Waste Not

Energy and operational savings turn facilities into a profit center

By Mike Lobash  

Visit Victor Atherton, the associate vice president of facility administration at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., and you will likely find him fiddling with programmable thermostats, compact fluorescent lamps and valves on low-flow plumbing fixtures. And that’s before he leaves for the office.

Once at work, he moves on to his professional challenge: figuring out how to reduce energy and operating costs to run the 100 university-owned facilities on the same amount of money as in 1989.

“Energy conservation has always been important to me in my personal and professional life,” Atherton says. “If you come to my house, you would find compact fluorescent lamps, a programmable thermostat, high-efficiency air conditioning equipment and water-saving plumbing fixtures — all installed long before they were code-required.”

Atherton is on a mission to snuff out energy inefficiency and any other waste that forces him to spend even a penny more than he did 14 years ago to operate the 4 million square feet that comprise the university’s Coral Gables campus facilities. The reason he lives with such a tight budget restriction is simple: He asked for it.

Atherton moved to the main campus at a time when incandescent light bulbs, proprietary control systems and inefficient use of chiller plants were the norm. After seeing how the various systems could be upgraded and made more efficient, Atherton went to top university administrators with a proposition.

Atherton wanted the university to freeze the facilities budget at its 1989 level in exchange for being allowed to keep within the department any money he didn’t spend. He would still get increases allocated for university-mandated raises and new buildings, but that’s it. Any additional funds he needed would have to be borrowed from the university and repaid.

While the proposal sounded risky to some, Atherton knew there was enough inefficiency within the department for him to not only live within the budget, but to sock away extra to start reducing a deferred maintenance backlog. From the university’s perspective, Atherton says, the arrangement made it easy on the financial people because facilities would no longer be nagging for more money.

“They love it,” he says. “They absolutely love it.”

With the university in agreement with his proposal, Atherton took to zapping squandered kilowatt-hours. One of the largest energy-saving projects the facility department undertook involved integrating three chilled water plants into a single chilled water loop.

When the project started in 1992, the university used three chilled water plants to cool 13 buildings. One plant served seven buildings, another served five and the third was serving only the library. Atherton’s plan called for creating a single chilled water loop, connecting the three plants and converting old buildings to chilled water — creating a “conduit of efficiency,” Atherton says. “When it was completed we could run the entire academic campus on one chilled water plant. The other two could be used as backup systems.”

To implement the plan, Atherton first had to go to the board of trustees and borrow money to build the loop. Borrowing the money was no hurdle because calculations showed the savings the university would realize through the new loop would repay the school in less than three years. As the plan progressed, Atherton realized there were more advantages to be had. The university was able to upgrade all of its chillers to high-efficiency units and install variable speed pumping units. Sixty-one percent of costs of those upgrades were paid through energy grants and rebates from the local utility, so he only had to borrow 39 percent of project costs.

The university started saving money immediately. The chilled water loop allowed the university to cool 22 buildings from a single chiller plant and add 1,235 tons of new load. At the same time, the university qualified for a new lower electricity rate. Where the school had been paying 8 to 10 cents per kilowatt-hour to produce air conditioning, it was now paying 5.8 cents. The new rate and the increased efficiency of the chillers — .51 kw per ton instead of 1 kw per ton — saved the university $800,000 annually. In addition, it has 100 percent backup cooling capacity in the two remaining plants that were once used for prime cooling.

Energy Matters

Since Atherton moved to the main campus, energy use at the university has been cut by 25 percent per square foot. He says the reduction would have been 6 percent greater if it weren’t for the addition of computers, Internet servers and other electronic equipment in the past decade or so. Atherton says the facility department essentially financed the additional energy costs created by the computer revolution.

That Atherton would concentrate efforts on reducing energy used by HVAC systems should surprise no one. In addition to having earned a degree in mechanical engineering, he developed hands-on and technical skills regarding air-conditioning systems through work to earn his journeyman and master mechanical licenses. A lot of the influence to learn about those systems came in high school when Atherton was pulling wires and mounting electrical boxes to help his dad’s part-time air conditioning contracting business. He even learned enough about metalwork to fabricate ductwork.

The biggest lesson Atherton learned from his dad, however, has nothing to do with how compressors work or the science behind heat exchangers. Rather, he says, it was learning the importance of doing a job right the first time, with quality. Even today, Atherton has a sign hanging in his office that reads, “Why is there never enough time to do it right, but always time to do it over?”

Atherton has not found another university in Florida that tracks performance data as closely as the University of Miami. Each month, he reviews utility consumption on a building-by-building basis looking for anomalies and reasons why consumption might be higher than usual. But his number crunching doesn’t stop there. He also looks at data that indicate the productivity of the facility staff.

Atherton reviews maintenance personnel productivity monthly by tracking response time to work-orders as well as the completion rate of work-orders and preventive maintenance. He can do that because of a system that tracks how long it takes for somebody to respond to a building occupant’s concern and how satisfactory the response was.

Every time a maintenance person makes a call, a customer comment card is left to inform the occupant that the job was complete. Included on the card is a survey that asks the occupant to rate how well the job was performed. Those indicators have proved valuable in showing others — namely faculty — just how efficient the facility department has become.

The faculty senate called Atherton to one of its meetings to explain why the facility department supplied such poor — and expensive — service. Armed with data from the response cards, Atherton pointed out that 98 percent of respondents indicated the service level they received on their call was “good” or “great.” That fact, along with Atherton pointing out the facility department used only 1 to 2 percent of its billable hours on faculty calls, quieted concerns.

“It was a situation where you have everybody judging your department by a few squeaky wheels,” he says. “There was probably a faculty member who had a bad experience with facilities 10 years ago and was still complaining.”

A lot of the positive feedback is owed to reorganizing how the facility department functions. “In 1995 my physical plant director came up with a great idea that I believe is the campus facility management model of the future.”

Focus on Occupants

Atherton says a typical scenario at Miami before the reorganization — and one that plays itself out daily at other universities — would go like this: Facilities would get a call from a faculty member who wanted a 220-volt outlet installed for a new copy machine. The electrician would respond, running the necessary conduit and wire to install the new outlet. Job complete, until a couple weeks later when the faculty member would call back, appreciative of the new outlet, but wondering when the hole in the wall would be fixed. The carpenter would respond, and eventually a painter would get to the job site to finish the work. The whole process could take weeks, depending on what other jobs each of the three individuals were involved. “This is one of the flaws of a craft shop organization. No single point of responsibility to get the total job done”.

The reorganization involved dividing the campus into four zones and equipping each with the decision-making authority and personnel resources to function independently. There are two academic campus zones, one housing zone and an auxiliary zone, which is responsible for the sports stadiums, the student union and cafeterias, to name a few.

Each zone has a manager as well as the electricians, carpenters, plumbers, HVAC technicians and other skilled workers needed to handle any repair or construction request that comes from their zone. Prior to moving to the zone system, those skilled labor positions were scattered across the university and responded to individual projects and work-orders.

The zone system, which also gives the manager the ability to outsource necessary services, has cut the response time to service calls from 14 days to two days, eliminated 25 vehicles that were once used for workers to travel across campus, and reduced overtime expenses. An internal study also found that the zone system boosted the amount of time facility personnel actually spent “turning wrenches,” as Atherton says, from 30 to 60 percent. That success came despite a downsizing move that, through attrition, left the department with 25 fewer people.

Johnny Williams, a 29-year employee with the university, is now responsible for the housing zone and previously headed up the auxiliary zone. He says the system allows maintenance personnel to gather intimate knowledge of buildings and to solve problems before occupants call.

Under the old system, Williams says, small things like faulty hinges on doors or graffiti on walls wouldn’t get corrected until a building occupant called. Now, those things are spotted each morning when rounds are made simply to check the soundness of buildings and equipment. Occupants like it because things get fixed and they know who to go to if there is a problem.

“The zone system helped me because it gave me the chance to be more personal with my customers,” says Williams, whose zone encompasses 1.2 million square feet.

Switching to the new model won the facility department recognition by The Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers, which presented the university the 2001 Award for Excellence in Facilities Management as well as the 2002 and 2003 Effective and Innovative Practices awards.

“My role is as the coach,” Atherton says. “The team members did all the work of winning and I’m lucky enough to be the coach of a great team.

“You could describe our overall philosophy as data-driven management. Since 1989, we have identified $51 million in deferred maintenance projects. As a result of operational savings and improved energy efficiency, we have completed $35 million in deferred maintenance projects and campus improvements within our budget.”

Aside from Facilities

Occasionally, Atherton finds himself working on facilities issues that aren’t related to improving the efficiency of the university’s 10,000-point energy management system, for instance. Because they’re in Florida, Atherton and his staff have to wrestle with getting the occasional alligator out of the campus’ lake. Also, because they’re in Florida, they have to contend with hurricanes and tropical storms.

The worst of those situations came in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew ripped through southern Florida. When the storm hit over freshmen weekend Atherton and the rest of the facility crew were holed up in the university’s physical plant building. When Andrew passed, the crew left the building to survey the damage.

It was horrendous. Palm trees were down around campus. Debris was scattered across the university’s green spaces. Students wondered whether classes would start that semester.

Atherton says it would have been a financial disaster to not open the campus that semester. Yet for a time, it looked like that was more of a possibility than anyone cared to admit. As the facility crew started calling local contractors to remove trees and debris, they discovered few were available. Many of the contractors had lost their equipment or their entire businesses as a result of the storm.

Fortunately, Atherton says, the university had just hired somebody into the facility department who had done work further north in West Palm Beach, Fla. With that city relatively unaffected by the storm, the new person started calling in favors from contacts he had made and brought them down to Miami to help with the cleanup effort.

One contractor even came from Georgia with the biggest chipping machine Atherton says he had ever seen. The contractor had skid-steer loaders fitted with grappling hooks to grab debris and a chipping machine that could devour trees with diameters measuring up to 36 inches.

For the next 14 days, the university gymnasium was turned into a dormitory. Atherton says mattresses were thrown on the floor for people to sleep. The locker rooms were opened for people to shower. Breakfast was served and lunch and dinner were brought to workers in the field so they could continue working.

“We had the campus cleaned up before the city even started,” Atherton says.

Atherton says he remembers faculty coming to campus because it was the only place in the Miami area that looked “normal.” He credits that cleanup, as well as the other successes the facility department has enjoyed, to the sense of teamwork and the talent within the department.

“I have some of the most tremendous people working here,” he says. “It’s the innovation that everybody exhibits that allows us to do some of things we accomplish.”

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  posted on 10/1/2003   Article Use Policy

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