Maintenance of infrastructure: how important is it to your organisation? By Lesedi C. Leipego

30 Jan 2017
Article by : 

Do you own a stock of buildings? A housing estate? A portfolio of banks?

How did the maintenance function fall under your care? Is it because you are the owner? Is it because you are the administration manager and the maintenance function was jettisoned off to you because it was deemed administrative?

How is your maintenance funded? Is it adequately funded with budgets fully available? Or is it underfunded with significant work being deferred until funds become available? In the meantime what does this mean if you are one of those for whom funds are never adequate? Does it mean your facilities are progressively becoming worse in performance as a result of the funding gap?

How do you source your maintenance? Do you source it externally? Do you have a maintenance services agreement with service specifications and service levels? Do you have an in-house crew and how do you manage them? Are they held to the same standard as external service providers? How have they developed since joining your organisation?   

How do you approach maintenance? Do you have a 5-year forward plan? Do you have a building life cycle model for 20-30 years? Do you know when you shall need to replace the diesel generator installed in the building? Do you know when you need to motivate for the replacement of split air-conditioners installed in the server room? Do you know when approximately you shall need to upgrade the lighting system since the lamps have run their course and perhaps it is time to fit in LED lamps?

 Do you have a 1-year maintenance plan in place? Do you have schedules in place for the replacement of air filters for your air-conditioners, the replacement of fuel filters on your diesel generator tanks, the inspection and testing of your fire alarm system?

How have you been able to maintain such excellence? Perhaps it is because some maintenance activities are statutory requirements, such as lift inspections. Without such inspections, the building owner may lose certain rights, such as insurance cover.

What percentage of your maintenance is reactive vs planned? Sadly enough the approach to maintenance nationally leads to a highly reactive culture. Reactive denotes that we are reacting to events. Often the case with our facilities, we run equipment and buildings to failure or only make corrective actions when reacting. Percentages over 20% of total maintenance budget should alarm facility owners or be early warning indicators of something being amiss with their maintenance programme. Of course these ratios are not to be taken in isolation and other factors should be considered when weighing what to do with revising one’s maintenance strategy.   

Historically, maintenance has been an unglamorous trade associated with low sophistication, poor perception and reluctance by professionals to pursue a career. During my initial employment, I with a cohort of engineers and quantity surveyors, were jettisoned off to the maintenance division of our organisation. Most of us were crestfallen, imagining that we would be working jobs with no fulfilment or stimulation. Luckily, it was at the onset of the recession and many clients and facility owners began to see the need to make their existing assets perform more. The misfortune of the recession created an enabling environment for interrogating deficiencies in maintenance and immersing ourselves in the profession including professionalising the organisational approach to maintenance. 

Going around the country in my work and travels, I’ve become acutely aware of towns like Lobatse, Gaborone, Selibe Phikwe, Orapa, Molepolole, which have more than 40 years in existence that their infrastructure has reached its expected life cycle. I often remark to my peers that soon all the sewage and water pipes shall break down with alarming regularity because of aging. Electricity overhead lines shall also follow suit, including wooden poles striding our towns and highways.

Some of the pipe owners shall require extensive recapitalisation as some pipes are of asbestos like material and others clay. Thus my question on the lifecycle costing projections and if we have the funds available to renovate Lobatse, Francistown, Selibe Phikwe and other old towns and villages. Some of the pipes probably run through newly allocated plots. Imagine the rerouting costs should this be true.

While asbestos has been phased out in the 80s and 90s of the previous millennium, we still have an extensive stock of asbestos roofed facilities. Do we have a register of these and what is our plan to not be seen as stuck in the old?

These are traits of liveable cities. How often do our pipes breakdown and how quickly are they repaired? How long do road potholes take to be repaired? How many streetlights are working? Are the streetlights on during the day?

I am sure many of us have observed the following at public buildings a year or two after occupation: not all toilets were working; door handles were missing; lights were permanently on; taps were not closed or were permanently damaged and streaming jets of water. Is it expected that two years into the age of a facility we should expect high numbers of unattended anomalies and we should not worry? Is the architect and the design team to account for poor materials performance? Even if it is evident that students and vandals are to blame, do we persist with berating the consultants who designed the facility or should we train our guns on the maintenance organisation? Suppose we are correct, the consultant specified an inferior tap, but what about the tap streaming an endless jet of water for two months before somebody is alarmed by the water bill and thereafter reacting to a high water bill by instituting an investigation? Was the tap that hid it go unnoticed for months? We all know such experiences, not being the tap necessarily but it could be a broken pipe, which has a fully lush thicket of bushes near it just to rub our noses in it!

Other bad equipment experiences have bewildered owners and users that they have taken the “avoid technology at all costs” approach in their developments. They are tired of chillers not working or repeatedly breaking down such that they have reverted to fitting multi-storey buildings with split air-conditioners or new portable air-conditioners. Some building owners have been so disappointed with service providers that they have entered into service agreements with OEM representatives at a premium with service providers coming from across the border.

My experience is that once the Defects Liability Period (DLP)expires, equipment no longer performs as it so reliably did during DLP. This could be a transitional risk from switching from one service provider to the next whether external to external or external to in-house.

A question I’ve been asked is why do plant and equipment in public facilities last shorter than privately owned equipment? Perhaps one should look at public facilities maintenance, which usually would cast vendor selection to the wider bidder community. With such bid procedures for maintenance, the bidder-client relationship is usually short term looking and adversarial in posture. The bidder is sure that a long term relationship with the client is not on the cards as when a contract expires in public sector it should be retendered. The terms of contract are usually constrictive and there is little appreciation for innovation and value engineering. Hence a generator that is designed for 30 years of life shall pack up at 15 years of age because no less than five service providers would have handled it and you can be sure that one may have damaged a component or bypassed a warning switch thus running a generator with no low water protection.

Now transpose this to an analogy of purchasing a sleek Mercedes SL500 for a fortune. Would you take it to a mechanic whose yard is littered with scrap? Why then are we doing the same with multimillion facilities when it comes to maintenance and upkeep?

Building owners and project sponsors are advised to consider the involvement of a maintenance technical advisor in the construction of new facilities as early on as the design stage including for renovations to make them maintainable and supporting of their business strategy. Next article we shall discuss maintenance strategies including what I hope shall be our lessons from previous lessons for consideration into NDP11.

Lesedi C. Leipego