Painting by Numbers
The never-ending task of painting facilities serves more than just aesthetic purposes. Properly applying paints and coatings also helps maintenance departments protect their organizations’ investments in facilities and equipment. But managers have to go through a great deal of planning before the paint hits the wall.
Paint application has become increasingly complex in recent years as facilities — especially K-12 schools — play host to a growing list activities for more hours each day. Because of these changes, painters have less access to some areas and less time to work when they do have access. Paint specification also is more challenging because of demands from building occupants to find paints and coatings that minimize potential indoor air quality (IAQ) problems.
As a result, departments have had to become much more strategic and careful in planning and undertaking painting projects.
Thinking like a Business
For Milwaukee Public Schools, competition and efficiency also play important roles when it comes to paint application. Each of the district’s schools has its own budget for maintenance and repair services, and principals can spend those funds to buy services either from in-house trades people or from outside contractors.
This district’s decentralized budget structure affects the structure of the paint shop. Of the 25-person operation, 15 are painters whose positions are supported by these school-funded projects, as well as the district’s capital budget, says Travis Luzney, the district’s manager of maintenance and repair. The shop’s staff also includes a foreman, four crew leaders, three plasterers, and employees who perform infrastructure and glass repairs, as well as sheet-metal painting and door staining.
As a result of the budget structure, shops in the district’s maintenance and repair department — including its paint shop — must operate much like businesses. They must offer competitive prices, operate efficiently, and produce quality work.
The paint shop’s workload is dictated in large part by a cyclical assessment process, under which a foreman evaluates each building every eight to ten years.
“The assessment may come back that we can get another two or three years out of it,” Luzney says. In such cases, the building gets pushed back in the schedule. In addition to scheduled work, the shop also works as-needed projects into its workload.
As in most maintenance departments, the district’s paint shop must take into account thee entire range of activities that take place within its buildings. The district includes 160 schools and 52 administrative and other types of buildings that contain about 18 million square feet of space.
“Our biggest priority is making sure we don’t interrupt the activities of the children,” Luzney says. Crew leaders coordinate painting projects by working closely with each school’s principal to operate around these activities.
Because the district’s schools are used so heavily, 10-12 painters work second shift during the school year to minimize interruptions, Luzney says.
Despite such planning, some school areas, such as an auditorium, require special considerations and planning.
“Even if we try to do it on second shift, people still want to get in there for some things,” Luzney says. The solution is to give the paint shop enough lead time to complete the painting over a holiday break or vacation. The shop also has the option of bringing in contract painters to help out in such situations but so far has not had to do so, he says.
The paint shop also must work in areas of schools that require creative planning and execution — a ceiling over a swimming pool for example. Such a project recently took about two weeks to complete and required special scaffolding structures that enabled painters to reach the 50-foot-high surface.
Tools of the Trade
Acquiring painters’ essential tools — paints, brushes, rollers and sprayers — also requires careful planning to ensure workers have the materials they need for their ongoing work.
In particular, the shop paid a great deal of attention to paint specification in its most recent round of soliciting bids from vendors, Luzney says. In 2005, the shop solicited bids for its paint supply, which adds up to about $120,000 annually — $50,000 for exterior paint and $70,000 for interior paint. For the first time, the shop’s specification required suppliers to address the performance of their products.
“We did a better job this time around of defining our expectations on paint performance, not just the chemical makeup,” Luzney says. In addition to meeting EPA guidelines for volatile organic compound content, the district required that new interior paint would have to dry in 40 minutes and be scrubbable in 30 days.
The district uses 100 percent acrylic paint for exterior applications. For interior jobs, the new paint would have to adhere to a range of existing paint substrates, including gloss epoxy, gloss oil enamel and flat oil paints.
At the end of the process, the shop awarded the contract to a new vendor, but with a caveat, Luzney says. Final approval of the contract is contingent on test applications of the new paint — comparing it to the existing surface — to ensure it stands up to the heavy wear and tear that students inflict on walls and other surfaces in school classrooms and hallways.
As for brushes, rollers and other tools, painters purchase their own using a district procurement card. The shop also uses paint sprayers on some interior surfaces in gyms and cafeterias and on some exterior surfaces, but only in large, wide-open areas away from cars and people.
But like most school districts, the true challenge of producing cost-effective, high-quality painting projects occurs in the many confined interior areas, where students put products to the real test. In these areas, maintenance departments and paint shops find out how well their careful planning and preparation pay off.