The efficient operation of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems is crucial for maintaining a comfortable and healthy environment in any building. However, HVAC systems are complex and can be prone to breakdowns and inefficiencies, which can lead to costly repairs and downtime. Reactive maintenance, which involves fixing issues only when they arise, can result in increased expenses and reduced system lifespan. In contrast, preventative and planned maintenance strategies prioritize the regular upkeep of HVAC systems to prevent failures and ensure optimal performance.

We’ll cover each of these strategies, as well as the benefits of investing in proactive maintenance strategies for HVAC systems—including improved energy efficiency, reduced downtime, increased system longevity, and cost savings. We will also provide guidance on implementing these strategies, including where to start, tips for developing maintenance plans, and ways to use modern technologies to support maintenance efforts. We’ll walk you through the first stages of standardizing your HVAC maintenance approach and then show how you can build on this with preventative and proactive strategies to rein in budgets, achieve useable lifespans, and plan for future capital expenditures.

Reactive maintenance

Reactive maintenance for commercial HVAC systems refers to the practice of reacting to sudden repair needs only when there is an issue, such as when a system breaks down or malfunctions, rather than proactively scheduling maintenance to prevent potential problems. This run-to-failure or break-fix approach is performed in response to urgent HVAC repair needs, however expensive it ends up being. In this model, assets determine the timing of the repair, regardless of budgets, operating hours, and staffing.

Benefits of reactive HVAC maintenance programs

There are some benefits to a purely reactive maintenance strategy that avoids any planned service. This includes lower upfront costs, as there is no need for ongoing scheduled maintenance. Additionally, it allows for flexibility as repairs can be prioritized on urgency. If you set aside budget resources to fix your assets only when they especially need fixing, then in theory, you should have the resources set aside to address the most common repairs needs when they arise.

In practice, things aren’t always so simple.

Challenges of reactive maintenance program

Even if your organization can budget for the most expensive kinds of sudden HVAC repair needs—like compressor failures, refrigerant leaks, and motor failures—the downstream consequences and unexpected effects could produce exposure of a financial, reputational, or even legal nature:

  • Avoiding HVAC repair needs could exacerbate issues and create more expensive repair needs even in the short term
  • Customer dissatisfaction with your business could translate into a slew of negative reviews that appear when people search for your business online
  • If a customer falls ill at your location due to heat exhaustion, inventory spoilage, or from prolonged exposure to airborne mold or other pathogens, legal consequences could be potentially damaging

Establishing a successful reactive HVAC management program

To successfully manage a reactive maintenance approach, it’s important to have a plan in place, such as keeping track of equipment performance, having a reliable service provider on call, and maintaining a stock of critical spare parts. You will also need to promptly respond to any issues to minimize disruptions to the system. Not acting on urgent needs could have serious immediate and long-term consequences, including:

  • Temporary business closure
  • Risk of health issues to customers and employees from extreme temperatures
  • Risk of excess energy use from malfunctioning HVAC equipment
  • Potential for inventory spoilage, especially in restaurant or medical environments
  • Risk of temporary asset disruption escalating into total asset failure

Too many companies distribute their facilities knowledge inconsistently across their operation—work order requests are managed by phone call or email, while other important details are recorded on disconnected spreadsheets and paper sources. In these cases, it’s either impractical or impossible to gain meaningful data insights. Similarly, gaining a detailed understanding of the timeline of any given maintenance request could involve sorting through a lengthy and inconsistent backlog of paper records and your memory of the information shared in a phone call.

An organization that wants to focus most of its energies on strictly reactive maintenance needs should at the minimum centralize its program either in-house or ideally with a third-party provider. Centralizing provides three important elements: a deeper base of trades and vendors, shared knowledge and insights across locations, and one platform to request, track, and manage work orders. Using a technology platform where all maintenance requests and institutional knowledge will reside as a single source of truth will deliver a significant impact in terms of time, performance, and overall savings.

Tip: Use technology to help centralize your maintenance program
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Reactive maintenance has an important role to play in an HVAC maintenance strategy. When sudden needs arise, it’s important to address them quickly and efficiently. But preventative and predictive maintenance should serve as the first lines of defense. Over time, this approach will save time and resources and better position you to mitigate risks to your business.

Key takeaways:

  1. Reactive HVAC repairs are expensive and sometimes unavoidable, but can be minimized
  2. The downstream consequences of HVAC asset failure could be very serious
  3. Preventative HVAC maintenance is an important first-line defense against major problems

Preventative maintenance

In contrast to reactive maintenance, preventative maintenance for commercial HVAC systems involves conducting regular inspections, cleanings, and servicing of equipment to prevent potential issues and ensure efficient and reliable operations. Scheduling routine maintenance checks ensures the reliability and longevity of HVAC assets and avoids many of the most expensive and disruptive kinds of reactive repair needs that arise from ordinary long-term asset function.

Benefits of preventative HVAC maintenance program

Preventative maintenance addresses problems before they become critical fixes. These are key reasons why it’s important to perform regular maintenance on commercial HVAC systems:

  1. Energy efficiency. Regular maintenance helps to optimize HVAC performance, ensuring assets operate at their highest efficiency. Ensuring free airflow throughout the system with clean coils, filters, and well-calibrated controls, can reduce energy consumption, resulting in lower utility bills and greater cost savings.
  2. Reliability. Preventative maintenance helps to identify and address minor issues before they escalate into major problems that can lead to unexpected system breakdowns. This reduces the risk of costly emergency repairs and ensures that HVAC systems are operating when they are needed the most.
  3. Extended equipment lifespan. Commercial HVAC systems are significant investments, especially across a distributed portfolio that might extend into multiple geographical regions. Keeping equipment clean and well-calibrated can minimize wear and tear, keep air flowing freely throughout the system, and reduce the need for premature, and costly, replacements.
  4. Indoor air quality. Poorly functioning commercial HVAC systems can cause an imbalance in air pressure and result in particles being redistributed throughout a location instead of being circulated through the HVAC system. Clean and properly functioning HVAC systems play a crucial role in maintaining indoor air quality in commercial buildings. Cleaning and changing filters can help to reduce dust, dirt, food, and allergens in the air, creating a healthier and more comfortable environment for employees and guests.
  5. Compliance with regulations. Commercial buildings are subject to numerous and various regulations and codes such as energy consumption, emissions, and safety. Regular maintenance ensures that HVAC systems are complying with local rules and helps to avoid any fines or penalties.

Challenges of preventative maintenance program

By identifying and addressing minor issues early on, preventative maintenance helps to prevent costly breakdowns, emergency repair, premature replacement, and unplanned downtime. However, this doesn’t come without its own challenges, namely the requirement for upfront investment. Moving from a standardized reactive model to a preventative model requires budgeting in advanced for preventative repairs, which can squeeze location P&L during the transition period. Even though there will be more money allocated to HVAC reactive and preventative repairs, over time preventative maintenance will help to stabilize reactive costs and drive those costs down, providing substantial cost savings as well as budget stability.

Establishing a successful preventative maintenance strategy

Commercial HVAC systems are complex and consist of various components such as furnaces, boilers, air handlers, compressors, fans, pumps, and controls—all of which require regular maintenance to operate at peak performance.

Preventative HVAC maintenance comes in two basic categories: major and minor.

Major HVAC preventative maintenance should be performed every six to 12 months, and covers essential asset components like coils, bands, moving parts, motors, and sensors.

  • Moving parts: Bearings, belts, and other moving components should be lubricated or replaced if they show signs of considerable wear and tear.
  • Electrical components: Electrical problems related to connectors, fuses, wires, and circuits should be ruled out during your major PM inspections. Shortages and other imbalances can cause sudden failures and potentially drive up your energy expenditure.
  • System calibration: Sensors naturally become less accurate over time and should be calibrated or replaced outright to ensure optimal performance.

Minor HVAC preventative maintenance should be performed more frequently to ensure the optimal function and cleanliness of more temporary, easily replaced asset features like filters, covers, and grill inserts.

With a regular PM schedule and a thorough checklist, you can identify potential sources of HVAC system interruption and damage well before any issues present the most serious signs of concern.

Key takeaways:

  1. A preventative maintenance schedule can help you avoid many reactive repair needs
  2. A major PM schedule and a minor PM schedule will help you prioritize important repair tasks
  3. Preventative HVAC maintenance is inexpensive when compared with reactive maintenance requests, and improves performance and spend over the long term

Predictive maintenance

Predictive maintenance is the most advanced form of commercial HVAC asset maintenance, and in an advanced HVAC maintenance program, it should be primary focus of attention. This type of maintenance strategy collects accurate and consistent data on your HVAC asset portfolio including repair history, energy usage, and performance to predict and prevent potential equipment failures before they occur. This data is analyzed to detect patterns, trends, and anomalies that may indicate impending failures or degradation of performance.

Predictive maintenance for commercial HVAC systems can help facility managers to make informed decisions about maintenance, resources, and system performance. Some common tactics used in predictive maintenance for commercial HVAC systems include:

  • Condition monitoring: Continuous monitoring of system parameters, such as temperature, pressure, and energy consumption, to detect abnormal behavior or trends that may indicate potential issues.
  • Fault detection and diagnostics: Using algorithms and machine learning techniques to analyze data and identify patterns that indicate equipment faults or performance degradation.
  • Predictive analytics: Leveraging historical data, statistical models, and machine learning algorithms to predict future failures or performance issues based on patterns and trends observed in the data.
  • Remote monitoring: Using cloud-based platforms and Internet of Things technologies to remotely monitor and manage HVAC systems in real-time, allowing for early detection of anomalies and proactive maintenance actions.
  • Data integration: Collecting and integrating data from various sources, such as sensors, building management systems, and maintenance records, to gain a holistic view of the HVAC system's health and performance.
  • Maintenance planning and scheduling: Using predictive insights to optimize maintenance planning and scheduling, ensuring that maintenance activities are performed at the most opportune times to minimize disruption and downtime.

Benefits of a predictive HVAC maintenance program

One of the key benefits of predictive HVAC asset maintenance is the reduction in direct maintenance costs. Reactive maintenance, which involves fixing equipment only after it breaks down, can be costly due to emergency repairs, replacement parts, and lost productivity and revenue. Predictive maintenance, on the other hand, can identify potential equipment failures before they occur, allowing for proactive and preventative repairs that are less expensive and less disruptive to your operations.

Another benefit of predictive HVAC asset maintenance is increased equipment reliability and uptime. By using data analytics to monitor and predict equipment performance, companies can identify potential equipment failures before they occur and schedule maintenance proactively. This approach can help to reduce downtime and ensure that critical equipment is available when needed.

Additionally, predictive HVAC asset maintenance can improve energy efficiency and reduce energy costs. Energy usage accounts for roughly 40-50% of any organization’s total facilities spend. By identifying equipment issues that can cause energy waste, your organization can take proactive steps to address these issues and improve equipment performance—resulting in lower energy bills and lower total impact to the environment, a critical consideration for organizations looking to bolster their sustainability efforts.

Challenges of a predictive maintenance program

The path to predictive, data-driven HVAC asset maintenance requires an up-front investment of time, effort, and resources—When looking to implement a predictive maintenance program, there are several challenges including data collection and quality, modeling for different types of assets and equipment, the data analysis and interpretation, and organization change and adoption. but over the long term, you will see dramatic returns on your investment.

Establishing a successful predictive HVAC maintenance program

Establishing your predictive HVAC maintenance program requires some up-front investment of time, effort, and resources. Even so, you can expect this investment to deliver multiples of that in value over the life of your program. Every HVAC asset portfolio is unique, but the below recommendations will help you get started as you strategize and plan your program.

Make a comprehensive HVAC asset inventory

Start by creating an index of the HVAC assets currently in use across your business. Record the make, model, serial number, year of manufacture, and any other identifying information that might be useful to a technician not familiar with your specific asset inventory.

Determine performance data to be collected

Predictive maintenance is only as powerful as the type and amount of data you’re using to make predictions. Operating temperatures, motor currents, pressures, flow rates, energy consumption, run times, and even weather data provide an important initial baseline. In addition to these ongoing records, you should keep a general repair and maintenance history for each of your HVAC assets, so that repair history information can be judged against operating data and leveraged for more accurate predictions.

Invest in a data analytics technology platform

To organize, process, and analyze the data you’re collecting with your predictive program, a data analytics platform is necessary. Invest in a technology platform that can easily handle a large volume of data, provides automation and machine learning capabilities, and can provide real time alerts when any concerns arise. Learn more about our proprietary technology platform →

Use your platform to develop predictive algorithms for your assets

Once you’ve collected your baseline asset portfolio data and are set up with your data analytics platform, use the platform to develop predictive algorithms for your HVAC assets. Prioritize reports and real time alerts for unusual patterns in energy usage, mechanical function, noise, temperature, and fluid pressures.

Trigger maintenance dispatch when certain conditions are met

Based on the patterns you’ve identified, set a threshold for what conditions should be met before a qualified technician is dispatched to assess a potential problem on site. You can adjust these conditions based on equipment age, repair history, total asset repair spend, and other variables.

Train your staff and technicians on what to do and what to expect

Let your staff and in-house maintenance technicians know why you’re investing in your predictive HVAC maintenance program and how it might impact their day-to-day operations. If your platform provides a mobile app, train your technicians on the platform and how to respond to system alerts.

Continuously monitor your program and make adjustments over time

Like any new system, your predictive HVAC maintenance program will need to be adjusted over time to deliver the best results for asset performance and spend. As you continue to collect data and form a deeper understanding of your assets, these adjustments may become less frequent.

Key takeaways:

  1. Data-driven, predictive HVAC maintenance promises the best outcomes for your business
  2. Predictive HVAC maintenance requires an initial investment, but it’s worth it
  3. Make tailored adjustments over time to ensure optimal asset performance and spend

Developing a predictive HVAC asset maintenance program is complex, but you don’t have to do it alone. To achieve the greatest benefit up front, consider working with an expert partner—one that provides consultation from dedicated subject matter experts, advanced technology, and access to a network of qualified, vetted HVAC maintenance vendors. Get in touch with SMS Assist to learn more:

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