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Fast-Track Maintenance Practices with a CMMS

Use a CMMS to drive productivity up and emergencies down

By Janelle Penny

Could your maintenance practices  benefit from a CMMS?  Use a CMMS to drive productivity up and emergencies down.

With the click of a mouse and a quick glance, the operations team at South Carolina’s North Charleston Coliseum, Convention, and Performing Arts Center campus can see the condition of every asset inside and outside their buildings.

If a critical system isn’t running efficiently, the team can zero in on the problem and proactively replace parts before they malfunction. Their secret for streamlining operational workflow? A Computerized Maintenance Management System (CMMS) that tracks maintenance and repair needs for every system and spare part.

Could a CMMS boost your department’s efficiency? Find out below.

How the System Works
In a nutshell, a CMMS refers to a hardware/software package that allows an organization to efficiently manage equipment and facility maintenance. Many feature scheduling and ways to track costs, repairs, and usage data, and some offer other unique features. If used correctly, the system should help lower costs, improve efficiency, and create a one-stop database of important building information.

Are you a candidate? Determining your potential benefit from a CMMS doesn’t depend on your square footage or campus size – it’s all about what you need to keep track of.

“It comes down to how many maintenance people are under management, the number of assets being maintained, and the quantity of work orders per year,” says Paul Lachance, chief technology officer for Smartware Group, the producers of the Bigfoot CMMS package that replaced North Charleston’s older, less customizable system. “Some facilities can be very large, but are just storage space with few assets to maintain. Others, like a healthcare-related facility, may not be very large but have lots of systems to maintain. If you can’t keep track of it in your head, you likely need a CMMS.”

The North Charleston campus, which uses its CMMS for four buildings covering over 100,000 square feet, has customized its system to assign categories and locations to all of its assets and attach a predicted date of completion to work orders. When the newest structure, Montague Terrace, opened in 2011, the team had already integrated all of its assets into the CMMS by tracking the placement of new equipment as it arrived and creating preventive maintenance reminders based on user manuals and manufacturer recommendations.

“If you go back in an equipment profile, you can look up all the work orders that have been assigned to a piece of equipment to see what was done, who did it, and when,” explains Luana Sievert-Rivera, the campus operations coordinator. “It’s all in one place, like a virtual file cabinet.”

Software packages that allow this degree of detail are especially critical when managing across large geographic areas and performing comparative analysis, Lachance adds.

FMs with large property portfolios may already use a modern CMMS, though the rate of adoption is steadily rising among growing businesses and companies upgrading an older system, says Greg Denning, CEO of All American Mechanical Contractors, a commercial facility maintenance firm specializing in routine and emergency maintenance. The company was an early CMMS adopter, managing their own growing business with a system called SamPro targeted to national service contractors and specialty providers.

By contrast, smaller, more basic systems may offer maximum benefits for single buildings, small campuses, or facilities departments with just a handful of team members.

However, a significant percentage of such systems are purchased by customers who are downgrading from a more complex system that is too difficult to use, notes Sanjay Murthi, sales and support for SMGlobal’s FastMaint CMMS, a basic, user-friendly system aimed at small- to mid-size facilities with maintenance teams of 5-15 people.

Many buildings already have the necessary hardware, such as a computer, a wired or wireless network, and Internet connectivity (along with the necessary security). A server-based CMMS requires little use of the Internet, if any, but it’s wise to perform backups regularly so you don’t lose your data to hardware problems.

Facilities in Focus

North Charleston Coliseum Campus,
North Charleston, SC

Building Types Concert hall, sports arena, exhibit halls, private event hall
VISITORS Roughly 10 million over two decades
MAINTENANCE TRACKING Scheduling preventive maintenance and tracking repairs for over 400 items, including building systems from HVAC to lighting, and scheduling vendors to perform maintenance on their products
Other CMMS UseS Enabling other departments to submit up to 50 work orders per week, tracking warranty information for new equipment, incorporating manufacturer recommendations into preventive maintenance scheduling
The North Charleston Coliseum Campus uses the web-based Bigfoot CMMS to track asset maintenance needs across its multiple facilities.
The software component can adapt to a wide range of facility types, and virtually any business with a maintenance department can use it to reduce costs. At the North Charleston campus, CMMS strategies include measuring the efficiency, condition, and other attributes of critical systems and equipment, as well as scheduling maintenance visits by vendors.

“Facilities managers are doing more with less, and it can be difficult to access paper records,” says Denning. “Sometimes folks will rely on their memories to remember when a piece of equipment was last serviced. The CMMS gets that equipment on schedule to extend the asset life and avoid catastrophic failures.”

CMMS Considerations for Your Facility
Start by determining what goals you need your system to achieve. Don’t look at vendors first – this could cloud your judgment at an early stage, Lachance advises.

Instead, prioritize wants and needs. North Charleston opted to allow each of its six departments to submit up to 50 work requests per week using its CMMS software, in addition to the 415 preventive maintenance reminders set throughout the year.

Bigfoot collects the departments’ information to present a comprehensive history that helps the team determine whether to replace or repair parts. Having so many eyes on each repair reduces the possibility that something could be overlooked.

“When our custodians clean up after an event, they can put in a request for a leaking sink or a chip in the tile. When people log in to put in requests, they’re usually for smaller equipment like vacuum cleaners or plumbing needs,” notes Sievert-Rivera. “Part of my job is staying on top of people to say ‘This isn’t done’ or ‘This has a deadline on it’ – it lets me monitor the work.”

Obtain input from other FMs who are already using a CMMS to manage their maintenance programs, and if possible, coordinate a site visit so you can see the system at work outside of a vendor’s demonstration.

Costs can range from $1,000 to six figures or more depending on software capabilities and the size of your organization, so making the right investment is paramount, Murthi explains.

“Make a list of your hopes, wishes, and desires,” Lachance says. “What are you looking to fix or optimize? Do you need better historical tracking? Can you have better auditing abilities for regulatory agencies? While I hate to shop by price, you don’t want to be looking at Ferraris if you can only afford Toyotas. Set some price level so that you know what type of system to look for.”

Next, visit manufacturer websites to compare the attributes of real-world offerings. Narrow your search to a few packages that might fit, then request proposals and demonstrations with manufacturers, Lachance suggests. The final decision should involve input from both the C-suite and the FMs who will use the software.

“It’s got to work at the maintenance person level,” explains Lachance. “So often, a solution gets picked in the corporate corner office room without enough input from the people who are going to use it. You need to have a balance of both.”

A system that’s intuitive to operate is a definite plus because it eases the learning curve. Similarly essential are the features that most CMMS packages have – things like work order management, maintenance and personnel scheduling, repair history, cost and inventory tracking, reporting, and the ability to create and save templates for work orders and instructions. With every feature, consider whether it meets your ultimate goals.

“You could use Outlook to remind you to go change your filters, but you’re not going to have a trackable history and be able to enter labor, parts, and everything else you’d do with CMMS,” Lachance explains.PageBreak

Ensure Smooth Setup
Be ready to hit the ground running when the new system is installed. Start by enlisting your team in any training offered by the vendor, Lachance advises. After that, start entering data on building equipment, spare parts, and other items using any existing documentation on hand. If possible, include a photo for easier identification. There are two schools of thought on how to set up a CMMS:

1) The pilot project: Model one department, floor, or building area at a time. Enter all of the assets in this area, then start scheduling preventive maintenance. Test the system by creating a few work orders. “Feel the system out from start to finish,” Lachance explains. “That will shape how you use it as you expand beyond the one initial area.” This strategy also provides you with a mini-case study – any inefficiencies you detect and fix initially will help you justify the software purchase with real cost savings.

2) Aim high, then add as needed: Another way to approach setup is to put in as much information as you can at first, thus enabling practical CMMS use to begin, Murthi says. “If you start by putting in a few pieces of information, it’s going to take a long time to set up, and in the meantime you’ll get pushback from management because the system isn’t being used,” Murthi adds. “Start loading information and use the system as you go along.”

Setup is never really complete, however, because the system must change with the facility. If you move a printer to reflect layout changes, update the printer’s information. If a boiler reaches the end of its useful lifetime, the CMMS entry for its replacement should reflect a revised preventive maintenance schedule, as a new boiler obviously requires different maintenance practices than the old one.

Sticking to the schedule can give you some warning as to when equipment starts to fail, but at some point, you’ll likely run into an unplanned breakdown. A CMMS can minimize these incidents, but no one is completely immune. You can limit the damage and downtime, however, by planning for breakdowns from the first day you use the system.

Five Red Flags for Mismatched Products

Weighing a potential CMMS purchase? Watch for these warning signs that the system you’re considering is a poor fit for your facility.

  1. The system is difficult to set up and use. Entering all of your company’s assets into the CMMS is understandably time-consuming, but it shouldn’t be difficult. Don’t buy a system that feels confusing from day one. Every person in your team should be able to pick up at least the basics of the system after initial training, especially the people who will use it every day.

  2. There’s not enough room in the budget. “What often ends up happening is that software cost becomes higher than the maintenance costs,” explains Sanjay Murthi, sales and support for FastMaint, a CMMS system by SMGlobal. If your department can’t afford the man-hours required to add basic assets to the system, reconsider purchasing any CMMS.

  3. Growth is limited. A good CMMS should be able to scale up as your company grows. Older and/or small-capacity tools may yield performance and speed issues once you’ve loaded too much data into it, which can negatively impact operations. This problem may not be readily apparent at first, so be sure to ask vendors for references and then question those references about the size of their organization, any lagging or performance problems, etc.

  4. Your reporting needs aren’t supported. It can be extremely useful to have a CMMS that aggregates and analyzes data rather than forcing you to organize your own figures in Excel or another spreadsheet program. If this is important to you, make sure the system’s reporting functionality is up to speed.

  5. The vendor and product are too rigid. Lack of flexibility on the software provider’s part is a problem, says Greg Denning, CEO of All American Mechanical Contractors, an early adopter of CMMS technology. “If they can’t make changes to the software to support a bigger organization or produce reports, it’s not going to be a good fit,” Denning explains. “Good vendors will work with the client to custom-tailor their software to the application. There’s no one-size-fits-all software package when it comes to CMMS.”


“One way to handle this is to break out the calendar into sections. Keep a particular period of the day for emergency maintenance tasks so that when they come in, you can continue around them,” says Tim Dunn, senior vice president of consulting and software services for VFA, which provides facilities capital planning and management software, VFA.facility, that can work with a CMMS..

“The other strategy is to categorize the preventive maintenance you do day to day,” he adds. “Classify them into different types: A) maintenance that has to be done, B) maintenance that is important but can be delayed, and C) things that are nice to do, but you can delay it if it’s not that urgent. You can push the B and C tasks out of the schedule or delay them for another day.”

Go Beyond Maintenance
Don’t be tempted to take a Computerized Maintenance Management System at face value – these systems offer so much more than the maintenance functions described in the name. What initially seems like an easy way to keep track of work orders and tune-ups can add value to other facets of your department and your organization as a whole.

“When we installed our system, we were looking to improve efficiencies,” recalls Denning. “One way was to reduce trips to locations by the techs, thereby reducing our carbon footprint from vehicle use. That also gives the client more efficiency, because when they’re not paying for additional trips, they’re getting more return on investment for making us dollars.”

Repair histories also offer opportunities, Denning says. Examine the items you’re replacing to find possibilities for retrofits and replacements. “You can see if you’re sending a lot of lamps to the landfill and analyze the cost-effectiveness of converting to LED lighting,” explains Denning.

Cost: The Final Word
It can be hard to justify a capital request for such a large-scale upgrade, but paybacks of just a few years or less are possible. When requesting funding for this long-term investment, be prepared to demonstrate how quickly and easily savings are obtainable. For example, gather information on past emergency repairs to demonstrate the reduction possible with improved preventive maintenance.

“Just bringing in people in an emergency situation is very expensive,” Dunn says. “If you can look out 10 to 20 years and see preemptive repairs, that’s a lot less costly than fixing things as they break.”

Some products incorporate price forecasting linked to outside sources such as RS Means, Dunn notes. This lends extra credibility to your budgeting down the road in addition to your initial request to acquire the system. To really demonstrate day-to-day savings, however, focus hard on pre-empting disasters. If you use your CMMS correctly, you can increase equipment uptime, directly impacting the bottom line through continued productivity.

“Ben Franklin said it best: ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,’” Lachance notes. “Maintenance can contribute to profitability just as easily as the quote-unquote ‘profit centers’ of your operation by keeping things running more smoothly.”


Janelle Penny is associate editor of BUILDINGS.