Predictive Maintenance Saves Energy, Time and Money

There are three common methods by which building managers can accomplish HVAC maintenance on building systems: reactive, preventative and predictive.  In the reactive maintenance mode, when something breaks, you fix it.  In the second form, preventative maintenance, we perform periodic actions to reduce the likelihood of maintenance problems.  We do such things as tighten belts, clean filters or change oil.

But despite these two forms of maintenance, things still break.  A third option offers building managers the ability to more precisely match maintenance efforts to the condition of their systems.  Reactive maintenance is always too late – the problem has already occured.  And preventative maintenace, while better than reactive, still offers no guarantee that the work is being done at the optimal time.

There is a third maintenance philosphy that can maximize system performance and uptime, reduce maintenance costs for both labor and materials, enhance indoor air quality and lengthen the life of your equipment.  That approach, called predictive maintenance, involves ongoing, continuous measurement of key performance parameters of your equipment, such as voltage draws or vibration levels or the particulate contamination of oil to determine when equipment needs to be maintained.

Let’s take a compressor as an example.  When first installed, vibration was probably minimal.  But over time, vibrations in a compressor increase.  They will eventually become not only the symptom of a problem such as wear and tear on internal moving parts, but also a cause of other problems, such as the loosening of fasteners or electrical connections.

Sometimes you will be able to detect the vibrations in a compressor before serious damage occurs.  Many times you won’t.  Perhaps a preventative maintenance program that calls for a tear-down every x thousand hours of operation will catch and fix the problem.

But with a predictive maintenance program, you have sensors attached to the compressor monitoring vibration at several key points.  When vibration reaches a certain level you pull the compressor for maintenance and repairs.   Then, when you place it back into service, you will be able to tell if you fixed the problem by monitoring the post-repair vibration.

Another example is the analysis of lubricating oil.  By tracking the amount of particulate contamination in oil, you can determine not only the optimal time to change oil but also determine when there is some other problem causing internal moving parts to wear prematurely.  You will save not only on the cost of oil, but also extend the working life of your equipment.

You will accomplish several important things by using predictive maintenance.  You will eliminate the need for expensive emergency repairs.  You’ll be able to do maintenance on a weekend, when no one is in the building to complain about the heat. And you will extend the usable life of the compressor by eliminating the vibration before it causes catastrophic damage.

Costs associated with installation of sensors and measuring equipment for maintenance tracking are capital expenses.  Sometimes, “the powers that be” hesitate to approve these types of expenses because of the do-more-with-less requirement they work with every day.  Maintenance can often times be viewed as an overhead line item, and overhead is something to be reduced.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, buildings consume almost 40% of the electricity used in the entire country.  It’s entirely possible that a fine-tuned HVAC system will save more money than the cost of the fine-tuning.  Although the initial costs of maintenance equipment appear high, there are clear savings to be realized.  Reductions in energy costs, reduced parts and labor and even increased productivity due to greater comfort and indoor air quality will readily be seen.  And that should persuade management that predictive maintenance makes good business sense.

Rich Silverman
Goodway Blogging Team

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