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Ready and waiting

How do you manage unoccupied buildings during a lockdown? We talk to three FM specialists 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 offices 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 lifted and people return to their office 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.”

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.”

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