Why HVAC Diagnostics Matter for Operations & Maintenance Teams

April 26, 2022

ASHRAE’s Standard 180 (“Standard Practice for Inspection and Maintenance of Commercial Building HVAC Systems”) describes the minimum acceptable level of maintenance for commercial building HVAC systems. The standard prescribes all kinds of tasks that would keep the equipment and systems running at top performance.

For example, these are the tasks for a water-cooled chiller:

ASHRAE Standard 180 – Water Cooler Chiller Task List

Operations and maintenance teams can use Standard 180 to create a full task list for every scheduled preventive maintenance task they need to perform for the year. For an average commercial building, that could mean scheduling 5,000 tasks to cover the full spectrum of Chillers, Cooling Towers, Boilers, Pumps, AHUs, Fans, Zones, CHW Loops, HW Loops, etc. over one year.

“For an average commercial building, that could mean scheduling 5,000 tasks to cover the full spectrum of Chillers, Cooling Towers, Boilers, Pumps, AHUs, Fans, Zones, CHW Loops, HW Loops, etc. over one year.”

However, let’s point out the big elephant in the room: most buildings are not meeting that “minimum acceptable” standard. Standard 180 represents the preventative maintenance dream, where an O&M team is fully staffed with qualified technicians whose calendars look like a perfectly scheduled utopia of tasks:

preventative maintenance dream

So, what is a realistic week in the life of an O&M team? They are scheduling some filter replacements and some major quarterly or annual checks. Everything beyond that is reactive maintenance—responding to critical alarms, attempting to deal with the barrage of comfort issues, and appeasing upset people. In real life, a technician’s calendar looks more like this:  

the preventive maintenance reality

The Reality of Maintenance Today

There are a few key issues contributing to the dilemma facing today’s facility teams: a changing workforce, increasingly complex building systems, and reduced budgets.

Qualified technicians don’t grow on trees. This is a group that is reaching retirement age and moving on, along with their wealth of institutional knowledge and expertise. Their limited time is being spent in reactive mode.

Meanwhile, building systems are only getting more complex. Modern digital systems are introducing 100x more failure points that prevent peak performance. Maintenance teams that used to be able to get by with simple checks, now have to diagnose complex digital systems where a single bad sensor could destroy entire sequences and make equipment revert to overridden inefficient operation.

Finally, there is an unfortunate perception of many building owners that maintenance is a necessary expense vs. an opportunity to dramatically improve building performance and reduce costs. Because of this, they don’t often want to pay for the full gamut of proactive PM tasks and “enhanced service.” External service contracts and internal FM teams are stripped to the bone with minimal budgets. And maintenance often goes to the lowest bidder. 

Given these limitations, does ASHRAE’s Standard 180 represent a realistic goal? Does it even make sense to get to fully scheduled maintenance? If that’s not possible, what is the promised land to shoot for?

Condition-Based Maintenance

When thinking about where your team should land, It’s best to envision a maintenance spectrum from fully reactive to fully scheduled. 

Condition-based maintenance spectrum

Your goal is to get further to the right, but not all the way—you don’t want to be changing clean filters after all! Each organization has a goldilocks point that is condition-based maintenance. With the time you have, your team needs to be working on the highest priority item—maximizing the limited time and resources available to applying them to the highest value task. 


Fault Detection and Diagnostics

Fault detection and diagnostics is analytics software that plugs into existing building management systems, streams thousands of equipment data continuously, and prioritizes the highest-impact issues across a building or portfolio. True FDD software will also provide root-cause diagnostics to help teams reduce investigative time and take corrective action quicker.

In the quest to move further towards condition-based maintenance, FDD software is a critical tool. It allows O&M teams to automatically perform checks and tasks they don’t have time for manually. The software can take tasks off their to-do lists and even do them every day instead of once per quarter or year. The checks can be done remotely and the software can assist in remote investigation of issues and reduce troubleshooting time. 

Benefit #1: Better Leverage Your Technicians’ Time

When a technician is in a mechanical room doing a PM task, what is the value of knowing that the upstream valve is leaking? You can kill two birds with one stone, leveraging the technician’s time even more efficiently. 

“Our technicians tell us that they now get 4x as much done when they are armed with Clockworks diagnostics findings versus going in blind like they used to.”

A recent partner told us, “Our technicians tell us that they now get 4x as much done when they are armed with Clockworks diagnostics findings rather than going in blind like they used to.” This is a logical statement if you think about it. What is the process to chase a hot call when you don’t know whether there’s an issue with flow, or a reheat, or the supply air from the AHU? How much time does that process take versus knowing that the room temp has been over setpoint for x amount of hours and there is a leaking re-heat valve in the VAV causing the issue?

Benefit #2: Take Action on the Biggest Issues

Most importantly, FDD software can provide a list of top tasks, prioritized based on quantified impact. O&M teams with limited time can ‘subscribe’ to the critical systems they want to be notified about. For example, teams can automate a work order when an energy issue in the chiller plant is wasting more than $20 per day.

Example of an FDD to Work Order/CMMS system integration

Benefit #3: Training & Validation

Another important benefit is training. Many organizations are bringing on less skilled technicians who need coaching. We consistently hear that “the biggest problem we face is ensuring that when we send our least experience technician out to fix a problem, that they will know how to do it.”

With an FDD system like Clockworks driving a proactive maintenance process, you are automatically armed with “possible causes” describing the 2-5 most likely reasons for the problem. You also have data validating the work performed in the field. If the work order was closed, was the issue really fixed? Well, if it wasn’t, Clockworks will tell you that the next day. This is not only valuable for service providers to ensure performance, but as a training opportunity for less experienced technicians to learn how to fix the issue the first time—and if it isn’t fixed, to know that, and to train them again on the resolution.

In today’s commercial building portfolios, is there a way to achieve condition-based maintenance without FDD? We don’t think so.  And we’d take that one step further, too: if your FDD software doesn’t provide full diagnostics, then you’ll still spend too much time chasing false positives and trying to get to the root cause of the issue.

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