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The HVAC Maintenance Toolbox Is More Advanced Than Ever

Even the best property managers can overlook preventive maintenance of HVAC units. At times, heating and cooling systems are a perfect example of the phrase “out of sight and out of mind.” They may not be the biggest priority if they’re already working properly. But just like cars, if you can keep your HVAC units well-maintained, you can prevent many serious problems. HVAC units that undergo regular preventive maintenance not only avoid costly repairs, they last longer and lead to lower energy bills. Extending the lifespan of the unit is perhaps the biggest concern. New HVAC systems cost anywhere between $5,000 and $20,000. Plus, replacing a system is a complicated process. Fortunately, property managers have more ways to tune up heating and cooling units than ever before, and have a large menu of options on how they can do it. Some of these efforts are powered by new tech that makes maintenance more data-driven and gives property managers a holistic view of their systems.

The lifespan of HVAC units depends on several factors, even the climate of where the unit is located, but quality maintenance is the most important. There is sometimes the question of whether to replace or repair an HVAC unit, and some facilities will run theirs to failure. But if the unit is mission critical and a tenant only has one, running to failure isn’t an option. For example, if there are two units for cooling, facilities will obviously have more flexibility. The schedule of HVAC maintenance also varies from building to building. Some tenants do it on a calendar basis where check-ups are scheduled seasonally. Others do it on a rolling basis, similar to getting an oil change in a car, where once the maintenance check-ups are finished, the date of the next repair is automatically triggered. 

The most innovative way is doing HVAC maintenance based on run-time data and other analyses. This is predictive maintenance, which is like the preventive kind but much more advanced. Either way, predictive and preventative maintenance render a superior result than a more reactive HVAC systems mindset, where repairs only happen when something breaks.

Making predictions

Predictive maintenance uses data-driven strategies to anticipate repairs. Some tasks like changing air filters are always performed periodically, but with others, data gleaned from things like vibration analysis of components tell technicians exactly what’s needed and when. Technicians use hand-held analyzers for vibration analysis or sometimes rely on sensors built into HVAC equipment. They compare readings of equipment operating in peak conditions, which have particular vibration patterns, and then compare it over time to determine failure modes. Components that wear out typically have much different vibration patterns. 

Vibration analysis is a common tool used for HVAC condition monitoring, but several others exist too. Infrared thermography, also known as non-intrusive testing technology, is another widely used option. IR cameras detect high temperatures in components, as worn-out equipment usually emits high heat and shows up as a hotspot on the camera. This type of precision in maintenance boosts energy efficiency and prevents many problems that lead to tenant complaints, such as uneven heating and cooling or even complete system failures.

While the industrial world has hailed predictive maintenance since at least the 1990s, and it has become more common in HVAC, not all property managers do it. One challenge of the practice is that it requires technicians to repair equipment and interpret data analytics. This may be beyond the skillset of some in-house maintenance staff, which is why some property managers rely more on HVAC contractors to do it. Cloud-based tech has decreased the cost of the tech tools and software needed to do predictive maintenance, but the cost can still be a concern. 

Hiring a contractor for a predictive maintenance program will be more expensive, but it may pay off in the long run. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that a well-run predictive maintenance program provides savings of 30 to 40 percent over reactive maintenance, where HVAC units and components are only fixed after failures. Facilities that fall into the reactive maintenance mode can also pay a hefty price. The New Buildings Institute reports that reactive maintenance on most property equipment can increase energy costs by as much as 30 to 60 percent.

A predictive maintenance program can also inform the capital planning process. Gathering so much data on the unit, such as work order and repair histories, technicians get a clearer picture of the overall health. Replacement of poorly performing HVAC units is not easy because the decision depends on various factors. If the unit is chronically getting repaired, many facilities stop sinking money into it and opt for replacement. Going with a newer HVAC can also save money in the long run, as more energy-efficient HVACs perform better and cost less to run. Plus, with so much emphasis on the property sector to reduce energy usage and emissions, upgrading to a high-performance HVAC can help. Heating and cooling typically account for one of the largest commercial building energy consumption shares.

It’s spring cleaning time

Newer HVAC units are more complex than their predecessors, requiring more precision, analysis, and technical expertise in maintenance, according to Matthew Sallee, Vice President of Business Development & Sales at Motili, a nationwide HVAC service provider. “Many of our clients do lots of reporting with photos and checklists,” Sallee said. “They want to ensure the jobs are done right, not just a tech struggling through a job on a bad day.” 

Sallee said tenants collect reams of data on their HVACs through asset tracking, which numbers and organizes components and their repair histories. The goal is to get ahead of a service call and do maintenance before problems arise. Spring is coming soon, and occupiers usually schedule seasonal repairs now. Getting the maintenance done in early spring prevents complaints of units not working correctly on unexpectedly hot days in some parts of the country. 

Even if property managers have a robust predictive maintenance program, adding a seasonal spring checkup is wise. Replacing air filters at least twice a year, for example, significantly boosts performance. Filters get dirty over wintertime and need to be cleaned so units can be at full strength for the demands of cooling in the summer, especially in recent years when brutal heat waves have become more common. The EPA says heat waves are occurring more often than they used to in U.S. cities, averaging about two per year in the 1960s to six per year in the 2010s. The more intense summer heat puts even more pressure on property managers to keep HVACs healthy and in good condition. Sallee said he’d seen some nasty filters from neglected systems, always a bad sign. A clean system is a healthy and better-performing one, so cleaning other components in the spring, such as indoor coils, air blowers, and drain lines, is also critical.

Break down the data silos

Another helpful new HVAC maintenance technology includes mobile app integration, which enables technicians to view all information on a single device. Jeff Thompson of Building Engines, a property management tech firm, says this “really empowers technicians in the field,” giving them data at their fingertips. Sensors used to be rather expensive, but costs have come down. Thompson told me deploying HVAC sensors enables more data collection, which is “incredibly valuable” for predictive maintenance. He said another exciting tech development is the integration of all HVAC data into a single building operations platform. Most HVAC and building operations data is siloed in different platforms today, so getting all the information in the same place helps tremendously.

Thompson said looking at all the information together gives more context to the condition of HVAC systems, allowing facilities to make better decisions. For example, property managers can access complete repair histories for units at every building, get the complete picture of their units’ make, model, and warranty, and benchmark and compare their performance. Some buildings may also have triple-net lease obligations, especially in retail and industrial, and be required to report repairs to landlords. Today, software platforms offer better tools to meet these types of lease obligation requirements by keeping track of them. This is especially helpful for occupiers with multiple buildings who need to keep tabs on the lease reporting obligations for several HVAC units. Putting all the information in one place also encompasses work orders, enabling property managers to track tenant service requests.

In whatever form it’s done, HVAC maintenance prevents the types of problems that drain budgets and annoy tenants. Periodic system cleaning done on a seasonal basis, for example, leads to significant energy savings. The EPA estimates that dirty coils can reduce a system’s energy efficiency by as much as 21 percent. Above all, quality preventive and predictive maintenance extends the life of HVAC systems that are pricey and critical pieces of equipment. Just like with a car, if you don’t change your oil and get other repairs done, it can fail on you when you least expect it and, usually, during the most inopportune times. With all the tools available today, property managers who take a proactive approach to HVAC maintenance can rest assured a unit likely won’t fail on one of those increasingly common hot summer days, leading to dozens of tenant complaints and a big, unexpected bill.

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