If you’re struggling to reduce your school’s deferred maintenance backlog, you may be weighing the pros and cons of a preventive maintenance strategy. Higher education facilities maintenance has never been an easy task, and given the complications caused by a pandemic, balancing much-needed repairs and rehabilitation with budgetary concerns is more difficult than ever.

Administrative pockets are tight in our post-COVID environment, particularly considering the uncertain futures of brick-and-mortar institutions. The educational landscape was already shifting towards online and hybrid models, and given the now-increased demand for distance learning — not to mention safety concerns from students and faculty — it is only getting harder for maintenance crews to secure necessary funding.

Nevertheless, maintenance backlogs are growing. In fact, a 2021 State of Higher Education report by Gordion shows colleges and universities are facing 35% backlog increases compared to 2007.  American School & University magazine reported a total backlog of over $500 billion more than decade ago — a number which has since only grown.

Between security systems, basic rehab, and the installation of technologies necessary to bring buildings into the twenty-first century, schools have their hands full. Fortunately, there are a few tried-and-true strategies you can employ to significantly reduce deferred maintenance backlogs without breaking the bank.

The problems with deferred maintenance backlogs

Putting off technically unnecessary maintenance tasks is an attractive option for cash-strapped schools. Applied too broadly and for too long, however, a deferred maintenance strategy brings a variety of downsides.

First, declining facilities are detrimental to the attraction and retention of students, faculty, and staff. A beautiful, well-maintained campus can be one of your best selling points, and even if you haven’t let any of your buildings fall too far by the wayside, prospective students will notice the difference between a campus with updated facilities and one without. Even areas that aren’t so immediately visible — such as restrooms — can make a difference. What will a potential student think when the only restroom they can find is one that hasn’t been renovated or even refinished in a decade?

Safety is also a major concern, as are the related costs of reactive maintenance. Roofing is a common example. You may not need to repair a building’s roof right now, but if it starts to leak, it will create an unsafe environment, and affected classrooms, stairways and corridors may be off-limits for weeks. Instead of paying for scheduled repairs, you’ll end up paying for emergency repairs, replacements for damaged goods and the logistical costs of relocated lectures.

If you’re trying to convince administrators or board members of the benefits of preventive maintenance, consider that every $1 in deferred maintenance costs $4 in related failures and replacements, according to Allegion. In some cases, the cost of deferred maintenance could be 30 times that of early intervention. Some updates are far higher priority than others, of course, but these statistics underscore the near-term and long-term advantages of preventive maintenance over deferred maintenance.

3 steps for reducing your maintenance backlog

Prioritize work orders

You can’t put every project on the front burner, and even with the green light to pursue a more proactive maintenance plan, you’ll need to prioritize your work orders based on a variety of criteria. Total costs, current priorities, and the risks associated with not completing a work order should all be taken into account.

At many universities, the time of year may make a particularly big difference. In the spring, when high school seniors are visiting, aesthetic upgrades might take priority and might result in higher enrollment rates and maintenance budgets for the following year. In the months leading into the fall term, however, it might make more sense to focus on technological and structural upgrades to classrooms and laboratories.

Economies of scale are another major consideration, particularly for institutions with multiple campuses and sprawling grounds. If you can group the same or similar projects together, you’ll typically see lower materials costs and contractor fees. You might also be able to report a more significant and persuasive bottom-line benefit associated with a specific task.

For example, you’ll see some energy savings if you replace 20 windows among two buildings. The savings will be much greater and much more “real” to decision-makers, however, if you can replace 200 windows among 15 buildings spanning two campuses.

Ultimately, a data-driven approach is ideal for balancing your shifting priorities, current and future costs, and the state of your current assets. Spreadsheets and pen-and-paper tracking can only take you so far, while a digital work order management system can make matters significantly simpler, easier and more reliable.

Develop a preventive maintenance strategy

If you’re working for a long-standing institution, it is imperative you minimize your school’s rate of decay. According to Gordian’s 2018 State of Facilities in Higher Education, the number of university buildings over 50 years old is rising rapidly, largely as a result of the wave of higher education construction from 1950 to 1975. While these historic buildings provide ambiance, beauty, and a unique feel to an institution, they also require regular upkeep. Fortunately, preventive maintenance can keep their total costs of ownership significantly lower than more reactive strategies.

As with work orders, of course, preventive maintenance tasks must be prioritized. Often of greatest importance are cafeterias, student unions, and other high-traffic areas that include food service. These areas are rife with safety risks and require consistent cleaning, sanitation, and repairs. Preventive maintenance may also offer the highest ROI in these areas, given their visibility and importance to both current and future students.

Next up are classrooms and laboratories, where failures and hazards are detrimental to learning. By prioritizing repairs of HVAC systems, fume hoods, tables, and desks, you can cost-effectively promote a comfortable, productive learning environment that suffers few disruptions throughout the year.

Other high-priority areas include dormitories, restrooms, athletic facilities, and libraries. Your school’s priorities and your building’s varying states of decay should guide your efforts, but in general, you will likely find preventive maintenance to be less disruptive to student life, not to mention more reliable, cost-effective, and conducive to accurate yearly planning.

Keeping up with routine inspections

Last but certainly not least, you can keep your maintenance backlog from growing with routine inspections. Inspections often slip through the cracks when there is so much other work to be done, but consistently carving out the time can reduce unnecessary repairs and replacements, and it may even allow you to remove items from your current backlog as you prioritize others. More importantly, routine inspections allow your maintenance team to pinpoint problem areas before they lead to costly incidents.

Streamline maintenance management with EAM software

Work order management, preventive maintenance, and routine inspections are three of the most powerful ways to reduce or even eliminate your maintenance backlog. Carrying these measures out efficiently, however, requires a data-driven approach that takes into account your budget, priorities, the current condition of your facilities, and other factors.

Keeping track of these factors by hand can be a logistical nightmare, but with the right software solutions, you can gain a bird’s-eye view of your facilities and triage your crew’s efforts accordingly.

EAM software is a single platform that combines many different aspects of your school’s assets, maintenance, and purchasing.

With EAM software, you can:

  • Track your school’s assets and store detailed information on them, including their age, lease agreements, and location
  • Schedule preventive maintenance
  • Manage work orders
  • Keep track of all equipment inspections
  • Optimize inventory and purchasing
  • Manage vendor projects, communication, and billing
  • Analyze critical data to make better maintenance and capital planning decisions

Enterprise asset management software consolidates data from many sources into one place your team can access anywhere through a mobile app. This ensures that no matter where you are, you and your team will have the most up-to-date information on every asset.

To learn more about the benefits of enterprise asset management software, download our new e-book, 7 Facility Management Challenges Schools Can Solve with EAM Software.

About the author

Jason Cockerham

Jason is a storyteller at heart with a career spanning everything from film and TV to iPhones. Just don't expect much before his first cup of coffee.
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