Avoiding facilities flubs in higher ed

Pricey equipment purchases can cost even more when the facilities department isn’t involved to ensure installation and maintenance realities are realized

Who would ever think that replacing simple lightbulbs could end up costing a university hundreds of thousands of dollars?

Or that a piece of equipment destined for a building’s basement could nearly cause the destruction of an exterior wall, with an associated price tag in the tens of thousands of dollars, because the system was too large to fit through a doorway and too heavy to ride on an elevator?

These situations are humorous, perhaps. Costly? Absolutely. Avoidable? Definitely. And that’s the good news.

Expensive mistakes involving facilities and purchasing arise on a fairly regular basis, with equipment being ordered or change requests issued without notifying the impacted parties.

Many colleges and universities allow departments, and even individual faculty members, to order tens of thousands of dollars in needed equipment using a purchasing card or purchase order, without notifying the departments needed to install and maintain the new equipment, says Cory Harms, associate director of purchasing at Iowa State University.

That can, of course, be problematic. But, working together, campus buyers and facilities staff can ensure that dollars for equipment needs are wisely spent.

Everything’s connected

Sometimes, an order comes from the top. That was the case at one state university in the south back in the early 2000s, when becoming more environmentally conscious was an institutional priority, says Adam Warner, who was a plumber employed by the facilities department from 2001 to 2003.

One step involved spending $100,000 to replace traditional incandescent light bulbs with more modern and energy-efficient LED bulbs in one campus building. The switch was made as soon as the spring semester ended, and the university immediately noticed a drop in its cooling bill.


Equipment items likely to have a facilities impact

Cory Harms, associate director of purchasing at Iowa State University, will share with his colleagues across campus this list of 17 types of equipment they may not realize can be problematic for facilities.

Whether needing more space for installation or a larger power supply, for example, or potentially disrupting nearby labs, these purchases often require extra attention and should trigger a consultation with the facilities department:

  • Hoods
  • Freezers
  • Ice machines
  • Magnets
  • Food service equipment
  • Battery chargers
  • Kilns
  • Lasers
  • Vibration-sensitive equipment
  • Ultra-low freezers
  • Sterilizers/autoclaves
  • Supercomputers
  • MRI machines
  • Combustion equipment
  • Furnaces and ovens
  • Glassware washers
  • Noisy equipment

A few months later, however, as fall turned into winter, complaints started coming in that the building wasn’t warm enough. It turns out the incandescent bulbs produced less ambient heat, but that had not been taken into account, leaving the building much cooler than normal. No one had bothered to speak with the facilities department, which could have predicted the problem.

In the end, to generate adequate heat, the university had to replace the building’s older boiler with a more energy efficient unit, at a cost of $500,000 says Warner, now president of Canton, Ga.-based ACAPX.com, which among other services provides boiler design, installation and repair.

The problem was a lack of communication, Warner adds. As is typical on many college campuses, each department at the institution operated as a silo, requesting little or no input regarding planned facilities changes.

When a department made an independent decision to add, replace or relocate a piece of equipment, it was often done without asking for input from the facilities staff. That resulted in time-consuming and often expensive after-the-fact fixes or uninformed decisions.

The trouble with too much confidence

Other departments “think we’re supermen and can do anything,” says Warner of the perception many on campus have of the facilities staff. That’s nice, but the outcome is often not what either department had hoped for. His solution?

“Treat every purchase like a small construction project,” and bring together all the impacted departments for a strategic planning meeting early on.

Iowa State’s Harms has a similar solution: Have any equipment request or purchase trigger a “facilities impact notification.” Then all parties can be brought together for a discussion prior to installation. This can prevent buying a refrigerator that won’t fit through a small laboratory door, or carefully installing and bolting down a centrifuge in a room without adequate power supply.

Sometimes the age of the building that the equipment is being placed in can also be a problem, says Harms. Older buildings have floors that can hold more weight and doorways that are typically wider, he explains. Facilities employees are aware of such measurements, even if those in other departments may not be.

Product knowledge prevents problems

While communication can cure most facilities conundrums, product knowledge also plays a role in preventing unintended consequences.

Campuses in the throes of new construction often lean toward Energy Star ratings and LEED guidelines when selecting construction materials, says Ron Goodman, marketing manager for EPDM roofing systems at Carlisle Construction Materials in Pennsylvania.

That makes a lot of sense generally, but understanding the strengths and weaknesses of different products, as well as the pitfalls of these programs, can avert problems down the line.

Take roofing materials—the product Goodman sells—for example. LEED standards assign one point (a positive) for installing a white roof to reduce the heat a campus building gives off. Though intended for urban areas, buildings gain the point no matter where they’re located.

In warmer climates, therefore, white roofs make a lot of sense because they reflect heat from the sun and keep buildings cooler, reducing air conditioning costs, Goodman says.

But in colder areas, a white roof often can create a heating penalty—that is, a net heat loss—that more than negates the cooling benefit. White roofs can also accumulate condensation in cooler climates.

White roofing in the north is generally energy inefficient and has a short life expectancy if not designed properly, says Goodman. In the north, black roofs are beneficial since they absorb the sun’s heat, which keeps buildings warmer and reduces heating costs.

The key is investigating proper use of technology, equipment, and materials before installation—and sharing that information organization-wide, he says.

Don’t forget the maintenance staff

While equipment buying and installation is typically the focus of purchasing and facilities departments, the maintenance staff should also be involved, says Melinda Johnson, director of engineering at Stantec in Philadelphia. The consulting firm provides planning, engineering, architecture and related services to education and other industries.

Input from maintenance is key because if new equipment is installed and no one knows how to maintain or repair it, its useful life could be shortened or the cost to operate it could be much higher, Johnson says. For example, she explains: “If a campus puts in an absorption chiller and no one on campus knows how to maintain it, the school will have to get a maintenance contract.”

The maintenance staff should receive training needed to keep equipment operational, as well. “That’s where I think there can be a big disconnect,” says Johnson. Some engineers design buildings and walk away when they’re done, giving little thought to how the structures are going to be installed, maintained and repaired.

Not all universities approach such situations as holistically. Johnson recalls one school that installed an air handler suspended 16 feet off the floor. Maintenance workers had to find a ladder tall enough to reach it. “They should have installed a platform when the air handler was put in,” says Johnson. “They weren’t thinking about maintenance.”

On another college campus, designers planned a building with 3D modelling to maximize usable space in labs and classrooms. They also reduced “wasted” space in mechanical rooms that house HVAC equipment. What looked great on paper didn’t translate as well in the real world, however. The HVAC equipment fit, but there was no room left for a person to repair the machinery.

Likewise, at one university, a 12-inch space was left between an air handler and the wall, making it impossible to ever be maintained. So for 40 years it wasn’t.

The solution to just about every facility issue that arises is up-front planning, impact assessments and communication. Involving all the teams that will, at some point, be responsible for a building or installed equipment helps prevent problems.

Iowa State provides a list of almost 20 different types of equipment that may well cause issues and disseminates it campuswide to encourage buyers to assess the affect their planned purchase may have on other departments, says Harms. (See “Buyer Beware,” page 44.)

If the request is submitted to the purchasing department through the requisitioning system, an impact study is automatically triggered. But since departments can place orders of up to $25,000 with some vendors on the university’s e-procurement system, employees acting independently can unknowingly cause big problems down the road by purchasing something as simple as an ice maker, lab oven or lightbulbs.

So, lesson learned: When it comes to any kind of equipment needs, institutions should avoid facilities flubs by ensuring their purchasing departments are in contact with the team needed to install the equipment and keep it running.

Marcia Layton Turner is a Rochester, New York-based writer.


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