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5 Reasons Why Preventive Maintenance Programs Fail

The benefits of preventive maintenance programs are apparent to many in the commercial real estate industry. Nipping problems like HVAC issues in the bud before they become tenant complaints is an easy calculation to make. But the reason some buildings struggle with their preventative maintenance programs is that, well, establishing and running a program is far from easy. 

That doesn’t mean it’s not worth the effort, though. Unplanned and reactive maintenance can have steep overhead costs and cause building disruptions which reflect poorly on building owners. Unplanned maintenance on assets like HVAC equipment can also typically cost between 3 to 9 times more than planned maintenance, according to maintenance platform provider Fiix.

Critical pieces of building equipment have extended lifespans when preventative maintenance is done, affecting the building’s valuation. “If you don’t keep track of maintenance, it can hold up the sale of a building,” said Daniel Russo, Chief Product Officer at Building Engines, a property maintenance and operations platform provider. “You’d need to do a survey and audit of the building if you don’t have a good maintenance program that records everything.”

Russo said it takes a ton of work to set up a maintenance program, which could be one reason why some facilities fail to do so. There’s an endless array of books and articles about setting up preventative maintenance programs, but doing it is more complicated than gaining the book knowledge. “To run a proper PM program, you need internal staff to run best practices,” Russo said. “It takes a business case to justify preventive maintenance, and step one is justifying the cost and who will do it.”

Preventive maintenance can transform a commercial building into a more valuable asset if applied correctly. Considerable advances in tech over the past few decades have made maintenance tasks easier and yield better results. But some of the same old mistakes for property management teams still loom when setting up programs. 

Here are 5 reasons PM programs fail and what facility teams can do about it:

Foundation isn’t solid

Designing and establishing a preventive maintenance program differs from running a typical maintenance department. Preventative maintenance starts with setting goals, implementing performance standards for equipment, and documenting maintenance procedures and schedules. Ideally, all this information must be uploaded into a computerized maintenance management system (CMMS). It’s a lot of work, especially in the beginning, and in-house teams may not be able to do it alone. If uploading isn’t feasible in-house, property managers can find qualified consultants or maintenance vendors/contractors that can help.

Not having the right tech tools, like CMMS, can doom a program to failure from the start. Facilities need to gather information like equipment inventories, warranties, and service manuals and put that into their digital systems of record like CMMSs, so maintenance staffers have the right information at their fingertips. This information sets the performance standards for knowing how long equipment will last and how often it’ll need to be checked and repaired.

A property manager may start laying the groundwork for a preventative maintenance program, but other things can get in the way and stall progress. Perhaps the biggest failure of laying the groundwork is that a profit motive isn’t set. There needs to be a way to benchmark and track PM program savings. Without that, the programs may not seem justifiable to building owners or other executives.

Not enough data

It’s all about data in much of the business world today, and that’s no different for preventive maintenance programs. CMMS software can capture data from regular equipment inspections, thus providing insights into re-occurring problems. The ability to mine this data enables facility teams to track cost savings and schedule repair tasks. If facility teams aren’t collecting this data, they’re in for a rude awakening as their PM programs will likely be ineffective. But beyond simply collecting the data, it also has to be deciphered correctly to determine the next steps for the PM program.

Collecting and interpreting data required a big culture change for maintenance departments in the not-so-distant past. Most maintenance tracking used to be done entirely on paper, but lately, there’s been a seismic shift to going digital. “Maintenance staff typically has too much work and not enough resources, so digitizing speeds things up and helps make everyone look better,” said Russo of Building Engines. 

The older generation may still have some trouble with digital tracking tools, but the switch is worth it. “We sometimes see maintenance tasks tracked on chalkboards and post-it notes,” Russo continued. “All that needs to be replaced with iPads and screens.”

Not following the schedule

Some facilities will complain their PM programs aren’t effective, but those same companies usually aren’t doing scheduled maintenance tasks on time. A preventive maintenance program only works if the schedule is followed correctly. In some facilities, preventive maintenance tasks get the lowest priority when it really should be the other way around. Maintenance experts recommend building downtime into equipment operation schedules to provide enough time for completing preventive maintenance work.

Software tools like CMMS can also help create robust schedules that enable the planning process. Property managers must decide how much they will spend on preventive maintenance and how much equipment will be covered. Will it be for just critical equipment or all equipment? The answer usually depends on having the proper budget and staffing levels. Ignoring essential equipment can be risky, leading to deferred maintenance that stacks up and causes problems down the line.

Knowledge gaps

It’s no secret that the average age of maintenance workers is increasing. As the graying maintenance workforce retires, knowledge retires with them. Younger workers used to shadow veterans to learn the ropes, but that’s not as common anymore. Maintenance departments need to digitize their processes to fill in the gap for those disappearing apprenticeships.

Maintenance techs, especially the younger ones, need info and documents at their fingertips like warranties, schematic diagrams, and programmed steps. Many younger techs don’t have the experience or skills, so if a property manager doesn’t invest in some of these digital tools, they’re putting their preventive maintenance program at a significant disadvantage.

The other option is to outsource some maintenance tasks to fill in the gaps. Facilities turning to firms like JLL and CBRE to take on some of their workloads is an increasing trend in property maintenance. Despite the cost, there can be a definite benefit to outsourcing because outside firms can scale across an entire portfolio more quickly than implementing the switch to digital records internally. 

Not enough standards

Even if property managers outsource some or all of their preventive maintenance, problems can still arise. First, outsourcing should be standardized across building portfolios with facilities using the same company. Russo said he’s seen some building owners use a mixture of different firms and vendors for PM programs, and, while it can work, it often makes things more confusing. “Without standardization, there’s a lack of visibility, and you can’t compare and contrast building maintenance programs,” he said. “To run an effective PM program, you need goals and standards across an entire building portfolio.”

The same thing can happen if property managers simply hand over the PM program to their staff or a vendor without proper oversight. Preventive maintenance needs to be tracked closely by management to sustain it over time. It’s not a one-and-done deal by any means. If PM gets outsourced, standardizing the program by focusing on one vendor will simplify the process. If not, different buildings could have wildly different goals and benchmarks, which would only complicate the company’s PM program.

Why turn this ROI down?

Moving from reactive to preventive maintenance can save a building owner thousands of dollars per year. In fact, the return on investment for preventive maintenance programs can be astounding. JLL ran a study with a large telecommunications firm and discovered that, in some cases, preventative maintenance programs could have an unheard-of ROI of 545 percent. A prime example of this is a 350-ton chiller. The chiller can cost around $350,000 to replace, but the price tag for maintenance on the chiller only runs $5,500 annually. Plus, regular maintenance adds years to its life, which delays the need for chiller replacement. The longer you can delay replacing the chiller, the higher and higher the PM programs’ ROI climbs. And this is just one piece of equipment. If you add in the costs of all other critical pieces of equipment, the savings can be dramatic for almost any company.

Facilities management software like CMMS can help property managers set up a solid preventative maintenance program and avoid many mistakes that lead to program failures. Sticking to maintenance schedules and uploading necessary information like service manuals into CMMS are other ways to prevent expensive equipment failures. Setting up a PM program may not be easy, and there are tons of mistakes to avoid, but fewer tenant complaints and last-minute issues make them worth it. Dollar for dollar, preventative maintenance might be the best money a building owner or manager could ever spend.

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