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Special Report: Mechanical Contractors
In conjunction with the affiliates of the Mechanical Contractors Association of America
Institutional and commercial facilities rely on mechanical contractors to carry out a growing variety of tasks and projects. But the common denominator in such partnerships for all maintenance and engineering managers face these days is a standard of performance that is higher than ever.
In seeking to balance an organization’s need for a contractor’s specialized skills with the accompanying need for efficient and cost-effective work, managers demand more than ever that contractors meet often-tight schedules, offer competitive rates and deliver high-quality work that lasts.
Richard Moore, director of the facilities and maintenance division of the Milwaukee Public Schools, says that while contractors of all types generally have high levels of performance and professionalism, mechanical contractors stand out in some essential areas.
“Mechanical contractors, as a group, seem to have a high level of education and training,” he says. “They know how to lay out a project, schedule it and sequence it.” Such characteristics are essential for successful partnerships and projects.
A project’s size often determines how a maintenance department interacts with a mechanical contractor. Understandably, smaller projects tend to get relatively less attention than projects that involve more complex HVAC systems and come with larger price tags.
Moore says that while his in-house staff has completed such complex projects as replacements of boilers and cooling towers, more often these days, he contracts out such work.
“I’m trying to get our staff back into more daily maintenance and repair and using contractors for the fairly complex stuff,” he says. The benefits district in two ways from such arrangements: In-house staff can devote more time to other maintenance work, and experienced contractors complete the more complex tasks.
“We do one (such project) a year, where they might do 20 a year,” Moore says. “They’re more efficient and cost-effective.”
At Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, the repair and maintenance department tends to handle smaller HVAC projects, says Dave McCormick, the department’s manager. But in those situations where time is short, the department will call in a contractor.
“We’ll do it for projects that take more time than we have,” McCormick says. “Time and the skills required often are the drivers.” And while the department wants an inspector to review punch-list items before a contractor leaves, short work schedules can present unanticipated challenges.
“Some of our schedules are so fast-track that there is not time to do a full-scale commissioning,” McCormick says. “Problems can arise once we get back in there after the fact.”
To minimize such problems, most departments revisit and refine their contractor oversight processes as the work is done.
“I’m not sure we inspect the project every day, but we assign a person from (the district’s) design and construction (department) to oversee it, someone like an electrical engineer,” Moore says, adding that a trades person from maintenance services oversees smaller projects.
“This person inspects the work, compares it to the plans, reports on progress and problems, and makes any necessary on-site decisions,” he says. “If there are any major problems, it goes to design and construction. Our in-house people provide an invaluable resource in terms of making sure projects are done in a professional manner.”
James Burnson, physical plant engineering manager for the state of Washington, says he addresses the supervision issue in part by drawing from a pool of mechanical contractors with whom he has worked before.
“They just tend to know the campus better,” Burnson says. In addition, the department assigns a project supervisor, project manager or site observer — depending on the size of the project — to work more closely with the contractor by providing guidance, answering questions and offering input on suggested changes.
Managers should be sure that the performance period — when the contractor is to be available under the contract terms — includes a start and end date, availability frequency, and the owner’s right to extend the contract with a stated extension cost. This requirement can be more financially beneficial to the organization than if the manager leaves the extension-cost agreement clause until the end of the contract period. It also is to the contractors’ advantage because they do not have to find other work and reschedule a crew if the contract is extended.
Also during the performance period, contractors should keep track of and inform the manager of upgrades to facilities, systems and practices that might make maintenance and operation of the facility more efficient and cost-effective.
Whether the project is large or small, questions inevitably arise about the products, parts and systems that make up the finished project. To control costs, ensure standardization and make post-installation maintenance easier, most organizations in some way limit the system and equipment choices that mechanical contractors have.
“We don’t dictate the means and the methods for contract work, but we do dictate materials,” Moore says. “Contractors have some latitude. They generally have two or three different kinds of products to choose from. We prefer that they have two or three to choose from because then they might be able to get a product at a lower price because they might have a relationship with the manufacturer.”
Often, the driving force for the limits is the need to minimize spare and replacement parts that maintenance departments — especially those with large number of facilities — must track and store.
“We have 150-plus buildings, so we don’t want to have to have to stock all those different parts,” McCormick says.
Time and again, maintenance managers stressed the need for clear and up-front communication — at the start of project planning, during bid reviews and once the contract work has begun — as the most successful way of avoiding problems while mechanical contractors are on the job site.
“You have to define the scope of work up front,” Moore says. While on-site supervision and communication can smooth out some problems as during the course of work, clear communication early on can eliminate confusion and prevent cost overruns.
Finally, managers say they believe in and work to foster relationships with key mechanical contractors that go beyond one-time and piecemeal projects. Success, they say, is more likely to come from more enduring partnerships with mechanical contractors.
Says MIT’s McCormick, “Where we’ve had the most success is developing long-term relationships.”