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Ready and waiting: How do you manage unoccupied buildings during a lockdown?

Facilities Management

06/07/20 | Rebecca Drewett

FMJ talk to three FM specialists including FSI Business Strategy Director, Paul Bullard, about the issues involved, including the role of technology, shutdown procedures and the impact on maintenance programmes.

For the majority, the world has gone into standby mode, with some businesses and non-critical operations closing their doors indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For others, the expectation remains that employees continue to go to work, all the while adopting some new and very alien approaches to their everyday tasks.

Paul Bullard, Business Strategy Director at FSI, points out that the UK FM industry has never been so disparate; shopping centres and off ices are desolate, yet hospitals and supermarkets have much higher levels of activity. Each scenario presents a particular challenge for the FM teams managing building maintenance.

“Traditionally, FM is served by the customer base acting as the ‘sensors’ of the property, identifying issues and reporting them to the FM team,” says Bullard. “But with low or no occupancy, there is a need for the building to ‘talk’ to the FM team directly. Having an intelligent CAFM/IWMS system plugged into a comprehensive BMS is helping organisations across the UK access assets remotely and identify issues [see References, note 1].”

He suggests that in premises with no occupants, the SFG30 Mothballing and Reactivation (a subset of SFG20) can be used by FMs as a starting point to determine best practice for shutdown procedures and eventual reactivation of buildings (2), bearing in mind each organisation will have its own unique set-up and operations. “This helps those working with a reduced team, particularly by reducing the need to be on site,” he says. “By decommissioning redundant assets, teams can focus on the most important tasks and benefit from cost and energy efficiencies during this downtime.”

Many factors will need to be considered. “Leaving water systems dormant, for example, could result in unsanitary conditions and bacteria. This could lead to a dangerous build-up of legionella, putting employees in danger and leading to costly remedial action. Regular flushing and legionella testing will keep things running smoothly and safely.

“Using CAFM/BMS ensures that, when restrictions are lift ed and people return to their off ice spaces, the predicted changes to industry maintenance recommendations and standards are easily adopted and mobilised.”

Bullard notes that while BMS integration isn’t a new technology, until recently the data produced has tended to be used on a reactive basis. For example, a sensor picks up that something isn’t right and creates an alarm, which triggers the CAFM/IWMS system into sending an engineer to resolve the fault.

“In these times of reduced occupancy and mothballed assets, where runtime maintenance could prove a more effective strategy, there is a real opportunity to explore how information from the BMS can influence maintenance regimes. The increase in automation will also serve to minimise physical contact with customers. BMS integration with CAFM/IWMS systems is becoming a practical, even standard way of working with the potential to positively transform FM operations.”

He concludes: “While technology and artificial intelligence can never replace the human element, they can help facilities managers to work more effectively. Enabling buildings to ‘talk’ to you and provide accurate data, instead of carrying out lengthy manual investigative processes, makes operational tasks more manageable and intuitive, not just during this crisis but for the long-term future.

Indeed, the current situation could prove to be a catalyst in changing attitudes towards adopting new technology, particularly in regard to CAFM/BMS.”

To close or not to close

Arty Shaw, Director of Engineering for FM provider the Salisbury Group, agrees that connected software tools are important in providing an intelligent solution to building requirements. He says: “We’ve already found that for some buildings clients think they’ve shut all their systems down, but using remote monitoring, they find that the kit is still on timers, and it’s kicking in and using a considerable amount of energy.

“This is why remote monitoring is critical in this pandemic. If companies have those sorts of sensors fitted, and it’s being monitored with a proper dashboard, you can look at live trends that show which kit is still on, what could be turned off , turned down or programmed to come on periodically.”

One of the most difficult decisions facing organisations is whether or not to shut buildings down completely during the lockdown. Shaw believes total closure could be a mistake. “At Salisbury we use the analogy of a building being viewed as a human body. BMS is the brain, HVAC is the heart and lungs, electricity is the nervous system and water is the plasma/ lymphatic system. As such, we consider ‘palliative care’ for a building to be an essential strategy rather than shutting down systems and allowing them to decay. Little and often is better than nothing at all.”

He argues that the level of work required to recommission a building for occupancy will be predicated on the amount (and type) of maintenance that is carried out while it is unoccupied. “For instance, ensuring that a HVAC system operates at its minimum running parameters and continues to both push fluid around the pipework and provide positive pressure will safeguard the system from corrosion and sludge build-up. Our strategy is to engage with the client and determine the level of occupancy, the period of reduced occupancy and the business criticality of the building. This will then influence and inform the regime we will promote to them.”

The biggest issue is water systems. He explains: “If you simply turn them off and let them stay stagnant you are wandering into a whole world of pain when it comes to flushing out and recommissioning. This is why we’ve stepped up our testing regime for this, to ensure that the systems will be ready to use in 24 rather than 48 hours, once buildings are reopened.” He adds that once a building is at low or zero occupancy, it is more important to provide a bespoke maintenance regime than carrying out PPM (planned predictive maintenance) by rote. For clients this might mean a reduction in the number of PPM visits, with a lowering of their service charge to reflect the reduction. “When a ‘hibernation’ process is undertaken it is normally agreed what maintenance can be reduced, what can be modified (through increased periodicity) and what can be deferred (or cancelled).”

There is one silver lining. Unoccupied buildings provide maintenance teams with the opportunity to go in and tackle issues that would be difficult to undertake if the building was occupied as normal.

Says Shaw: “Our advice to clients is to reduce the planned tasks and offer them a rebate for the variance to the agreement. Then where we identify reactive jobs and raise them, that is an area where we as a service provider can retain our revenue and income. The customer can reap a reduction in their planned tasks, but benefit from our ability to carry out jobs we can complete more easily by having access to the building without inconveniencing occupants.”

Health and safety issues

Even if most staff are based at home, Derek Parker, Head of Business Development at Artic Building Services, warns that owners, landlords and tenants still need to maintain their buildings for health and safety purposes.

This includes security, maintenance of statutory compliance, and monitoring of critical systems. Particularly important are water systems, fire protection, handling of refrigeration gases, electrical and gas safety checks, ventilation hygiene, security and lifts.

Buildings should be maintained in line with the industry standard SFG20 (3), he advises, which is continually updated to reflect changing regulatory requirements. “In normal circumstances, planned preventative maintenance is implemented, scheduled months in advance, which in turn keeps buildings safe and compliant. However, through this time of uncertainty, organisations have an option to ‘mothball’ their building or reduce their maintenance regime to a lower level.”

He agrees that SFG30 (2) is a good starting point for shutdown procedures and eventual reactivation of a building, providing a guide to best practice. If a building, or a system within a building, is not required for the immediate future, full or partial isolations are possible where SFG30 can be applied.

He picks out a few important considerations:

  • If shutdown is for a significant period, you will need to notify your insurance company. They will want fire alarms and sprinklers maintained, especially if the building is left empty for periods of time.
  • For buildings that are still occupied with a skeleton workforce, emergency lighting, fire alarms, generators and all aspects of life safety must continue to be maintained as normal. If emergency generators are still being relied upon to provide power in an emergency, they will need to be tested.
  • Fire suppression systems still need to be checked if they are being left active while the building is shut down. Contact your local fire brigade to discuss assets such as hydrants and other firefighting facilities. They will have individual allowances and expectations.
  • For occupied buildings, lift maintenance needs to continue. However, if it can be shown that lift journeys are reduced, you may be able to cut this down. Where lifts are still operating ‘as normal’, they will require thorough maintenance to be carried out as normal. If there is more than one lift in a building, consider removing one or more from operation. This will need to keep in line with building risk and fire strategies.
  • Heating systems could potentially be turned on to ‘winter mode’, not necessarily drained down.

“The key consideration when applying a revised maintained strategy is the cost,” says Parker. “You need to weigh up the cost of ongoing reduced maintenance versus the cost of mothballing and the reactivation of assets and services.”

Unfortunately, this will be determined by how long the building is out of action – something that so far has been impossible to predict.