Our society has changed dramatically over the past few years. Where once, most manufacturing and services were performed via manual labor, we now look to automated machines and robots, instructed by computers, to perform those often-boring, repetitive tasks. And, while we have technologically gained in the arenas of productivity, quality and consistency, we also have lost something. In the transition to automation, our mindsets have changed to where many people believe that computers can “do it all”. That they can replace humans in pretty much any endeavor, and outperform the human, no matter what the task. Someday, this utopian perception may become reality, but for now there still exists a huge majority of tasks requiring human intervention and human comparative thought processes that computers simply cannot accomplish.
This article will present five very critical areas regarding building maintenance that require talents that, as of today, only humans can provide. Now, you may say that these areas are quite obvious, but the fact is, that lack of attention to the items we'll discuss results in many accidents each year. And some of these accidents are crippling, permanent injuries, while still others are fatalities. If you are a building supervisor or manager, or perhaps a maintenance person, paying attention to the items we'll discuss will minimize the potential for accidents, and, isn’t that what we all want and strive for – a safe environment for our visitors, tenants and employees?
In this article, we'll focus on several different critical tasks within the following categories:
Let's get started, shall we?
All modern buildings, whether they are 30-story high-rises or single-story apartment complexes, require frequent assessments of their integrity. Meaning, is everything in-place and fully functional as the designers and builders originally intended? Obviously, this “Integrity” definition breaks down into multiple sub-categories, of which we will closer examine three.
Structures of any kind can fool you. You observe them from the outside, and they may look like they’re in great shape. Unfortunately, those of you who have been concerned with building maintenance for any length of time know very well that a structure that looks good and solid may be anything but that.
As a case-in-point, about 20 years ago, after one or two structural failures and subsequent collapses, the bridges in this country came under careful scrutiny. The fact is they were neglected for many years, and only when bridges started collapsing did the authorities begin to treat the inspection and maintenance of bridges seriously.
The same lesson should be applied to any structure, but particularly, any buildings where people work or congregate. All structures, whether held together by welds, bolts, screws or nails, must be thoroughly inspected on a regular basis for failures or weakened structural members and point-of-attachments. Any deficiencies discovered should be corrected as soon as possible.
No single component of a building system can cause so much grief as a defective roof. No matter whether it is a tarred, flat roof, a rubber membrane roof, a metal roof, or a shingled roof, if leaks develop, interior constituents, such as wallboard, furniture, electrical equipment, and many other items, will be adversely affected.
Not to mention, that in many cases, not only will you have the water damage to deal with, but the likelihood of mold growth. Once mold gains a foothold, it is very difficult (and expensive) to eradicate.
The moral of the story here is have your roof inspected at least annually, for leaks, and, if any leaks are found, have them repaired immediately. Technology today has advanced to the point where infrared aerial scans can be made of a roof, which will show any water infiltration and help pinpoint areas where leaks are originating from. Frankly, such scans, performed annually, are cheap insurance.
There are many individual “systems” within a building that work together to form a safe and healthy environment. However, when any one or more of these individual systems fail, the entire building environment becomes susceptible to breakdown and may no longer be either safe or healthy.
Some of these items are as simple as doors and windows, or as complex as elevators and fire-suppression systems. The more complex systems will be addressed in later sections of this article, but, no matter whether these items are considered simple or complex, we must always remember to factor their individual contribution into the success (or failure) of the total building.
Life-safety should always be taken seriously. The example here is the Station night club in Providence, Rhode Island, where, in 2003, a band used fireworks to highlight their performance, but the fireworks accidentally started a fire within the club. There were no working sprinklers in the club (which was against code) and the emergency escapes were chained and locked (which was also against code), leaving only the front door as a means of escape. More people were trampled in the panic to escape than died due to the fire or by smoke inhalation. One hundred people lost their lives and 230 more were injured. Many lives would likely have been spared if life-safety requirements had been put into practice.
We can always replace buildings or building components, but we can’t replace people; that’s why life-safety is taken so seriously. OSHA and the National Fire Protection Association address life-safety in several documents, most notably NFPA-101, which specifically addresses life safety. The bottom line is, life safety is not to be taken lightly. Not only is it the law, it’s a moral obligation.
As we already mentioned, the nightclub in Rhode Island had their emergency exits chained and locked. What’s the point of having “emergency” exits if they’re going to be unusable in an emergency?
Of course, adequate and unobstructed building exits are only one aspect of building egress. Within buildings, pathways to outside exits must also be kept clear. People seem to forget that, in the event of a fire, it’s likely that lights will either be off or obscured by smoke, so there can be no blockages or tripping hazards in the path of escape from the building. This is not only common sense, it’s the law.
All public buildings today require an approved fire suppression system, such as sprinklers or dry chemical discharge. Remember, these systems are not designed to extinguish a fire; they are designed only to suppress the fire long enough for people to evacuate the area. Depending on your water source pressure and volume, you may also need a water storage tank and a diesel-powered fire pump. According to most building and life-safety codes, auxiliary fire pumps must be exercised according to a schedule (usually monthly), with the testing and inspection results carefully logged. Any system deficiencies (depleted batteries and low levels of, and/or dirty, fuel are the most common) should be addressed immediately.
Also, sprinkler risers (where the sprinkler water enters the building) must be periodically inspected and tested for properly-functioning components. These include flow switches, back-flow preventers, diaphragms, air compressors, pressure gauges and valves. All these components need to be regularly maintained so there can be no question that they will function properly in an actual emergency.
Typically, an emergency alarm will sound if a building’s fire-suppression system goes off. However, other emergency alarms may be triggered by different abnormalities.
Many buildings have alarms for excess carbon monoxide, or low oxygen, or approaching severe weather.
The point is that there are many types of emergency alarms, that respond to a wide variety of potentially life-threatening situations. As a building manager, you are responsible to assure all the warning alarms within your building(s) are always operational, and, that, in the case of multiple alarms, the building occupants know what each alarm signifies. Also, emergency alarms are not only confined to audible horns or sirens, but are also made up of flashing strobe lights. All these alarms, lights and the main and auxiliary alarm panels must be regularly inspected and tested.
An integral part of any emergency egress system is having adequate emergency lighting, including illuminated exit signs.
Emergency lights normally consist of one or two lighting heads (usually LED), with a battery pack suitable to light the light heads for a minimum of 20 minutes. There are also emergency light combination units, which also physically and electrically integrate an illuminated exit sign into the lighting pack and lighting heads. These types of light packs simplify installation as now there is only one “box” to install and wire as opposed to two. All typical emergency lights are powered by gel cell batteries, which, during non-emergency times, receive a small replenishment charge from a built-in battery charger. Unfortunately, this constant “trickle” charge causes the battery to “wear out” over time, and therefore, all emergency light systems must be tested periodically to make sure the battery can provide a charge sufficient to keep the emergency lights lit for a minimum of 20 minutes. As always, these tests must be logged and available for the local AHJ to review.
We're not necessarily referring to “bank-vault” level security in this section, but, it is worth remembering that violence is a real-world issue for many of us.
The sheer randomness of these increasingly-prevalent violent acts literally forces building management to provide at least some level of physical security. Most times, building security is provided by security guards (whether armed or not) and strategically-placed surveillance cameras. The addition of sign-in stations and x-ray scanners elevate security measures to the next level. And, of course, really restricting access (not just saying it) to only authorized persons is about the best level of security we can achieve without beginning to significantly restrict personal freedoms.
There must always be an acceptable balance between security and personal freedom.
Almost all buildings today that are intended for human occupancy are air-conditioned via one or more means. Without a working and reliable building temperature and humidity control system, most building occupants will be very dissatisfied and will likely be prone to move on to a better and more comfortable environment.
It's just true that, as a society, particularly in America, we have come to expect a high level of personal comfort and we generally won’t tolerate uncomfortable environments (at least, not for very long).
So, if we want people to remain in our buildings, we must do a good job of maintaining the temperature and humidity control systems.
There are several HVAC system designs but they all seek to accomplish the same thing, and that is to provide and maintain a certain level of comfort for the building’s human occupants.
Achieving this level of comfort comes thru the circulation and exchange of clean air, the removal of heat and latent moisture from the air, and, in some cases, adding heat and/or moisture back into the air. Of all the building systems that exist, HVAC systems are arguably the ones which cause the most disagreements between tenants and building managers.
Even though the typical vapor-pressure type of air conditioner has been around since the 1930’s, we haven’t made any real significant improvements to how often such units fail. This is usually a matter of economics – could we make more reliable A/C units? Sure we could. Will anyone buy these improved units? Probably not too many people, as the price would go up exponentially as the MTTF (mean time to failure) increased. So, for now, the present mass manufacturing methods are going to continue, because the result is good enough or at least acceptable.
The point is, to the extent we can, building HVAC systems must be thoroughly inspected, cleaned and repaired, if we want to avoid potential conflicts with our building occupants.
We are sometimes faced with an even more urgent situation when our building contains refrigerated spaces, because, unlike humans, who can tolerate temperature swings due to equipment failure (at least for a short time), whatever product is being kept in these refrigerated spaces may be much less tolerant of temperature fluctuations. Think in terms of vaccines, or ice cream, or unstable chemicals. Any of these would be significantly adversely affected if temperature excursions were to occur.
For this reason, the attention to detail regarding the maintenance of refrigerated spaces is extremely important. Compressors, coils, fans, expansion valves; all these components can either contribute to success or failure when maintaining refrigerated spaces.
We began this section by mentioning temperature AND HUMIDITY control. Let's look at that briefly.
Water vapor is suspended in the air all around us, pretty much all the time. If you are familiar with the term “dew point," what that refers to is the temperature that, if achieved, will cause the moisture in the air to condense out in the form of water droplets. This can take the form of a “fog," or, in some extreme cases, can actually cause it to “rain” indoors. One of the jobs performed by an HVAC system is to remove some of the moisture from the air. That is why there are condensate drains on all air conditioners, whether large or small. However, in order to mitigate the possibility of damage due to excess water spillage , these condensate removal systems must also be carefully maintained. Particularly, we recommend careful inspections of condensate pans, pumps, float switches and piping. Not only could spilled condensate cause damage to ceilings, furniture or critical product, it can also promote the growth of mold, which can be very difficult to eradicate. Prevention is always better.
A building is just a structure unless it is connected to the outside world. Many times, those connections are called building utilities. They’re the supplies and services that bring the building to life; they make it inhabitable, comfortable, useful. So, never define building utilities as something that are just “there," because, without them, all you have is the shell of a building.
The world is powered by electricity. It’s convenient, simple to install, relatively inexpensive, and, if used properly, very safe. Why then, are approximately 12 people, on average, electrocuted in the United States every day? Perhaps complacency plays a role. Electricity is so common (the fancy word is ubiquitous), that we take it for granted and place our attention and focus on other things (the psychology of complacency is actually a very fascinating study).
As building managers, we cannot become complacent about the electricity running throughout our buildings. The biggest considerations we have are how was the electric system installed, and what might have been modified over the years.
Now, there’s generally not too much that can be done to improve the original electric system installation, other than verifying that connections are not overheating and that wire sizes are sufficient to carry the loads placed upon them. However, we can mandate that no shortcuts will be taken when the system is expanded to accommodate additional tenants and their electric loads. Of course, you don’t need to be an expert in any of the areas we’ve mentioned or will mention in this brief article, but, you do need to know who is an expert that you can call on to perform the necessary inspections and possibly needed corrections or repairs.
Another critical utility is water. Not only the reliable supply of water, but also the reliable removal of wastewater, is critical to the functioning of any occupied building today, whether occupancy is permanent, intermittent, or temporary. We have all become very expectant of water coming out from a faucet once we turn the handle or valve on. We also have an expectation that this water will be potable, or fit for human consumption.
Unfortunately, today that may be too great an expectation. More and more municipalities, as well as private concerns, are having to perform extreme measures in order to filter and treat water to make it safe for people to drink. Even then, microbes such as Giardia sometimes slip through, causing a lot of people to become ill. Fortunately, most of these “slips” do not result in life-threatening conditions, but someday they could.
Having the infrastructure to remove wastewater from our building is nearly as important as having a reliable and sanitary supply of fresh water being fed into the building. Today, many municipalities insist that the wastewater you return to them (not sewage water), is actually “cleaner” than the “fresh” water they supplied to you in the first place. This means that the wastewater must be filtered and treated before going back to the municipality. Otherwise, you could be fined.
Generally, the most obvious utility (although not usually called that) is a building’s lighting. This is an area that has seen tremendous innovation and major changes over the past few years. We won't get into all the lighting improvements which have been, and are being, made, but merely want to mention that lighting (intensity and “color”) play a huge part in satisfying occupants and inducing a state of calm in everyone who is bathed in that light.
Bulbs or fixtures which have failed, or may be “flickering” are annoying, but generally are easily repaired or replaced. If you want your tenants to be happy most of the time, keep their lighting well-maintained.
This category is kind of the “catch all” for critical infrastructure which is not easily categorized elsewhere. There are actually many building systems which could represent this category, but, we'll limit ourselves to three below.
Stairs and, in some cases escalators, are part of a building’s critical infrastructure. Without these items (assuming no elevators) it would be impossible to travel up and down between the floors of a building. It would also be impossible to evacuate a building in the event of a power failure or fire. Like all building systems, stairs and escalators must be properly inspected and repaired if found deficient.
Of course, common sense dictates that elevators require periodic inspection and testing due to the potential for significant injuries or even loss of life, possibly on a large scale. There are basically only two types of elevators (at least for transporting humans): cable suspended elevators and hydraulic elevators.
Each type has its own unique requirements as far as the operating mechanisms are concerned, but they both share common safety requirements, such as adequate emergency braking, passenger cabin ventilation, and such. There are numerous regulations regarding elevators, but one of the most important is that they become inoperable in the event of a fire.
As with all critical building equipment, all inspections and repair work must be carefully logged, and stored such that the logs are readily retrievable.
We began this article by emphasizing the fact that computers and automation still cannot replace a human in many situations. However, computerized systems can assist or “augment” our tasks and help make our activities generally more efficient. One such area is that of “building automation."
Now, there are quite a few systems within a building which could be, and have been, automated, but the one that comes to mind most often is the Heating, Ventilating & Air Conditioning System. As HVAC systems become more sophisticated, using computer-controlled automation is the only way to balance all the system operations while still maintaining the desired environmental conditions at the lowest possible power cost. In this case, the computer performs the necessary functions quicker and far more efficiently than any human could.
Also, advancements with interfacing the internet with our computer-controlled building systems can give us real-time operating data, when we are physically absent from the building or even the country. We now have the ability to not only monitor what’s going on remotely, but we also can re-program entire logic sequences remotely and change total system operating characteristics. The only concern is that, if we can do that, then so can creative hackers. So we must never let our guard down by making our systems “too connected” to the outside world.
We hope you found this article helpful. Let us know if you have any questions, including about maintenance training, and please feel free to share your own comments, insights, and experiences below.