Building Operations Best Practices during COVID-19

By Douglas LaFever

Maintaining building operations involves great attention to detail. With most school buildings closed in some capacity due to COVID-19, those that maintain educational facilities have a unique opportunity to optimize facility functions and operational processes. As an Energy Services Manager with more than 25 years of building system inspection and energy assessment, I’ve put together several activities to help you capitalize on this unique time to maximize your building’s potential.

Schedule Systems for Energy Efficiency

While schools are shut down for educational and community activities, there are various systems that can be fully shut down to cut energy costs. Schedule all the educational components of the building to be shut off. It is wise to schedule one or two common areas like a gymnasium, a cafeteria or an auditerria for essential staff as needed. Most of the building should be in continual setback mode while operating on weekday daytime occupancy schedules for areas deemed essential. If your school has a skeleton crew to put together school lunches for students that need them, enable full daytime lighting with heating and cooling services to your cafeteria area while shut off in the rest of the building.

A current average performing school spends approximately $1.20 a square foot in annual heating and lighting costs. Scheduling the lights off and setting the heating and cooling into unoccupied mode can yield a savings of three thousand dollars per month for every fifty thousand square feet. If all the idle office equipment are unplugged then another thousand dollars a month can be saved, in addition.

Test and Retest Building Systems

Take this time of low- to no-occupancy to thoroughly test emergency power systems. Inspect your internal power grid and make sure you know which systems are connected to emergency power and which are not. Based upon your needs, make sure critical systems are actively backed up.

Testing environmental controls is integral, especially for buildings completed in the last five years. Often, during system inspections, even in the first five years, sensors are discovered that are either out of calibration, failed or never worked to begin with. One important system to run through rigorous testing is the fresh air management system. Almost all of new designs are dependent on high quality, continuous, CO2 measurement of the indoor air. This is something that can be calibrated right now with no occupants in the building. Now is the time to really get an idea if these sensors are working accurately, and it only takes a day or two. The penalty if they’re not working correctly is either compromised indoor air quality or excess expense because you’re over ventilating.

Running temporary daytime system schedules to validate that all the systems are properly programmed is another important validation tool. Most equipment starts and stops when no one is around. Witnessing actual start up and shutdown can reveal weaknesses in operation or uncover maintenance issues that would otherwise stay unseen. Schedules can be affected by a multitude of things – from a faulty manual override switch to an incorrectly wired relay. Testing these daily events is important so that you make sure you have a reliable good energy pattern.

When the building is dormant, we have the opportunity to run things through their paces. And there is really very little cost penalty right now and no inconvenience to anyone either. School buildings are shut down for several weeks in a row now, so all can afford any minor energy expense to do some more extensive testing right now.

Deep Clean, Inspect & Repeat

In addition to testing your building’s various systems, facility managers should take this time to deep clean all systems and equipment. Beyond the need for cleaning to reduce the spread of COVID – 19 particles, deep cleaning of cooling towers, heat exchangers and return air grills and grids helps eradicate the biofilm build up that can become host to many strains of bacteria and  pathogens such as Legionella.  After you are thoroughly done cleaning your equipment, visually inspect for corrosion, metal fatigue, excess noise, etc. to ensure each piece of your equipment is maintained and functioning properly.

You may find that you need to inspect and clean your heat exchanger coils on all equipment more often, or you could more hygienically clean around filters beyond just replacing as needed. Take care to thoroughly inspect return air paths, make sure they are hygienic and working effectively. Inspect areas that are often overlooked. Visually inspect all of the condensate traps and drainage to make sure that it’s draining continuously and not dammed or creating puddles. Drainage water from heat exchangers can become a breeding ground for bacteria so keep them tidy and functional

Plan, Prepare & Learn

Through testing, cleaning and inspecting your systems and equipment you will gain a greater understanding of your building systems, capabilities and limitations. Understanding your building’s performance envelope will assist you and your organization in flexible planning of future operations.  Additionally, this will help you prepare for any community demands if your facility were needed for emergency shelter needs- winter or summer. Overall understanding of the performance of your building, your long term energy profile, and your consumption rates is paramount for the long term cost of ownership of that building.

In addition, to evaluating processes and performance, this is a great time to explore professional development opportunities for yourself or your staff. Encourage online learning to better understand the intricacies of your building operations. If your team does not have a member with their Building Operators Certificate, now would be a good time to explore that learning opportunity. The curriculum will take you through all building functions from electrical, mechanical, plumbing and all of the controls associated. Smarter people help run smarter places for learning.

Schools and the people that run them are innovative and resilient. As many have had to shift delivery methods due to the COVID-19 pandemic, facilities teams should take this time to make sure their educational facilities are efficient and well maintained. Students and teachers will return one day. Now is the time to get ready.