What is Deferred Maintenance: Why Time is a Factor in Repair Work

30 November 2021
By Jeff Anderson

No matter how well constructed, over the life of a building, various components, materials and assemblies require maintenance and replacement. The truth is, a planned and coordinated approach to maintenance reduces the probability of premature failure, damage to other assets, and therefore related emergency expenses to repair or restore the building’s integrity.

We know that pragmatically, a building manager knows that building repairs and maintenance are an integral part of ensuring the building, the equipment and the systems remain safe and functional. However, we also know that budgetary pressures and overworked teams can mean the best of intentions for regular maintenance, go by the wayside. The problem is, in the absence of consistent, proactive repairs, funds end up being diverted to the increased costs associated with deferred maintenance each year. In other words, if your team operates on a reactive approach to maintenance, it is high time for a change.

What is deferred maintenance?

It is probably helpful to define this term first off, as it is not one you use or hear every day. In short, deferred maintenance is the practice of postponing maintenance activities and/or repairs to save costs, meet budgetary spending levels or reallocate available budgets. From a  priority perspective, it would be fair to assume maintenance projects have been deemed less important than other aspects and put aside.

The catch 22 is this: Deferred maintenance can lead to backlogged issues, increased costs, subsequent issues and unhappy tenants. Numerous studies have found that what seems an insignificant repair issue can quickly turn into a larger problem when left unaddressed. As a result, total repair costs increase significantly.


Common causes of backlogged maintenance

But there is good news. Many issues that lead to disproportional budget blowouts are often caused by common occurrences or ignoring or deferring these common issues.

Your maintenance team working with a fixed or declining budget

At times maintenance teams are forced to cuts costs in a way that means things cannot be done as they should. While fund reallocation may work in the short term, faults and the overall building will keep deteriorating without appropriate consideration.

Your organisation does not have a reliable preventive maintenance program in place

Preventative building maintenance plans are designed to assist your team get ahead of maintenance, ensure the proper functioning of equipment and in the long run, save money and hassle. Delaying repairs until run-to-failure for most assets is likely to lead to a long list of unexpected work orders, which can lead to backlogged tasks and escalating costs.

Your maintenance team is overworked and/or short-staffed

Due to limited budgets and staffing, some maintenance teams are stuck with an extensive list of deferred maintenance tasks. Limited staffing makes it difficult to make up for lost time and implement a proactive approach to maintenance. Productivity is hampered by an overworked and burnt-out team. (As an aside, in these instances, having a third party help you is probably advantageous).

Lack of knowledge or documentation needed to conduct repairs

If a maintenance technician does not know how to fix something, they may take shortcuts or make-do. Neither is ideal and both are likely to lead to ongoing issues. The proper technician is needed for certain work – after all, you would not get a plumber to fix a door, so don’t get a painter for example, to fix rusted steel reinforcing.

What are the risks associated with delaying repairs?

The results of neglecting to maintain and replace assets at the appropriate time can lead to:

Extensive, Long-Term Costs

There are ramifications for deferring your maintenance. I covered this 10 years ago (ouch – was it that long ago?)  and things have not changed.

Reduced Equipment Efficiency

One of the goals of maintenance is to improve your equipment’s lifespan. When the time between maintenance activities is extended, its effectiveness declines, it may stop working as efficiently and associated costs to run it may increase.

Entire System Failure

It is always disastrous when a facility undergoes a complete system failure. For example, an HVAC system in a hospital must perform throughout to facilitate proper care. These systems need to perform constantly to control risk from HAI’s. Failure is not an option.

Safety and Health Risk to All Occupants

Facility managers are accountable for providing a safe environment to all occupants in a building. As in the HVAC system failure illustration above, a safe environment implies all systems are effective and proficient. Safety hazards are bound to increase and sometimes escalate as a result of deferred maintenance. Leaking pipes can cause mould and mildew which causes health issues for a tenant. Or Leaks may lead to concrete cancer which can lead to the risk of falling debris.

Possibility of Fines from a Regulatory Agency

Regarding the HVAC example, health facilities without clean, contaminant-free air, functional alarm panels or properly maintained functional source equipment find themselves in violation of code compliance. A regulatory agency could fine facilities huge fines for compliance-related violations.

One Problem Can Escalate into Larger Problems

Untreated, one issue could give rise to many. A leaky part of a ceiling building may start as a small issue, but, if not fixed end up ruining the entire ceiling, walls, other building materials, electric fixtures, and so forth. As this happens, the associated expenses needed for repairs begin to mount rapidly.

Less Preventive Maintenance Equals Shorter Life Cycle

We have established that maintenance is undertaken to ensure equipment and systems run efficiently and effectively. Anytime we fail to do maintenance as intended we shorten the operating life of the equipment and structures. Systems deteriorate much quickly when they are not promptly serviced.

Emergency Repairs are More Costly Than Planned Repairs

Emergency repairs are more expensive and interfere with scheduled renovations. Reactive maintenance is expensive as shutdowns might occur during peak occupancy periods (as opposed to off-hours). Trust us, we should know, as a lot of the work we do is the result of people patching over small issues to the point they can no longer hide them.

At the end of the day, suffice to say, timely preventive and restorative maintenance is a tremendously important tool in your management arsenal. A proactive approach to maximizing the service life, performance, and energy efficiency of your assets and buildings is key to strong financial performance. By having a well-thought-out plan and following the recommended service schedule, you can enjoy many periods of calm and stability.