The Wild West of Maintenance/Service

Today, Most building automation installations are retrofits, positioned with an eye to reducing energy consumption and the overall costs of operating existing facilities. With that in mind, building managers and owners have very different requirements than even 10 years ago. Users want systems that integrate heating, ventilating, air conditioning, lighting, security and fire/life safety. They want to combine mechanical and electrical functions, and they want it done with the quickest return on investment possible. In recent years, building systems have begun to encompass virtually every device within the building.

Subsequently, a changing cast of characters is competing to maintain these systems so they continue to meet the customer’s drive for cutting costs. Many contractors and manufacturers of automation systems have watched the trend, as the maintenance contracts on new systems that were retrofit into buildings are going to a widening variety of providers.

Jobs used to be specified with an explicit set of requirements and often were sold to the lowest bidder. Today, various providers are pulled in to piece together a single system that is inexpensive to install and can be maintained effectively at low cost. Often, electrical contractors and mechanical contractors as well as some system manufacturers offer their services for the same jobs.

That makes for a sort of Wild West of maintenance or service in which different types of companies are vying for the work. Ben Dorsey, KMC Controls’ senior vice president of marketing, said that he has seen some savvy ECs thrive in this sector.

“So much is happening with the dynamic nature of the marketplace,” he said. “There’s an intense level of competition out there. A service contract certainly represents a good revenue stream for contractors.”

Since projects are now more owner-directed work with these different providers, contractors want to be the company that comes to mind for end-users, whether they have a long history in maintenance and inspection contracts or not. Contractors need to diversify their portfolios if they want to remain relevant as building systems change, and doing so often starts with developing close relationships with their customers.

Dorsey described an Arizona EC that moved into building automation systems after its customers began asking for that service. Those requests for building automation and for maintenance and service of those systems came from schools, industrial sites and commercial buildings.

“There’s increased pressure on these owners and facility managers to make their resources stretch,” he said. 

The Arizona contractor’s customers were so pleased with the quality of the company’s work in traditional installations and retrofits that they pushed the contractor to provide low-voltage services and maintenance. While mechanical contractors have traditionally maintained building automation systems, a growing number of ECs are getting into the mix as systems are further integrated. Dorsey said he has found about 25 percent of all installations now integrate electrical systems with HVAC, and that means more opportunity for the ECs, too, as the maintenance contracts are awarded.

Ultimately, he said, contractors who continue to do what they do well can help position themselves for growth in other markets. In the meantime, the number of such automation projects is growing exponentially.

“I believe the electrical contractor’s role will become more demanding as the concept of managing a building’s energy becomes more mainstream,” said Adriane Breiner, Schneider Electric’s business development manager. 

Building management systems (BMS) can control and monitor all aspects of a building, including the lighting, power systems and security. Facility managers may not have the time to optimize these systems; therefore, electrical contractors are well-positioned to help them by managing and reporting on the building’s needs.

Building relationships

Relationships—not just with owners, but also with other contractors—should be developed when securing maintenance contracts, since there are many models, Breiner said. For example, mechanical contractors often create a contract with a building manager or facility following an installation and then subcontract the electrical work to an EC, allowing them to collaborate on a single service contract.

“[Signing] maintenance contracts for low-voltage systems continues to be a lucrative area for electrical contractors as facility managers rely on their services and expertise on the specific electrical equipment or power distribution systems that make up a facility’s electrical infrastructure,” she said. 

Through maintenance contracts, qualified ECs can help facility managers avoid costly downtime while ensuring worker safety.

Like Dorsey, Breiner said that ECs that engage in specific communications with the customer and understand the end-user’s installed systems and business goals will be the most successful. Additionally, contractors that partner with manufacturers can often provide the value of a full-service offer—from maintenance and testing expertise to engineered solutions.

“Our service agreements are designed to periodically monitor the performance of your systems to ensure that they will meet the dynamic and changing needs of your business and the facilities that support them,” Schneider’s Breiner said. By investing in a service agreement, she said, a user can take full advantage of the features and functionality in their system and receive the full value it was designed to deliver.

The low-voltage industry’s trend of moving away from proprietary systems to those that communicate with others also allows ECs a greater opportunity in maintenance contracts. Fire alarms, for example, lend themselves most to maintenance contracts since there are local, state and federal mandates related to the maintenance of such systems (see the Fire Focus, page 38). Maintenance is needed to ensure they will function and not cause a false alarm and that they will operate in a power outages, meaning standby power must be checked and replaced when necessary, a process that can be critical.

Contractors sometimes offer remote servicing; for instance, many times, minor problems can be analyzed remotely, eliminating costly site visits. If the EC offers a company a priority service agreement, it can then offer to move paying customers to the front of the line when a support call is needed.

Contractors can also provide a contract at a discounted rate for technical service and can regularly back up a customer’s database to ensure it can be easily restored following a component failure or power fluctuation.

For building owners and managers, the pressure is not simply to keep the systems working efficiently, but also to meet safety standards and, therefore, complete inspections and maintenance related to safety.

Increasingly, standards bodies are emphasizing the importance of electrical distribution system maintenance. Because there is now a greater understanding of the causes of arc flash and other safety issues, the interest is in maintenance that can ensure these safety risks don’t occur.

Standards bodies have developed intervals and activities that would improve safety, reliability and longevity of electrical distribution equipment.

The International Electrical Testing Association (NETA)’s most recent standard for maintenance testing was released in 2011 and focused on maintenance of power systems. The association also publishes a set of handbooks that covers electrical power equipment both low-voltage and high. Jill Howell, marketing manager at NETA, said the organization also offers an NETA Alliance Program.

“It’s for professionals who want to have a finger on the pulse [of the market and participate in training,” Howell said, adding that many of the members are ECs. “Lots of our standards are designed for large electrical power systems, such as substations.” 

That has high value for low-voltage systems as well, Howell said, adding that they will tie back to the power system that needs to be maintained and uninterruptible power is essential for operation. Monitoring the low-voltage system itself and the power fed into it can be a package offering.

In the case of many facility managers, she said, some are still not keeping up with the maintenance required, which leaves an opening for contractors to educate managers about the value of having a maintenance contract. Others have an in-house team doing routine maintenance; however, a large percentage of them hire outside contractors to provide scheduled maintenance and inspection of the entire systems.

Maintenance contracts create interdisciplinary competition

About the Author

Claire Swedberg

Freelance Writer
Claire Swedberg is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at .

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