatable to the public to defer spending on routine maintenance than target programs that directly affect classroom instruction. In many schools and universities, that has led to fewer workers with more responsibilities.

“You have a lot of rearranging of who's doing what,” says Brittain. “People have a lot more on their plates.”

Even in the best of staffing situations, maintenance directors need to balance competing concerns — sticking with the preventive-maintenance program while being able to respond to emergencies.

“One of the real challenges with a limited number of staff is to make a real commitment to devoting some staff members full time to preventive maintenance,” says Emmingham. “It's a conflict you deal with all the time. You have to watch how often you pull (workers) off to do other jobs. If you steal them from their routine too much, pretty soon you fall behind again.”

As thousands of education institutions continue to try to dig themselves out of the deferred-maintenance holes they dug for themselves in the last several decades, many administrators have become better educated about the costs and consequences of ignoring maintenance needs and may be less likely to shortchange maintenance for a short-term benefit.

“We have come from a situation where maintenance was cut first,” says Emmingham. “At this point our administration, school board and public believe that maintenance has to be a high priority.”

Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U. He can be reached at [email protected].

SIDEBAR: Trends in cleaning

The International Custodial Advisors Network (ICAN), a non-profit association of industry consultants, recently compiled a list of 11 major cleaning trends that its members believe will affect the future:

  • Greater focus on cleaning to protect health

    Cleaning will become safer and less polluting as equipment and procedures will be scrutinized more closely for their effects on health and the environment.

  • Increased professionalism and computer usage

    There will be greater emphasis on training to address new chemical management and custodial ergonomics issues. Computer knowledge will become more critical as e-mail and Internet communications become more prevalent.

  • More government regulations

    Problems such as poor indoor air quality, terrorism threats and mold will force the government to establish standards that directly will affect the cleaning industry.

  • Cleaning as part of a building's sustainability

    Buildings will be built to stay clean and will be cleaned properly from the beginning.

  • Mold prevention

    Mold remediation will become a contentious legal issue, and cleaning will focus more on preventing mold growth.

  • Advances in tools and equipment

    Technology and innovation will lead to better ways to clean and maintain facilities.

  • Better wages

    New technologies and professionalism will lead to higher pay and improved benefits for workers.

  • Industry consolidation

    Already occurring, this trend will continue.

  • Industry globalization

    A more integrated global community will lead to greater international competition and global dissemination of standards and techniques.

  • Fewer cleaning contracts

    More small businesses will choose to do their own cleaning.

  • Market specialization

    Market consolidation will lead to more companies that focus on niches, such as disaster cleanup, mold remediation or carpet care.

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

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