Machines that Manage

It's no fun to walk into a school building on a frigid winter morning and make the shivering discovery that the boiler has given out during the night.

But if that happens at one of the 15 buildings in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights (Ohio) district, maintenance workers are roused from their sleep immediately. As soon as a boiler fails, a pager alerts George Petkac, the district's supervisor of operations and maintenance.

The page is sent by the computer that monitors the district's boilers.

Facilities-management systems like the one in Cleveland Heights let schools and universities tap the potential of technology to operate their systems and equipment more efficiently, reduce energy consumption, manage inventory more accurately, keep track of supplies and maintenance schedules, and save money.

“From our computers, we can turn the heating and ventilation systems on and off and monitor the temperature in all our buildings,” says Petkac.

Technology takes charge

As technology has become more advanced, computerized systems are available to help control heating, air conditioning, lighting, security systems, fire alarms, water use, utility consumption, maintenance schedules and supplies. They can keep track of an institution's property, its maintenance history and pending work orders.

“There is potential to save a lot of money,” says Richard Van Pelt, manager of facility services for Pasadena (Calif.) Community College. “But you need a system that is designed to be changed easily and frequently, but not so complicated that it takes a rocket scientist to use.”

The “Planning Guide for Maintaining School Facilities,” compiled by the U.S. Department of Education's National Forum on Education Statistics and the Association of School Business Officials International, says savings generated by an energy-management system will quickly offset the cost.

For computerized asset management, institutions need software that allows easy retrieval of information.

“Facilities maintenance data must be stored in a computer database that is robust enough to allow for easy data import and export,” the guide says. “Many school districts are investing in document imaging systems to reclaim office space taken up by large storage cabinets.”

One stumbling block that has prevented Cleveland Heights from computerizing its asset management is the time needed to create the database.

“The big cost would be the time putting the data into the system,” says Petkac. “It would probably cost $100,000 to enter all that data.”

For smaller institutions, a computerized maintenance-management system (CMMS) might not be needed. The education department's planning guide says school systems that manage more than 500,000 square feet of space will benefit from a CMMS.

“Good CMMS packages should be compatible with the district's other operating systems and software, and integrate a wide range of facilities management components — including facilities, staff, users, work orders, scheduling, and compliance and regulatory issues,” the guide states.

Not a panacea

Facilities-management systems can bring about greater efficiencies, but their presence can raise new problems for facilities staff. Once it becomes known that a system will allow the facilities staff to adjust temperatures in a classroom quickly, some faculty members will begin peppering the facilities department with their requests.

“Our rooms are shared by several people,” says Van Pelt. “One faculty member might call and say, ‘It's freezing in here,’ and an hour later, another teacher is calling from the room and saying, ‘It's a sauna in here. What's wrong?’”

Newer systems may come with unnecessary bells and whistles and can be more complicated than what an institution needs.

“A system may be more complex, but it is not a given that the customer will benefit,” says Van Pelt. “A well-maintained older system is preferable to an overcomplicated new system that you have a hard time maintaining.”

Let the system work

Operating facilities management systems is not difficult, says Petkac. The critical step for facility managers is to make sure the maintenance staff and custodians have been trained thoroughly. A custodian who receives a complaint that a building is too hot may be inclined to turn the heat off manually rather than let the computerized system make more sophisticated adjustments.

“The staff has to understand what's going on, and to leave it alone,” says Petkac. “You have modern energy-management systems coming up against old thought processes. The human thing is to say I can control this system by turning this off.”

Technology can help managers deal with that situation, too. When staff members make manual adjustments to equipment, the management system alerts Petkac by sending a text message to his cell phone, and he can identify which members of his staff are tinkering with the system too frequently.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].


  • 500,000

    The amount of square feet in a school system at which point it can benefit significantly from a computerized maintenance management system.

  • 24 TO 30

    Expected years of service life for a steel water-tube boiler.

  • 10 TO 15

    Expected years of service life for a window-unit air conditioner.

  • 12 TO 15

    Expected years of service life for carpeting.

  • 7 TO 10

    Expected years of service life for lighting ballasts.

Source: “Planning Guide for Maintaining School Facilities,” compiled by the U.S. Department of Education's National Forum on Education Statistics and the Association of School Business Officials International.

Monitoring mold protection

Mold growth in education facilities puts at risk not only the health and safety of students and staff, but also the financial condition of a school or university.

Institutions across the nation have had to spend millions to remove the dangerous growth from buildings and control the environment to prevent mold from growing again. An insurance company in Connecticut has begun a program to help schools deal with mold problems and minimize the financial risk of mold cleanup and removal.

The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Co. says it will focus its program initially on schools in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Connecticut.

The program will provide school systems with inspections, loss-control steps, technical support and insurance protection. It will help schools control moisture, water intrusion and other conditions that provide a breeding ground for mold.

SchoolDude, a company that provides online facilities-management systems for education institutions, will supply the program with online tools for simplifying management and tracking of mold loss prevention.

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