Planning Maintenance and Repairs

Sept. 1, 2001
Schools should design buildings that allow workers to repair and maintain systems efficiently.

Over the next three years, an estimated $118 billion will be spent on building and renovating educational facilities.

In spite of schools' commitments to improving facilities, budget pressures force many institutions to keep their existing maintenance and operations (M&O) budgets and staff at the same levels even though their new and renovated school building systems are more sophisticated and more costly to run.

Some might think that new systems would result in lower M&O costs than the systems being replaced, but, in fact, the opposite is often true if a building is to be operated and maintained properly. The challenge for facilities managers is to ensure that design engineers are providing innovative, yet practical building systems solutions that schools can maintain easily to control repair and maintenance costs.

A design engineer should approach each educational institution differently based on common-sense applications of the various systems available. First, consider the technical knowledge and abilities of the personnel at each school's facilities.

The correct building system solution for each institution should be based on its own very specific needs, abilities and budget. Outlined below are some approaches that an institution can use to determine the best solution for their particular facilities.


Establishing building standards and a standard process for bidding, purchasing and stocking is one of the easiest and cost-effective ways to reduce M&O costs.

Standards should address the replication of simplified systems throughout an institution's facilities and should outline preferred manufacturers, warranty information, type of systems preferred and used, and design criteria. By following guidelines, design firms can follow the same criteria in their building systems proposals.

The building standards should be brief and flexible. They should give architects and engineering consultants enough information to understand the type and quality of the buildings the institution wants and to propose creative solutions.

In addition to simplifying the design process, building standards should result in reduced maintenance training costs, more regularly scheduled maintenance, reduced supply costs through bulk purchasing, and reduced repair time because of the availability of common parts and system familiarity.

Percentage distribution of public schools according to the status of air conditioning in various areas of their school buildings: 1999AreaNon air-conditioned because not neededNon air-conditioned, but neededSome air-conditionedMostly air-conditionedAll air-conditionedClassrooms 13 24 10 4 49 Administrative Offices 6 10 12 10 61 Computer Labs 9 17 8 7 60 Media Centers 10 23 3 5 59 Other areas 15 28 11 9 36 Note: Percentages are computed across each row, but may not sum to 100 because of rounding. Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Fast Response Survey System, Survey on the Condition of Public School Facilities, 1999.


In the past, facility managers had to oversee a variety of distinct proprietary systems with a limited number of interfaces. Now, new building automation systems (BAS) utilize interoperable systems, which allow different specialty fire/life safety, lighting, security, elevator and HVAC suppliers to communicate on one common network. With interoperability, management of an institution's buildings is greatly simplified. Each specialty vendor ties into a common network that provides access to all building systems.

The benefits of interoperability are many. Colleges and school districts will be able to monitor all buildings from one location, yet still allow for flexibility among buildings if there are different control vendors or service contractors. For schools that need outside maintenance contracts, the ability to monitor schools remotely can reduce energy costs and expensive emergency calls. Further, a facility can now select vendors easily, based on their particular strengths and rates, to maintain different parts of the system — thus contributing to lower maintenance costs.

Interoperability allows in-house maintenance personnel to have access to more information. Through the use of simple handheld devices, workers will be able to see all points on the system from anywhere on the network. Sensors within interoperable equipment permit earlier detection of problems, thereby increasing the effectiveness of preventative maintenance. Currently, most systems are wired in the field, with room for error. With interoperability, systems are factory wired and tested, which will lead to overall improvement in quality control and the reduction of equipment startup costs.


One of the best ways to make sure that mechanical systems will be maintained properly is to provide adequate service space. Unlike electrical codes, which require distinct minimum clearances between electrical equipment and other building components, mechanical codes generally do not have such a requirement. This leaves the spacing of equipment completely up to architects and engineers. Unless a piece of equipment is easily accessible, maintenance workers can forget about it or service it only infrequently.

Many operations workers complain that they can't work on isolated parts of systems or that the simplest repair requires draining large parts of the system. If isolation and drain valves are strategically placed, the amount of work required for repair or replacement can be cut in half.

Reducing the amount of equipment is essential for proper maintenance. A recent high school project had 240 pieces of HVAC equipment scattered randomly throughout the school. Half that amount would have adequately met the building's needs and certainly would have been managed more easily. Most of this equipment was not operating properly — the sheer volume of equipment meant that the outside contractor could not keep up with scheduled maintenance. This situation led to poor air quality, numerous complaints, and ultimately a large amount of time and money spent on repairs.


The requirements for electrical equipment space and clearances are outlined in the National Electrical Code (NEC). The NEC, however, provides minimums for required space/clearances and does not take into consideration stacking of electrical closets, centrally located dedicated electrical rooms/closets and future expansion. Therefore, electrical equipment often is installed in locations where it is exposed to excessive heat and poor ventilation. This can reduce the life of the equipment, increase the amount of service maintenance and repair, and make future expansion impossible.

Schools can reduce electrical system maintenance by using light fixtures that are easily cleaned and serviced; lamp and ballast combinations that will maximize lamp-life, control and energy-efficiency; and quality devices and cover plates that are easily cleaned and durable. Some portions of electrical distribution and control equipment should be standardized to include interchangeable components; circuit breakers, relays, coils and contacts.

It also is important to design an electrical distribution system with enough flexibility to accommodate future renovations. For example, specifying electronic circuit breakers with interchangeable rating plugs; selectable I-squared-t response; adjustable instantaneous, long-time, short-time and ground-fault settings; will increase the flexibility of an electrical distribution system. Additional circuit breaker features that would add to a system's maintainability are electronic trip indicators; current meters; field-installable undervoltage and shunt trip units; and remote trip indication and control.

With proper planning, schools and universities can substantially reduce M&O costs. An important step is including the facilities managers — request their review of design documents, keeping in mind ease of maintenance and equipment replacement. It's a simple process if the planning is done on the front side of a project, but many times comments from those who actually operate a building come too late, after the project is out to bid or even after installation has occurred.

Fitzemeyer, PE, is president of Fitzemeyer & Tocci Associates, Inc., Woburn, Mass., a mechanical/electrical engineering firm that specializes in educational engineering, design and construction administration services as they apply to HVAC, plumbing, fire protection and electrical systems.

Sponsored Recommendations

Latest from mag