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Managing HVAC Maintenance Costs: A Guide for Facility Managers

A commercial building’s HVAC system is likely the most expensive and complicated system in the entire facility and easily costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to install.  Facilities managers owe it to owners and tenants to maintain these systems properly to provide a comfortable working environment at a reasonable operating cost.  As complicated and expensive as some systems can be, maintenance costs can be kept low with some relatively simple steps.

Facility managers have a choice with HVAC maintenance; they can “preventatively” maintain the HVAC systems, or they can “reactively” maintain them.  Preventative maintenance (PM) means performing tasks that keep equipment operating properly in advance of equipment failure or, better yet, to prevent equipment failure.  PM includes such things as: regular filter changes, greasing bearings, tightening belts, and treating cooling tower water. When this work is done regularly and consistently throughout the life of the equipment, the overall cost of operating and maintaining the HVAC system can be planned and budgeted for, with major malfunctions kept to a minimum.

The alternative is to “reactively” maintain the system.  Reactive maintenance means doing nothing — until something breaks.  When the HVAC system goes down, facility staff jump into high gear to get parts and make repairs to get the system back online.  Parts have to be shipped overnight; staff may work overtime, and tenants are inconvenienced (or worse).  Over time, reactive maintenance shortens the lifespan of the equipment, irritates occupants with cooling outages, and can potentially cause damage to the equipment that can never be fully repaired.

Changing maintenance styles can mean big changes to the bottom line. For instance, the Houston Independent School District recently implemented an HVAC PM program that was profiled on Their analysis showed that by going from reactive maintenance to a preventative maintenance program “the district reduce[d] its maintenance spending on boilers, chillers and replacement parts from $10-12 million yearly to $1-2 million.”  That is a 90% decrease in costs, just by changing the way they perform maintenance! In addition to the dramatic savings in maintenance spending, service calls were reduced from 20 to 40 per day down to about 10.  Not only is there a labor savings associated with fewer service calls, but the disruptions to occupants is also reduced.  For a commercial office building that means happier tenants and better tenant retention.

Implementing a PM program requires knowledgeable technicians, and in some cases facility management staff may not have the necessary skills themselves.  To supplement what your in-house staff can do, you may want to consider putting the systems under the care of a professional HVAC maintenance contractor.  HVAC maintenance contractors know the intricacies of complex HVAC systems and have the experience to make repairs and offer suggestions that in-house staff may not be able to do.  Outside contractors can offer a variety of service options starting from basic filter changes to full-time remote monitoring and energy optimization.  Even the simplest and low-cost maintenance agreements include tasks to keep the equipment operating efficiently.  There is no substitute to having the expertise of a commercial HVAC service contractor on your side.  As you develop a relationship with a contractor and they understand how your building works, you can also tap into their know-how when it’s time for equipment upgrades or system modifications.  Their ideas will be far superior and likely less expensive than if you were to only then call a contractor that has no knowledge of your building.

In between contracted service visits, facility management staff should have regular in-house duties for HVAC maintenance.  Staff can complete visual inspections of major equipment, perform tenant satisfaction surveys, and monitor a building automation system (BAS) for irregularities and ways to conserve energy.  In a larger building that has one, the BAS is the brains behind the entire HVAC system.  The BAS implements equipment operation schedules, notifies users of failing or broken components, and provides trend data to document building performance.  The BAS’s trend data is perhaps the facility manager’s best tool for keeping the HVAC system performing efficiently and the equipment operating trouble-free.  Trends are an ongoing recording of various set points and functions within the HVAC system.  Some data that a facility might trend are: equipment runtime, supply air temperature, return air temperature, building pressure, and if the BAS is capable, overall building energy consumption.  Knowing a building’s typical operational values allows facility managers to compare current numbers to historical data and prevent break downs before they happen.

For example, if the trend data shows the supply air temperature for the HVAC system is usually at 55°F, but you notice the temperature has been 65°F for several days, that’s an indication there’s a problem.  The BAS may not tell you exactly what to fix, but the trend data suggests something is not right.  With that information in hand, facility staff can verify the operation of chilled water valves, check if the chiller is fully functional, or confirm the amount of outside air in the air stream.  Instead of waiting for a customer complaint or a chiller breakdown, technicians can fix the problem before it becomes more costly and disruptive.

But even perfectly maintained HVAC systems have breakdowns and failures.  To keep downtimes to a minimum and reduce repair costs, facility managers should have adequate spare parts on hand or at least have a source for getting critical parts swiftly.  Having on hand items such as replacement motors, belts, an extra VAV box, or control valves means repairs can be made quickly without the expense of overnight shipping or, in the worst case, a full building shutdown.  If you’re not sure what spare parts you should have or whether your commercial HVAC contractor can provide what you need, review the maintenance manuals for your equipment or consult with them to learn about pricing and availability.

The HVAC system is usually the most expensive system in a commercial building, and the costs to operate and maintain it can be very high.  The price for breakdowns, outages, and angry tenants may be even higher.  For facility managers there are simple tools to minimize maintenance costs including in-house or outsourced preventative maintenance services, tracking system performance through the BAS, and being ready with parts when the inevitable repair has to be made.

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