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NASA's Final Frontier

Published on 7/24/2015
Under a punishing sun, a pair of boots crosses the arid, red landscape, laying a trail of shallow, dusty tracks across the Martian soil. This facilities professional has been tasked with a cooling system repair critical to NASA’s Deep Space Program. Failure to execute with timely precision would jeopardize data retrieval from the Mars Rover. The technician is swift and deliberate—and the atomic clock is ticking. Though this scenario evokes footage from a sci-fi flick like the 2013 film Gravity, it is a common reality lived by EMCOR Government Services’ technicians 
at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)  in Pasadena, Calif. The Mars Yard, the Space Flight Operations Facility (SFOF), the Flight Projects Center, and the infamous NASA Control Room are just a handful of the unique and challenging spaces the EMCOR staff oversees.  While no spacesuit is required for their work on planet Earth, the services these facilities professionals provide are integral to the success of numerous NASA programs, including the exploratory journey of the Mars Rover and other space flight operations that probe and demystify our universe.  

EMCOR Government Services’ role at JPL is to provide base operations support, which involves facilities management, operations and maintenance, repairs, improvements, and oversight of all facilities related equipment, systems and structures on the 177-acre campus; the campus consists of more than 200 buildings and 2.8 million square feet. Service also includes grounds maintenance, pest control, janitorial services, and fire suppression; energy, environmental, and disaster management; and 24/7 operation of critical facilities like the SFOF, among other responsibilities.

One particular use that JPL and EMCOR Government Services have recently invested in is full wireless connectivity and handhelds for every technician. Due to JPL’s location, Internet access used to be intermittent, depending where technicians were working on campus. In a collaborative effort last year, JPL and  EMCOR Government Services identified difficult areas and activated hotspots to enable heightened Wi-Fi connectivity 
for tablets and handheld technologies. Technicians can therefore receive service calls, perform data entry, and take and upload photos in the field … sometimes way out in the field … with real-time capability through a Computerized Maintenance Management System (CMMS). Handhelds and tablets are also equipped with an application that ties to JPL’s Energy Management System, so if any adjustments need to be made, they can be done immediately. “The technician in the field doesn’t have to rely upon someone sitting in the 
control room to turn equipment on or off,” explains EMCOR Government Services Resource Manager Russell Murry, adding that this feature has enhanced staff response times to trouble calls. Another time-saving efficiency Mr. Murry points to with handhelds is that techs have immediate electronic access to the O&M manual for each asset. This allows them to reference parts diagrams, warranty information, troubleshooting matrices, electrical distribution one-line diagrams, and other critical information while working on a specific piece of equipment. Technicians can also pull up Standard and Local Operating Procedures and JPL’s power distribution system, which allows them to see in real time how the electrical load is distributed throughout the campus. If a technician needs to search for parts, prices and lead times, or if he or she wants to perform a material requisition through the CMMS, the functionality is at his or her fingertips. When parts arrive at the JPL warehouse, the techs are notified on their handhelds that their order is ready for pickup. All these operational conveniences save time and money, states Mr. Murry. EMCOR Government Services is now working on putting smartphones in the hands of all technicians, says EMCOR Government Services Senior Director of Operations Mario Sotelo. This will increase access to information by providing seamless Internet connectivity with no reliance on wireless, he explains. Smartphones will also increase the resolution of photos techs take for relevant documentation. 
Having easy access to information and real-time systems functionality are key when reacting to issues, but what EMCOR Government Services facilities staff has demonstrated at JPL is that it’s not just how 
you re-act, it’s how you pro-act. Through their RCM program, EMCOR gets ahead of problems before they start, which makes the solutions much less reactive. For example, JPL’s campus contains miles and miles of piping, some of which transports natural gas and compressed air.  If one of these lines were to spring a leak, it could easily go undetected, posing major safety hazards, such as a potential explosion. Compressed air, which is used in many of the Lab’s machine shops, is also one of the most expensive utilities, which would make a leak very costly. Through its RCM program, EMCOR Government Services staff perform routine ultrasonic leak testing on these lines to help ensure the absence of safety hazards and to keep money from vanishing into thin air. Infrared thermography, which detects roof leaks and electrical heat signatures, and equipment vibration analysis, which looks for mechanical imbalances, are two other forms of predictive maintenance within their RCM program; that EMCOR Government Services employs on a regular basis to stay ahead of surprises, minimize downtime, and reduce the cost outlay for repairs and replacements. Using the latest tools for this testing ensures the best results; EMCOR Government Services therefore uses an infrared camera for its thermography and a higher-end vibration 
data collector with multichannel inputs, which enables the technician to both detect vibration and fix the imbalance. EMCOR Government Services’ RCM program resulted in 62 proactive discoveries last year that empowered technicians to address issues before they became serious problems. One such find was a chilled water supply pump that serves a critical building. Through predictive testing, EMCOR Government Services found it was exhibiting a high-amplitude vibration, indicating defects that could cause the chilled water supply to fail. The issue was able to be resolved in a scheduled manner, rather than in a time-crunched panic. Besides averting emergencies, RCM adds up financially. In a formal evaluation, JPL documented that EMCOR Government Services achieved a total cost avoidance of $159,050 and a total cost savings of $127,704 in 2014 alone. Over the course of its six-year tenure at JPL, EMCOR Government Services has calculated a $909,588 total cost avoidance and $764,226 total cost savings. Electrostatic testing is the latest predictive maintenance tool used for the RCM program by EMCOR Government Services at JPL. Many buildings in the U.S. operate with Variable Frequency Drives (VFD) on electric motors, which regulate motor speed and torque and ultimately conomize the use of electric consumption during peak and nonpeak hours. The use of VFDs at JPL saved significantly on electricity and related costs over the past four years since they were installed. However, the unfortunate byproduct of their use is an electrical discharge that exits through the motor bearings and causes pitting within only a couple years, compared to the seven or eight years bearings usually last, explains EMCOR Government Services Engineering Technician Kenneth Bates. This ultimately causes premature motor failure, he says, no matter what VFD model, manufacturer or environment is involved. Having to replace a motor so early can quickly cut into electric savings; however, electrostatic testing can be utilized to help EMCOR Government Services extend the life of JPL’s motors. “We’ll be able to tell instantly by looking at the motor if it has a tendency toward this electrostatic discharge problem,” says Mr. Bates. Once the testing reveals a problem, shorting rings are then installed to allow the electricity a non-damaging path out of the motor, rather than its easiest route through the bearings. “Our failure rate [for bearings] prior to engaging this program was every three months. We are now projecting our bearing life will get back to sevenplus years,” explains Mr. Murry. At JPL, keeping ahead of bearing and motor issues is of critical importance. If a motor were to fail in the SFOF or a building housing deep space hardware like the Mars Rover, that event could mean for NASA the loss of mission-critical equipment, data, or multimillion dollar programs, not just a new motor.“One of the biggest cost savings opportunities overlooked in the [facilities] industry is condition-based maintenance for filters,” says Mr. Murry. “People generally just change 
filters because ‘it’s time to change filters,’ or they look dirty, when in reality, there’s a much longer lifespan on that filter.” Years ago, EMCOR Government Services’ contract at JPL initially required filter changes every six months, regardless of their condition. Mr. Murry explains that, since JPL approved condition-based maintenance, the campus has some filters that are four years old and supplying excellent indoor air quality, where previously they could have been changed out unnecessarily eight times already. This program has saved significant labor and materials costs, while also keeping good filters out of landfills. 
At JPL, EMCOR Government Services has built a library of 2,213 asset-specific job plans over the course of five years, all of which are written by its site-based staff. These job plans are living documents, says Mr. Sotelo; they are updated as necessary, and the library is ever-expanding to reflect changes in the field. In the event of a higher than normal failure rate on any given asset, EMCOR Government Services staff perform a root cause analysis to determine the best course of action, as opposed to one that may only target symptoms of the actual problem. Mr. Sotelo says this enables EMCOR Government Services to stay on top of everything proactively, which has tangible impact on the facility’s occupants. JPL’s end users benefit from less downtime in labs and less facilities driven inconveniences, like a space being too hot or too cold, he says. “The way you know your preventative maintenance is working is when you see reduced trouble calls and repairs,” Mr. Sotelo says. In January through September of 2014, EMCOR Government Services completed 8,159 trouble calls, which equated 
to a 13-percent reduction from the same period a year prior. It also achieved a 97.15 percent overall customer satisfaction rating, based upon surveys that are generated and sent to end users after every service call.
Arguably, the biggest transformation at JPL that launched its facilities management into the future had nothing to do with the above technical aspects of service. According to Mr. Sotelo, it was the cultural shift of embracing a collaborative meeting dynamic versus the typical authoritarian format, where clients sit at the head of the table and conduct a one-way dialogue about everything that they want changed. Mr. Sotelo explains that, when EMCOR Government Services started the contract years ago, client-contractor meetings were much like the latter. Fortunately, with a genuine receptivity to outside ideas and a true partnership attitude, JPL’s meeting dynamic with EMCOR Government Services quickly evolved into a collaborative effort. JPL let EMCOR Government Services lead the meetings, which meant setting the general agenda and prompting discussion on recent issues, but asking for JPL’s feedback throughout. Though Mr. Sotelo says this meeting format now feels second nature and unremarkable to him after several years, he realizes that not all client-contractor relationships enjoy such a strong partnering mentality. In spite of the innovations and improvements EMCOR Government Services helped develop on the campus, Mr. Sotelo points to JPL’s willingness to enact informed changes and take a back seat at times when EMCOR Government Services was best equipped to pilot the ship. It is this simple system reboot, he says, that has made all the difference.