Making Ends Meet
- By Amy Milshtein
- June 1st, 1999
The Dow hits 10,000. Unemployment is down, consumer confidence is up and Americans have more expendable income than ever. So, to spread the wealth and keep the good times rolling, your college or university has increased the maintenance budget 15 percent. Yeah, right! Even in the robust economy of the late 1990s, maintenance budgets remain pretty tight. In fact, some managers are expected to do more with less every year. Here are some smart ways your colleagues are pinching pennies.
C’est la Guerre
But first the war stories. "Our school expects an APPA cleanliness level of 2 but they only fund us for level 3," laments Robert B. Andrus, maintenance foreman at Salt Lake Community College in Utah. And the problems are about more than just tidiness. "Our elevator budget was set up 15 years ago when we had only four units," remarks Andrus. "We now have 18, and the service call cost went from $28 to $75, but our budget hasn’t moved."
Being stuck in a funding or staffing time warp remains a common complaint. "We are allowed only a certain number of full-time, union employees," reports Jim Miller, assistant director for maintenance at Oregon State University, Corvallis. "In the last 12 years we added between 700,000 sq. ft. and 1,000,000 sq. ft. of building space, but only one new employee."
Gaston G. Gosselin, manager of maintenance services at Michigan State University, East Lansing, states that his management challenges him to a one percent efficiency improvement with a one percent reduction in budget every year. How do these and other managers spin proverbial budget straw into maintenance gold?
Basic Battle Plans
When an operation is down to the bare bones, a good place to cut is in aesthetics. "We don’t paint interiors unless we get special funds," says Gosselin. "Yes, it can get ugly, but it is a safe way to save money."
If you are not mandated by your state on where to buy cleaning supplies, shopping around for chemicals may be another smart way to save bucks. "We get better supplies that do the job in less time," says Andrus. Andrus also appealed to department heads to get some help. "The technical department used to complain about messy labs and classrooms," he says. "We told them about our budget problems, and now they dust, vacuum and empty waste baskets on their own."
Recycling can be as good for the bottom line as it is for the environment. Miller at Oregon State used to pay for hauling, grinding and landfilling all of their old wood products such as pallets and lumber. He now rents a machine to grind his own wood waste on site and uses the grindings as landscaping mulch. This saves $2,000 in hauling costs, generates $3,000 worth of mulch and keeps all of that waste out of the landfill.
Sure, the above tips represent down-and-dirty ways to save a few dollars, but sometimes it takes a little finesse to win the battle of the budget. Some maintenance managers can be pretty darn crafty when it comes to generating money or convincing the administration to prime the pump. Take Stephen Medley, director of facilities maintenance and repair at Western Oregon University, Monmouth, for instance. He charges the school’s auxiliary units such as food services, housing, athletics, police and the student union a fee every time he does work for them.
"The auxiliary services are allowed to take outside bids, but mine always come in cheaper," Medley says. "Some schools have separate maintenance departments just for auxiliary services, but why? The duplication hurts the university, I can do the job for less, and the profits can go into my budget for things like light retrofits, that save even more money. I think it’s a perfect situation."
Often it takes sophisticated, covert tactics to make the administration see your budgetary needs. Robert DiBlasio, director of maintenance and operations at Johns Hopkins University/Medical School, Baltimore, consistently relies on two tools. The first is translating the foreign language of maintenance into something laypeople understand. "I try to make the problems as real to them as possible," he says. "If there is a leak in sanitary mains, I don’t just write a memo about it; I take a piece of pipe and bring it to a meeting. They need to see, taste and feel a problem in order to address it properly."
DiBlasio also has great success in getting big jobs funded by creating a deferred maintenance wish list and whipping it out at opportune moments. For instance, a new building was going up next to an existing structure that badly needed a new roof. DiBlasio knew that a walk-through of the new space was being planned, so he made sure the old roof next door looked as ugly as possible by covering it with test patches. When the deans remarked on the eyesore, DiBlasio replied, "Well, re-roofing is on our deferred maintenance list." Money for the new roof followed quickly.
The same thing happened during the school’s "turtle derby." Held on an old courtyard, whose pavers had seen better days, the charity event always draws the media. Again, when a dean remarked on the shabby condition of the courtyard, DiBlasio brought up the deferred maintenance list and got the cash. "You have to be Johnny-on-the-spot," he says. "Sell the sizzle, and you will get the steak."
Bring in the Ground Troops
Staffing presents two opportunities to stretch dollars. The first way is to empower your maintenance troops and get them as involved with their jobs as possible. "My guys are totally into their jobs," says DiBlasio. "They are in tune with the buildings and equipment and spot small problems before they grow into big, expensive ones."
How does DiBlasio do this? "I really listen to their issues and get out there with them to see problems firsthand," he replies. "You can’t foster team spirit from inside a glass castle."
Another way to get more bang for your buck is to rely on student staffing. Oregon State’s Miller relies on students every summer to get painting done. "With what I pay one full-time employee I can get three or four students," he says. "Plus it gives the students one more learning experience. For some of them this is the first job they’ve ever held."
While just the opposite of DiBlasio’s idea of creating a devoted staff, employing students works if you follow some rules. First, be forthcoming in the interview process. "Treat them like regular, full-time employees from the start," says Miller. "Yes, they may need flexible schedules to accommodate their classes, but hold them accountable. Don’t put up with no-shows."
To keep students on the straight and narrow during a job, Miller sends a lead worker along. Often a full-time employee, the lead worker makes sure the job gets done right. Sometimes a student who has been with Miller for a couple of years gets promoted to lead worker. "They get a tremendous amount of work done," he says. "It’s been very successful."
Miller taps another employee source, the developmentally disadvantaged who live in local qualified rehabilitation facilities. These people pick up ground litter at the 420-acre campus for far less cost than his landscaping staff. "It’s also a great way to reach out to the community and give these people jobs," he says.
Weapons of War
Planners and managers can also save money with equipment purchases and maintenance. Michigan State’s Gosselin is squeezing an extra 10 years out of his school’s elevators and absorption chillers by faithfully following a rigorous regime of preventive maintenance. "I do above what’s recommended," he says. "That has worked quite well for us."
Staggering the HVAC start-ups avoids the huge inrush that pushes up your peak use bill. Turning off the air at the end of the day also saves. Some colleges provide a daily list of buildings and their use times to make sure no one has to work in the heat. Infrared light sensors also keep costs down.
Another way to get the most out of your equipment is to change it a bit. Western Oregon University’s Medley installed variable frequency drives on his school’s HVAC units. Not only does it save energy and money; he got a rebate from his power company. Medley also got a rebate when he retrofit lighting. While the rebate doesn’t cover the entire cost, he says that the job pays for itself in 2.4 years. "After that it’s pure profit, to the tune of about $50,000 a year."
Other managers also spend to save. Sometimes just a little money goes a long way. Andrus at Salt Lake Community College spent $9,000 for a product called JLGVP20. This allows one person to change lights up to 25 feet high. "It used to take two people a week to change all the lamps in the racquetball court," he says. "Now it takes one person one day." Gosselin paid $12,000 for a computer laser aligner. Now aligning takes 75 percent less time and keeps the college’s equipment in good shape.
Predictive maintenance costs more, but offers disaster prevention. Oregon State University’s Miller pays $600 a day for vibration analysis on chillers. The company provides graphs on the health of bearings and seals. The information has saved the university $12,000 by avoiding potential breakdowns.
Miller also paid $1,500 a day for a thermographic photographer to take photos of the electrical distribution system. Weak spots show up as a white-hot image. "This potentially saved us thousands of dollars in lost research," he says.
Keeping the Peace
Of course the best maintenance takes place in a problem-free environment. But does such a thing exist? While no one lives in a perfect world, getting the maintenance staff involved in new projects before they’re built is a great way to avoid problems and keep budgets reasonable.
For instance, Johns Hopkins’ DiBlasio built a mock-up of a new lab and invited the scientists to a wine and cheese party to see and vote on it. After all the votes were calculated the winning configuration was used as a model for the contractors to bid on. This saved construction money and made sure all the parties were reasonably happy.
While they don’t go so far as to build a mock-up, Miller and his staff also take part in new construction and capital repair and improvement. "Specs are submitted to my shop personnel, and everyone from the plumber, electrician and carpenter reviews the plans," he says. "They are the experts; they know the code and which products work. So if they see a mistake, like specifying a residential model when a commercial model is more appropriate, they speak up."
To make sure this plan succeeds, the architects and engineers must respond to the maintenance staff’s comments. This guarantees dialogue between the groups and, in the long run, savings. And, in the end, budget victory.
Amy Milshtein is a freelance writer from Hillsboro, Ore., with experience in higher education issues.