As a commercial building owner or facility manager, you’re not alone in thinking about your HVAC system primarily as a line item on the balance sheet. It’s either a capital expenditure (when upgrading or replacing it) or an operating expense (to keep it running and handle any emergency repairs.) However, the most important aspect of professional HVAC care is actually what happens in between those major events, and it has a direct impact on the same balance sheet:
Daily operations and routine maintenance.
Monitoring the system’s day-to-day operation and scheduling planned seasonal maintenance can keep a commercial HVAC system performing at its best for the longest period of time. In fact, if strategic planned maintenance receives the appropriate emphasis, it can even help owners avoid costly emergency repairs and add years to the HVAC equipment’s expected lifespan, delaying costly replacements.
But what does a commercial building owner or facility manager need to do to prepare for and carry out an effective planned maintenance program? Why is doing so important to the people living or working there, as well as the building and its systems? And, finally, what basic schedule will an effective planned maintenance program follow?
What does a commercial HVAC planned maintenance program involve?
An effective planned HVAC maintenance program for a commercial building includes three main elements:
- Proactive upgrades and replacement
Commercial HVAC inspections
Routine inspections of the HVAC system should be done at least once per week, and you probably have a maintenance staff member who can handle them. These primarily involve a visual inspection of the boilers, chillers, and other system components along with the visible ductwork and ventilation.
The purpose of weekly inspections is to make note of any obvious problems like leakage (either water or air), loose, cracked, deteriorated pipes or ductwork, or other visible signs of wear that could impact how the the system functions.
But, those simple inspections aren’t enough to rely on exclusively. They can’t catch everything and fully support an ongoing planned maintenance program.
A more thorough inspection of the system is recommended on a quarterly basis, and a trained, experienced commercial HVAC technician should be handling it. It’s best if the technician is already familiar with your type of HVAC and system and trained on your type of equipment.
During these more thorough inspections, the same visual review you’ve been handling each week could potentially reveal signs you haven’t noticed or recognized — but they’ll go quite a bit deeper as well. Beyond just noting any immediately visible signs of wear or of impending malfunctions, they’ll also open up the equipment to inspect its inner workings (which you and your team should never do without proper training) and perform various tests to determine the health of system components.
Their in-depth inspection will, among other things, include:
- Spray Nozzles & Pans
- Crankcase Heaters
- Motor housings
- Flame Composition
- Condensate Drains & Pans
- Igniter & Flame Assembly
- Fan Assemblies
Some of the tests they will perform include operational evaluations of:
- Flue Stack Assembly
- Water Flow
- Pressures & Temperatures
- Flow Switch Operations
- Outside Air Intakes
- Control Interlocks
- Refrigerant Pump Down
Commercial HVAC cleaning
As inspections are being made, your maintenance team will clean up items that have collected dust, condensation, or any other impurity. After all, beyond the harm dirt and dust can do to various electrical and mechanical system components, any form of impurity in the HVAC system could potentially affect the quality of the air you and your tenants breathe.
Some of the obvious cleaning tasks you and your maintenance or janitorial teams will likely handle include:
- Dusting vent covers
- Cleaning up small puddles caused by natural condensation
- Changing out some of the standard filters
However, a more thorough cleaning is needed every few months, and, again, it should be handled by an experienced HVAC technician.
Professional HVAC technicians will employ various specialized tools to keep the system free of dust, dirt, mildew, mold, and other debris that could harm its function and the quality of the air. An obvious part of this effort includes changing out all filters on a conservative schedule.
They will also be looking beyond the cleanup itself to determine what the root causes are if the system is collecting or circulating more than the usual amount of contaminants, and they will resolve those issues so the system runs cleaner going forward.
Proactive upgrades and replacement of commercial HVAC components
The third element included in a planned maintenance program is primarily based on the more in-depth inspections and thorough testing the professional technicians carry out each quarter. As a result, it’s highly unlikely your in-house team is in a position to take care of this for you. That’s the proactive replacement of system components that are showing signs of impending malfunction, or that can be upgraded to perform better or more efficiently in the long run.
The important factor here is the fact that all the system components affected by these recommended replacements and upgrades are still functioning at the time of the inspection. You may have no reason to suspect that a given part is showing signs of wear or using too much energy. But a trained technician — knowing what to look for and what tests to perform — can identify opportunities during a routine maintenance visit and proactively improve your commercial HVAC system, reducing the possibility of an unexpected emergency repair catching you off guard.
Why is planned maintenance so important?
Running a commercial building and running a business are very similar — if you want to succeed, you need to keep your customers (tenants) happy by offering them a quality product (your clean, comfortable building) while also making sure your budget stays balanced.
If one piece of the puzzle is missing, the others can quickly follow, and commercial failure can happen quickly. Planned maintenance addresses these issues in many ways:
Planned commercial HVAC maintenance saves money
A well-planned maintenance program saves you money in four ways:
- Improves energy efficiency
- Prevents costly emergency repairs
- Prevents costly downtime
- Lengthens the equipment’s lifespan
Improved energy efficiency
Commercial buildings in the United States account for 50 percent or more of the nation’s total energy usage, and the HVAC system is often one of the most energy-hungry building systems. Therefore, improving the energy efficiency of your commercial HVAC system translates to a significant amount of money saved.
In fact, savings begins immediately upon making even a small improvement to address energy efficiency. For example, when you clean a filter or replace a fan belt — a task that may take just a few minutes — it can dramatically improve airflow from then on, making it easier for the system to circulate heated or cooled air. As a result, it may need to run less often and consume less energy each time it does run.
The very next electric bill could be much smaller as a result of just that one maintenance task!
Prevents costly emergency repairs
While no commercial HVAC system can avoid all emergency repairs, even with proper maintenance, they definitely become less likely if the system is being maintained properly by experienced professionals. This is because of the proactive replacements and upgrades described above.
As professional Chicago HVAC technicians regularly inspect and test system components, they’ll be able to recognize when certain parts are reaching the end of their life expectancy or are showing signs of breaking down. Rather than letting that happen, they can recommend replacements on a schedule that’s convenient for you financially and schedule-wise.
This helps you avoid the inconvenience and other problems caused by a system component that unexpectedly stops working. It also allows for the replacement to be done during normal business hours so an emergency response, which inevitably costs far more, isn’t necessary.
Prevents costly downtime
Additionally, eliminating emergency HVAC repairs means it’s highly unlikely work will need to completely shut down while the system is repaired.
For instance, in facilities where the loss of ventilation for a few hours can create hazardous conditions for the workers, an HVAC outage can result in the facility completely shutting down. Or, hours with no air conditioning during a hot day can, at the very least, result in workers becoming unproductive, if not actual health concerns.
Both of these unexpected downtime conditions can cost a company a lot of money in lost productivity.
Lengthens the equipment’s lifespan
Replacing the entire HVAC system in your commercial building is a huge capital expense. And, of course, sometimes it’s necessary. But if that expense can be delayed for years, why wouldn’t you do so?
Today’s high-grade commercial HVAC systems are built to last at least 20-25 years before needing replacement. But proper maintenance throughout their entire lifespan is what makes that possible. Without it, these systems may end up needing to be replaced as soon as 15, 12, or even 10 years or less after they’re purchased. That means that huge capital expense comes up a decade sooner than it would have if the system had been maintained properly.
That’s no way to run a business.
Planned commercial HVAC maintenance supports strategic capex planning and budgeting
Beyond saving money in the short and long terms, planned maintenance of your commercial HVAC system also supports business goals and administration by facilitating strategic planning of large capital expenditures and keeping your budget accurate and predictable.
Since the well-maintained HVAC system is less likely to require emergency repairs, and since unexpected emergency repairs can put a dent into any building owner’s budget, it makes sense that the well-maintained system allows for expenses to be predicted and planned for with greater accuracy.
As commercial HVAC equipment reaches the end of its expected lifespan, a smart building owner will plan for its imminent replacement. But if that system has been well maintained consistently throughout its use, the owner has years in advance of that eventual replacement to solidify their plan. So, rather than suddenly realizing a huge expense needs to be covered within the next year or less, they can calmly go about securing favorable funding terms and budgeting properly for quick payment.
By relying on a trusted, knowledgeable maintenance technician, the owner can expect their system to remain in top form right up to the date of replacement, facilitating a seamless transition to the newly installed system.
What is the optimal planned maintenance schedule for commercial HVAC systems?
Routine visual inspections and basic cleaning can be handled weekly by the building staff. For a professional planned maintenance program, however, a quarterly schedule is most effective for commercial buildings. The time frames here are approximate and based primarily on the Chicago climate, where most of our customers’ facilities are.
Spring inspection (April or May)
Before the heaviest part of the cooling season hits, it’s important to have all cooling-related components in the system inspected, cleaned, and maintained to ensure energy efficiency and high performance when heavy air conditioning usage begins.
In Chicago, peak high temperatures usually occur between July and September, so this inspection and maintenance should occur no later than June.
Summer check-up (July or August)
A second, less intensive check-up should be scheduled for the peak of the cooling season. This operational inspection will focus on verifying that parts that passed inspection in the spring are holding up as expected and that overall performance is within energy efficiency parameters.
As needed, controls and control software should be fine-tuned at this point to improve efficiency or usage scheduling.
Autumn inspection (October or November)
As we head into the winter, a full-scale inspection and evaluation of the heating system should be handled before temperatures start to plummet. Just like the spring inspection, the purpose is to test and evaluate heating system components to ensure they are up to the task of carrying the energy burden during the peak output of the heating system.
Since the coldest temperatures in the northern midwest are historically from December through March, this inspection should occur no later than November.
Winter check-up (January or February)
The purpose of this less intensive inspection is to confirm that the heating system is operating efficiently and performing optimally during the coldest part of the year.
While cleaning, repair, and replacement of worn components may be necessary during this period, the focus will likely be on fine tuning controls and boosting efficiency based on actual usage from a month-over-month basis.
How to bring planned HVAC maintenance into your Chicago commercial building
This article should provide a solid foundation for planning and executing a high-quality, consistent planned maintenance program for your commercial building’s HVAC system. The best way to get that program off the ground is to contact an experienced commercial HVAC services organization that understands the needs of the Windy City’s commercial buildings.
If you have any questions at all about how to implement proper planned maintenance for your building systems, let us know and we’ll be happy to discuss your options with you. If you’re already a planned maintenance customer working with Midwest Mechanical technicians, we’d love to hear your feedback.
Contact us today to start saving time, money, and effort through effective planned maintenance of your Chicago building's commercial HVAC system.