Keeping your world up and running.®

High-tech test tools give you control of your building

October 2012

Advancing technology has brought us exciting and productive new ways to solve business problems. The power of yesterday’s personal computer can now be put in your pocket.

But members of the tech crowd aren’t the only winners. Less costly, easier to use technology is built into new tools that make it easier to test and maintain the HVAC units, power distribution networks, and environmental systems that building operators and their tenants depend on.

Today the building team can perform advanced diagnostics in-house - and avoid the cost and scheduling issues involved with using outside vendors. The new generation of tools is built for ease of use; some even have a consultant’s full knowledge built right into the tool.

Are you and your team taking full advantage of these high-tech wonders?

Start with the basics: Your maintenance program

If you manage a building, the last thing you want is a 2 a.m. call from a tenant, announcing that a key building system has failed and operations are down.

For most of us, catastrophic failures are simply not an option. The cost of an outage - in lost production, in damaged tenant satisfaction, in harm to reputation, and in threats to occupant safety and health - is intolerable.

And the price of emergency repairs is likely to far exceed the cost to replace a faltering component before its final failure. Replace a motor bearing early, for instance, and you can schedule downtime and make an easy fix. Wait too long and you might have to replace the entire motor and even repair the components that motor drives. There’s also the damage to production schedules to consider.

The answer is to examine and test key systems throughout the year, using a proactive maintenance approach to find and fix problems before they cause real trouble.

While it can’t repeal Murphy’s Law, a consistently-applied maintenance program, carried out with today’s new test tools, can significantly reduce the likelihood of an unexpected failure.

The power of new tools

The new generation of test tools is designed to reveal developing equipment problems early, when you can make the necessary repairs on your schedule and avoid the hazards and costs of a breakdown. The tests identify problems while they are in the “P” (potential) stage, before they reach “F” (failure).

Two test practices stand out for the way the tools involved use technology to make the job easier: vibration testing and thermal imaging. Combined with a proactive maintenance approach, these technologies can help your team spot problems before they turn into real trouble.

Looking for vibrations

Almost all machines vibrate from the rotation and oscillation of the motors, driven devices (pumps, compressors, and so on), and the bearings, shafts, gears, belts, and other elements that make up mechanical systems.

Most building systems, such as air handlers, compressors, and pumps, are engineered to operate without undue vibration. Too much vibration can indicate problems or deterioration in the equipment. If the underlying causes are not corrected, the unwanted vibration itself can cause additional damage.

Unchecked machine vibration can accelerate rates of wear (reduce bearing life) and damage equipment. Vibrating machinery can create noise, cause safety problems, and lead to degradation in working conditions. Vibration can cause machinery to consume excessive power and may damage product quality. In the worst cases, vibration can knock your equipment - and your facility - out of service.

The new vibration testers

In the past, vibration testing and analysis was akin to rocket science: a job for outside consultants who could install test equipment and interpret the vibration signatures their test gear picked up. This was a costly approach, but acceptable in manufacturing. For building managers, the cost was hard to justify.

Today the dynamics of vibration testing have changed. New, pocket-sized vibration testers are available that provide a quick reading of the vibrations produced by a motor, compressor, or fan, and compare the results against typical machines of that kind. With basic training, technicians can use these new testers to gauge the level of vibration and decide whether it could cause trouble.

When you use these tools to collect vibration data on a regular schedule, as part of your maintenance program, you can track changes over time and pinpoint components that are breaking down. That way you can replace them before they cause real trouble.

Thermal imaging: Easier than ever

Thermal imagers make pictures of infrared energy or heat - heat emitted by motors and machines, by building walls and windows, by electric wires and components, boilers and pipes, steam lines, radiators and condensers, and much more. These heat images can reveal impending mechanical problems, water and air leaks in the building envelope, and the causes of costly energy loss.

Thermal imagers have been around for a while, but the new models provide significant benefits

First, imagers are a deal: As with much consumer technology, thermal imagers today provide more power and features for the dollar than was possible even a few years ago. That means sharper images, improved software, better reports, improved battery life, and more - all at a better price point.

Some of the best advancements:

  • Auto- and manual- focus options for consistently sharp images
  • Combined infrared and digital images improve image clarity
  • Rugged models tested to withstand three-feet drops
  • Compass readings saved with images help locate problems after the fact

Smoother operations and energy savings

Like vibration testers, thermal imagers are highly effective at pinpointing problems that may be developing in building mechanical and other systems. The same problems that can cause excess vibration can also cause components to heat up. Problems such as worn bearings, restricted (cooling) airflow, leaking seals, overheating, or poor electrical connections may be spotted with the help of thermal imaging, in time to address them before they fail. These types of problems also cause the piece of equipment to run less efficiently and use more energy.

Efficient, well-run buildings save owners and tenants money and keep regulatory authorities and insurance inspectors happy. Thermal imagers are already commonly used by building staff and inspectors as a means to “see” energy waste - energy lost through walls that lack insulation, conditioned air leaking around windows and doors, or wasted steam caught in pipes, traps, radiators, or condensers.

The advantages of do-it-yourself

Accessibility is a major advantage of the new test tools.

They are affordable enough to fit in most equipment budgets, so you can have them on hand for testing when problems arise, or when your proactive maintenance schedule says to test.

You’re not at the mercy of a outsourced service supplier’s schedule. If a consultant visits when a problem machine isn’t running, or isn’t acting up, the consultant could miss the problem entirely. With a vibration tester and thermal imager in your tool kit, your staff can test when the schedule calls for it, track problems as they develop, and fix them when it makes sense.

The new tools are also easy to learn and use. They put results that once required years of training into the hands of regular technicians who know their equipment but may not know how to read a vibration signal.

The world of building management is getting more complicated every day - and these new test tools are ready to help.

A version of this article first appeared in Building Services Management »