The Secret to Making Your Deferred Maintenance Backlog Manageable

When funds get tight for many colleges and universities, one of the early cuts is often to the facilities department. After all, financial aid and faculty salaries are necessary to be competitive in the market, but updating a building’s boiler or switching to all new lightbulbs is often seen as a luxury that can wait another year.

What those financial decision-makers don’t realize is that as deferred maintenance piles up, poorly performing buildings will ultimately lead to significantly higher costs when a system or component suffers a catastrophic failure.

In today’s competitive funding environment, it’s up to the facility manager to present the case for capital and explain the necessity of addressing deferred maintenance. But where is a facility manager to begin this process when the backlog demanding attention is simply overwhelming?

The First Step is Project Prioritization

The key to making your backlog manageable is prioritization. Fortunately for you, not every building’s needs are immediate. If you have to pick one, do you need the cost savings made possible from the switch to LED lightbulbs? Or do you need to ensure the boiler heating students’ favorite residence hall not fail before the incoming students’ campus tour season?

By categorizing your maintenance needs, you define a clear starting point. This categorization process can make it easier to stay on top of the needs of all buildings, systems and components by giving you a clear idea of which projects need attention now and which can wait. It also gives institution leaders, board of directors and other financial decision-makers a clear goal—rather than a lengthy ultimatum of tasks that must be addressed all at once. After all, ultimatums are an excellent way to get a rapid “no” at your next budget meeting.

3 Questions to Lead Your Prioritization Process

A good place to begin your categorization is with an assessment of your buildings and/or projects that addresses the following three questions:

  1. What is the building’s condition? Perhaps a simple increase in the regular preventive maintenance taking place in a building could keep the facility’s systems running at peak performance for years longer. But if the maintenance has been deferred for a lengthy period of time, it is likely that it has taken a more significant toll. Major, or majorly expensive, systems may be in need of upgrades. Maybe the building is in need of a full renovation—or replacement. It will be valuable to complete a thorough assessment of each building to understand where the most pressing needs lie. However, your financial decision-makers only want the items at the top of the list. And rather than describing the technical problem, focus on explaining the consequences of what may occur if the problem is not resolved immediately.
  2. What is the building’s function? Consider function as a critical tie-breaker. When deciding between facilities with a similar level of maintenance needs, choose facilities that are core to the institution’s central mission—think the celebrated science building at a life sciences-focused university or the gymnasium for a school growing its reputation for collegiate sports—should lead the list.
  3. What impact might the improvements have on the campus as a whole? Will these maintenance improvements be visibly apparent and attract students or faculty, or stop damaging complaints? Or will the project present some way to reduce spending? In other words, will the maintenance project improve the institution’s financial performance? Those improvements with the biggest impact should be a clear priority.

Rank Your Projects by Condition

You can make your maintenance list even more manageable by assessing the immediacy of the building and/or project’s needs. Consider assigning each building one of the following three categories:

  1. Emergency: These projects are clear leaders as failure to address these problems within the year will displace academic programs or students.
  2. Overdue: This deferred maintenance or delayed repairs may not yet be an immediate threat set to displace programs or students, but it’s still a need demanding attention. This category might include routine maintenance that, due to budget issues, has been deferred for some time and may lead to bigger problems in the future.
  3. Building/system life expectancy: Once your buildings’ immediate needs are addressed, you can step back and analyze facilities and systems based on planned obsolescence. From here, you can begin to categorize your projects based on when they will reach their expected end-of-life use.

Take the First Step and You’ll Eliminating Your Backlog

When deferred maintenance has been the norm for too long, playing catch-up can be an expensive endeavor. By ranging projects according to how they meet the criteria listed above, facility managers can create an objective, easily understandable plan that shows a clear pathway to returning the campus to a state where preventive maintenance is the rule, rather than the exception.

by Jay Pearlman Associate Vice President, Marketing

Jay has been with Sightlines since its inception in 2000. Over those years, he has played a variety of roles across the company, including those in operations, business development, quality control, and product development. As a key member of a new firm, Jay played a leading part in the development of the Return on Physical Assets Process, Sightlines’ member website, and the tools used to provide comparative benchmarking and analysis. Aside from his work on Sightlines facilities offerings, he led the successful development and implementation of both Go Green and Housing Measurement, Benchmarking and Analysis services. Jay continues to lead several key member engagements each year.