Q&A: Maintenance and Operations, 21st-Century Style

The Maintaining and Operating of Schools Goes Far Beyond Just Cleaning and Construction

Much has changed over the decades in the maintenance and operations of schools. The facilities industry no longer just comprises individuals who know a little something about construction or cleaning. New building technologies and increasing legislative requirements have placed a strong focus on professionalism and the importance of working with industry leaders.

School Construction News recently sat down with Ken Wertz, director of maintenance and operations of the Sharon Public Schools District in Massachusetts and president of the Massachusetts Facilities Administrators Associations, a professional organization that serves municipal and public K-12 schools in Massachusetts. The MFAA has provided support, networking and professional development opportunities for more than 39 years and, by sharing knowledge and resources, helps improve the performance and extend the life of public facilities.

Q: With the average U.S. school more than 40 years old, what maintenance and operations challenges are administrators facing?

A: Older school buildings provide unique operational challenges for facilities administrators. Older building systems do not provide the reliability associated with a stable learning environment. Replacement parts for some of the older systems are becoming harder to come by, along with technicians that are no longer familiar with working on some of the older components like steam distribution systems or pneumatic controls. The combination of an outdated building envelope with antiquated control systems makes it extremely difficult to maintain proper indoor air quality and manage energy usage. Another piece of the aging building equation that is often overlooked is the impact it has on technology in the classrooms. Older electrical distribution and low-voltage wiring systems cannot handle the increased demand that newer information technology brings to the table. Having this handicap greatly reduces a school district’s ability to deliver the tools needed for 21st-century learners.

Q: How energy efficient is the average school? Do you have any statistics?

A: The benchmarking research that I do for my work for Sharon Public Schools and as MFAA president is primarily focused in the northeast region of the country. With so many variables that are climate- and geographically driven, it is difficult to put a qualitative average efficiency rating on all the high schools throughout the country. The only agency that has data and evidence for national averages that I completely trust is the EPA’s Energy Star program (www.energystar.gov).

I currently utilize Energy Star’s Portfolio Manager to track all of my building utility usage. Portfolio Manager is a free online resource that allows you to track your building’s energy performance and benchmark it against similar buildings across the country. If a building earns a ranking of 75 or higher, it is eligible for an Energy Star award.

Q: What energy efficient strategies should be implemented in older schools to achieve a cost savings?
A: There are countless upgrades to building systems that can be performed in older schools to help with energy efficiency. I would strongly urge districts to first establish an energy conservation plan. Without first establishing a clear plan and creating a baseline to measure your performance, there is no way of knowing how you are doing. I see districts make this mistake time and time again. Document your starting point and consider where it makes sense to focus your efforts. If you are just starting, then establish a district-wide policy, a plan, regulation document and a best practices guide for all your buildings to follow.

A majority of energy savings can be obtained with no-cost or low-cost initiatives. Changing the culture of the building and how systems and equipment functions are the low-hanging fruit that districts should tackle first. Are timers and adjustments working as they should? Are custodians reducing temperatures and lighting levels during the school vacations? Are boilers running at optimal temperatures based on outdoor temperatures? Simple things that will show up during energy building audits that require little, if any, funding and can save upwards of 10 percent of your utility expenses.

After a district has established its plan, it can then work with utility providers or state governments to see which energy grants are most advantageous to pursue for building system upgrades. Lighting upgrades, pumps and VFD drives, heating controls, boiler upgrades and building envelope improvements are all areas that should be investigated as possible energy upgrades to a building.

Q: For new school construction and renovations, what energy considerations need to be included?

A: There are countless resources for establishing best practices when designing a new or renovated space. Collaborative for High Performance Schools and the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED system, along with EnergyStar.gov, all offer recommended guidelines for constructing a sustainable and energy efficient facility.

Unfortunately, not all communities can afford the additional costs with building a CHPS or LEED facility. In those cases, communities should work closely with their designer to establish which energy conservation pieces are required in their facility in order to maximize efficiencies while still maintaining their project budget.

Some items that would be considered during these discussions are condensing boilers, DDC (direct digital control) heating controls, occupancy sensor for both lighting and heating/cooling, low E glazing, high efficiency transformers, LED lighting, increased insulation, reflective roofing materials, photo voltaic arrays, geothermal heating, wind farms, low-flow plumbing fixtures and lighting controls, to name just a few.

Q: What preventative maintenance strategies must be practiced as a whole in school districts across the country?
A: Preventative maintenance (PM) work is, unfortunately, oftentimes put on the back burner in public facilities. With the current state of doing more with less, it is difficult to keep a maintenance team and school district focused on the importance of PM work. District administration and school boards should be educated on the merits of PM work. It would be very difficult to have a well-developed PM system without support and buy-in from the top-level school administration.

All schools do perform some level of PM work. Regulated and mandated life safety inspections, sprinkler, fire detection, elevators, fume hoods, fire extinguisher, emergency lighting and generators is all work required to be performed by legislation and codes, and all of which falls under the umbrella of preventative maintenance. This could be considered tier I.

Tier II would be filter changes, belt changes, lubrications, boiler tune-ups, damper adjustments and floor refinishing. All of these are not mandated, but clearly are critical tasks that have to be performed in order to avoid equipment failure and air quality issues in a facility.
In all of these cases, PM work should be tracked using a work-order management system. There are several companies that provide this service to public schools. Some are software options, while most have shifted to a Web-based platform. The system should allow for reporting functions and integrate with the department’s normal work-order management system to provide ease of use for the maintenance team.

Q: Finally, what are the most important preventive maintenance items that schools should implement?
A: Life safety and all code or governmental mandates must be performed. These items would include elevator inspections, sprinkler inspections, fire detection inspections, fume hood inspections, fire extinguisher inspections, integrated pest management, asbestos AHERA inspections, Radon testing and playground inspections … There is absolutely no way that these items can ever be deferred.
A great framework for starting an energy conservation plan can be found at: www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?c=guidelines.guidelines_index