With COVID-19, office buildings around the country have been left empty for months as employees work remotely. However, building managers still have a lot of maintenance to do.
Tenants cause plenty of wear and tear to occupied buildings, but some level of maintenance is necessary — even in empty buildings. If neglected, you risk major issues like mold buildup or Legionnaires’ disease. It’s also not always possible to fully shut down building systems. In many cases, you may run the risk of code violations or accidentally turning off the lights on tenants in a partially-occupied structure.
However, you can save on energy expenses and even find new uses for buildings that have been left unoccupied. There are ways to manage an empty structure cost-effectively.
Tips for Managing an Unoccupied Building
There are steps building managers can take to reduce operational costs in unoccupied and low-occupancy buildings.
To start, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the potential risks that building systems can face when shut down for extended periods:
- Microorganisms and other biological materials can build up in plumbing and water storage tanks.
- Pipes can begin to corrode, creating the risk of lead particles dissolving into the water supply.
- Filters can clog and belts can fail in HVAC systems.
- Boilers and chillers can start to corrode.
- High levels of humidity can lead to mold and mildew.
All these risks can be managed with the right maintenance techniques. Having a shutdown plan in place for major building systems — like heating, cooling, ventilation and water — will help you avoid corrosion and other similar issues. If you don’t have a plan, consider reaching out to the company that installed or manufactured your building’s water or HVAC equipment. These vendors are often experts in the equipment they sell and may be able to help you build a shutdown plan.
Simple maintenance can also help extend the life of systems through shutdown or prevent more serious problems from developing. For example, certain paints or coatings offer high levels of stability and may be able to stand up to building closure better than others. Draining and repairing water storage tanks — both common shutdown procedures — can also help prevent bacterial buildup while the structure is empty and equipment is left idle.
Deferred maintenance of HVAC and plumbing while the building is unoccupied can save money in the short term. However, this may also lead to costly expenses down the line, especially if issues like mold or biofilm develop.
Maintenance of emergency systems — like fire detectors and fire suppression — will also be much more important than usual. Teams may have limited access to the building, which means these standard maintenance checks may need to be optimized. During shutdown, it may not always be possible to check one system, then return the next day to inspect another.
Some offices may continue to draw significant amounts of power, especially if there are in-office servers that need to stay active for employees to keep working. When budgeting for building upkeep, you should consider how inactive appliances may continue to increase power costs, even when tenants are physically present in the building.
Reactivating Building Systems Safely
You should also have a plan for how you will reactivate building systems once tenants can return. Learning tips for managing building systems as you reopen will help you ensure these systems are reactivated safely.
Scheduling an in-depth assessment of the building for potential damage or issues resulting from the shutdown will help you identify any potential damage that may have occurred. An inspection that covers mold, microbial hazards in the water, or clogged and damaged air filters would provide a solid foundation.
There are a few best practices that will always be useful, regardless of apparent issues. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends flushing building water systems after a long period of disuse. It also suggests a similar flush-out for HVAC systems 42 to 78 hours before tenants return. Both of these processes help ensure clean air and water.
In the weeks following, regular checks of the HVAC and water systems will help ensure no potential damage or microbial buildup was overlooked.
Possible Uses for Empty Buildings
Cash flow issues aside, an unoccupied building may create better conditions for renovations or maintenance checks. If the structure is unoccupied or mostly empty, you’ll be able to access vents and filters or rearrange walls without interrupting a tenant’s life or work.
Now may also be a good time to experiment with different ways of managing building systems. For example, you may have considered implementing smart tech, like an HVAC system that automatically optimizes heating and cooling based on tenants’ movement and real-time temperature data. While the building is empty, you can more easily install these sensors without the risk of disruptions.
Often, these devices can work with a building management system, providing managers with valuable real-time information.
In the long run, these changes may be able to help building managers save money and create a place that is more responsive to the needs of its occupants. These things are best done before tenants start to return.
Cost-Effective Management of an Empty Building
The pandemic will likely continue into the near future — meaning tenants may not return until some time in 2021. This creates new challenges for those in charge of building management, but it doesn’t mean damage or high building maintenance costs are guaranteed.
Shutdown procedures and adjustments to building systems during this time can help prevent damage and lower expenses. Issues like mold, bacterial buildup and corroded pipes are a serious threat. However, regular maintenance can help you keep track of potential problems and take quick action to prevent anything that will require significant work to repair.
With these tips for managing an empty building, you can ensure your tenants and building systems’ safety, even if shutdown stretches on for months or longer. When all this is over, you can feel confident of a safe return to business as usual.
Written by: Megan Ray Nichols, BOSS Contributor
Megan is a STEM writer and blogger at https://schooledbyscience.com/