As a commercial building owner or facility manager, you probably tend to think about your HVAC system in terms of the capital expenditure involved in upgrading or replacing it, or the inconvenience and expense involved in emergency repairs. That certainly makes sense, because those are real concerns. However, the most important aspect of professional HVAC care is actually what happens in between those major events:
Daily operations and routine maintenance.
Handling the day-to-day operation and planned seasonal maintenance schedule properly can keep a commercial HVAC system running in top form for as long as possible. In fact, with the appropriate emphasis on strategic planned maintenance (and a willingness to invest as needed to maintain the system properly) a quality maintenance program can help avoid costly emergency repairs and add years to the expected lifespan of HVAC equipment, pushing off those costly replacements.
But what’s actually involved in preparing and carrying out an effective planned maintenance program? Why is it so important, not only to the building and its systems, but also to the people living or working there? And, finally, what standard schedule should a planned maintenance program follow to ensure it’s accomplishing its purpose?
What does a commercial HVAC planned maintenance program involve?
An effective planned maintenance program for a commercial HVAC system includes three main components:
- Proactive replacement/upgrades
Commercial HVAC inspections
Routine inspections of the HVAC system should be done on at least a weekly basis, and they can likely be handled a trained member of your maintenance staff. These primarily involve a visual inspection of the boilers, chillers, and other equipment, as well as the ductwork and ventilation that’s easily visible.
The purpose of these routine inspections is to note any signs of leakage (either water or air), any loose, warped, cracked, or otherwise damaged pipes or ductwork, and any other visible signs of wear that could affect the system’s functionality.
However, those simple inspections are not enough to catch everything and get the true value out of an ongoing planned maintenance program.
A more thorough inspection of the system is recommended each quarter, and it should be carried out by a trained and experienced commercial HVAC technician, preferably one who is already familiar with your building and system.
During these more thorough inspections, the technician will carry out the same visual review you’re handling on a weekly basis — potentially picking up on 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:
- Flame Composition
- Spray Nozzles & Pans
- Crankcase Heaters
- Motor housings
- Condensate Drains & Pans
- Igniter & Flame Assembly
- Fan Assemblies
Some of the tests they will perform include operational evaluations of:
- Outside Air Intakes
- Control Interlocks
- Refrigerant Pump Down
- Flue Stack Assembly
- Water Flow
- Pressures & Temperatures
- Flow Switch Operations
Commercial HVAC cleaning
As inspections are being made, it makes sense to take the time to clean up any components of the system that have collected dust, condensation, or any other impurity. After all, not only can dust and dirt harm various electrical and mechanical system components, but any form of impurity in the HVAC system could eventually find its way through the vents and into 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 any small puddles caused by natural condensation, and changing out some of the standard filters (if your system’s design allows for doing so without specialized knowledge and/or tools.)
However, once again, a more thorough cleaning, handled by an experienced HVAC technician, is needed every few months.
Often in conjunction with their visual inspections, professional HVAC technicians will employ various specialized tools to keep the system’s inner workings free of dust, dirt, mildew, mold, and other debris that could harm its function as well as the quality of the air it’s circulating. Changing out all filters on a conservative schedule is an obvious part of this effort.
Additionally, they will be looking beyond the cleanup itself to determine whether any root cause is allowing more than the usual amount of contaminants to enter the system, and they will resolve those issues to ensure a cleaner system going forward.
Proactive replacement and upgrades of commercial HVAC components
The third element making up a planned maintenance program really can’t be handled by you or your team, as its success is based primarily on the results of the more in-depth inspections and thorough testing carried out by the professional technicians each quarter. That third element is the proactive replacement of components that are nearing the end of their expected lifespan, showing signs of impending malfunction, or can be replaced with a component that will perform better or more efficiently in the long run.
All these recommended replacements and upgrades are to components in the system that are still functioning at the time of the inspection, which is an important detail to point out. In other words, you may have no reason to even suspect that a given part is showing signs of wear or costing more than it needs to in energy use. But a trained technician — who knows what to look for and what tests to perform — can ferret these hidden opportunities out of a routine maintenance visit and act on them to proactively improve your commercial HVAC system and reduce the chances of an unexpected emergency repair catching you off guard.
Why is planned maintenance so important?
Running a commercial building is much like running a business — in order to stay afloat and continue serving your customers (tenants) as they’ve come to expect, you need to make sure you’re consistently providing a quality product (your clean, comfortable building) and that your budget remains in the black.
If either of those business goals starts falling short, the other can quickly follow, and both are essential for the survival of your building. Planned maintenance addresses both of them in many ways:
Planned commercial HVAC maintenance saves money
A well-planned and executed maintenance program saves you money in four distinct ways:
- Improves energy efficiency
- Lengthens the equipment’s lifespan
- Prevents costly emergency repairs
- Prevents costly downtime
Improved energy efficiency
Commercial buildings consistently account for 50 percent or more of the total energy consumption across the United States. Additionally, the HVAC system is often either the #1 or #2 consumer of energy in each commercial building (along with lighting.)
It only makes sense then that improving the energy efficiency of your commercial HVAC system will translate into significant money saved.
In fact, those savings can start immediately upon making even a small improvement. For example, cleaning a filter or replacing a fan belt that’s lost some of its tension can take just a few minutes, but it can dramatically improve airflow in that portion of the system every second of everyday from then on, making it easier for heated or cooled air to get where it needs to go. As a result, the system may run less often and consume less energy each time it does run.
The very next electric bill could contain an incredible reduction after the completion of just one maintenance task!
Lengthens the equipment’s lifespan
Replacing the entire HVAC system in your building will probably cost in the mid- to high-six figures or more. And, of course, sometimes that needs to happen. It’s just part of the cost of operating a commercial building.
But who in their right mind wouldn’t want to delay that tremendous expense as long as they possibly could?
Today’s high-grade commercial HVAC systems should be able to last at least 20-25 years before needing replacement. But that’s only possible if they’re properly maintained throughout their entire lifespan. Without consistent maintenance, these systems may end up requiring replacement as soon as 15, 12, or even 10 years or less, meaning you’re left footing that huge bill up to a decade sooner than you would have if the system had been maintained. In some cases, poorly maintained systems have ended up needing replacement before the owner was even finished paying for them!
That’s no way to run a business.
Prevents costly emergency repairs
While emergency repairs are occasionally necessary even with proper maintenance, their occurrence becomes far less likely if the system is being maintained properly by knowledgeable professionals.
This is a natural extension of the third element of an effective planned maintenance program as described above: proactive replacements and upgrades.
As professional HVAC technicians have the opportunity to regularly inspect and test system components, they’ll be able to recognize when certain parts are on their way toward malfunctioning or completely breaking down. Rather than allowing that to happen, they can recommend strategic replacements done on a schedule that’s most convenient for you, both time-wise and from a budget perspective.
Hence, they can help you avoid the inconvenience and potential additional damage that comes from a system component unexpectedly ceasing to function. And, they can handle the replacement during normal business hours, without the need for an emergency response, which inevitably costs far more.
Prevents costly downtime
Directly connected to the previous point is the fact that eliminating emergency repairs means there will be fewer (or no) instances in which work has to completely shut down while the system is repaired.
For instance, in manufacturing facilities or laboratories where the loss of ventilation for a few hours can literally create hazardous conditions for the workers, an HVAC outage can result in a complete shutdown of the facility. In other cases, the situation may not be quite that severe, but hours with no air conditioning during a hot day can, at the very least, result in unproductive workers, if not health concerns.
Both of these downtime conditions can cost a company a tremendous amount of money in lost productivity.
Planned commercial HVAC maintenance supports strategic capex planning and budgeting
Beyond saving a great deal of money in the short and long terms, planned maintenance of your commercial HVAC system also supports long-term business goals by facilitating strategic planning of large capital expenditures and promoting a more predictable and accurate budget.
The commercial HVAC system that is consistently maintained by knowledgeable and experienced professionals is less likely to fall victim to issues requiring emergency repairs. By definition, emergency repairs are unexpected, and are therefore going to put a dent into any building owner’s budget. So, it logically follows that the well-maintained system — which receives proactive replacements and upgrades as needed — will have much less of an impact on the month-to-month operating budget since expenses can be predicted with greater accuracy.
In addition, as commercial HVAC equipment reaches the end of its expected lifespan, the building owner naturally needs to plan for its imminent replacement. But if that system has been well maintained consistently throughout its use, the owner will be able to plan years in advance for that eventual replacement, rather than suddenly realizing it needs to occur within the next year or less, which will allow them to secure favorable funding terms and budget properly for quick payment.
Relying on the professional opinion of a trusted maintenance technician, the owner can fully expect their system to remain in good working order right up to the date of replacement, then enjoy a seamless transition to the new quality system being installed.
In every way imaginable, this ability to plan ahead and extend the life of the system both saves, and makes the best possible use of, available funds.
What is the optimal planned maintenance schedule for commercial HVAC systems?
As has already been noted, routine visual inspections and basic cleaning should be handled by the building staff on a weekly basis, or more often if circumstances require it.
For a professional planned maintenance program, however, a quarterly schedule has proven to be effective for most commercial buildings:
The time frames here are approximate and based primarily on the Charlotte, North Carolina climate, where most of our customers’ facilities are. If necessary, simply make adjustments to apply to your area’s hottest and coldest parts of the year.
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 Charlotte, 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 southeast U.S. 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 commercial building
The information outlined in this article should provide a solid foundation for planning and executing a consistent, high-quality 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 Charlotte’s and Mecklenburg County’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 enjoying planned maintenance conducted by AirTight FaciliTech technicians, we’d love to hear your feedback.
Contact us today to start saving time, money, and effort through effective planned maintenance of your Charlotte building's commercial HVAC system.