Guest Blog: Building Mechanics Can't Work from Home

Michigan Tech campus from the waterfront at night.
Michigan Tech campus from the waterfront at night.
The pandemic hallways were quieter than campus at night — but the building mechanics still couldn’t listen for problems from home.

The pandemic’s impacts on our campus research ecosystem are many and varied. In his guest blog, building mechanic Tom Polkinghorn shares how Facilities kept the doors open during the pandemic.

I am one of the many Facilities building mechanics here on campus. Like many other staff positions, our duties and responsibilities changed with the onset of COVID-19. Work this position from home? Right.

Why not? The primary responsibilities of a building mechanic include maintaining all operations and maintenance of the buildings while performing just about any task assigned through our Facilities work order system. Each mechanic has a specific coverage area; for example, mine are the Dow Environmental Sciences and Engineering Building and the Great Lakes Research Center. Although no one was around to assign us work during the pandemic, maintaining buildings remained our core responsibility — and we found plenty to do.

Challenge: Mechanics Always Find the Bucket

Building systems and equipment require constant, daily attention for effective operation. There are a number of things that could go wrong with a building's HVAC, lavatory plumbing, entrance doors, roofs, windows, lighting, etc. — and while prompt reactions save time and money, they also provide safety to the campus community.

We walk the mechanical rooms daily, tending to equipment operation, and we usually can recognize by sight, smell or sound when a system begins to malfunction — an impossible task from home! All too often our building walkthroughs provide us with our challenge for the rest of the day or even longer. On many occasions I'll stop and think: “This is not what I pictured I'd be doing while driving to work this morning!”

Mechanics cannot be nailed down in one place for too long, as other building challenges do not wait in line. When correction time becomes too lengthy or the repair needs specialized capabilities, we will assign the work to our Facilities Trades department. They take good care of us all. The mechanic needs to be in constant communication with all building systems to remain aware of what each day may require of all equipment. Think of our position as a constant check of operating systems over and over again.

The definition of the mechanic position certainly changed during the pandemic. At first, we stayed at home with the rest or majority of the University community and waited anxiously for further instruction and answers. “Who is considered essential? How long are we staying at home? What is the plan? Is there a plan?” It was tough to sit at home and speculate what might be occurring in the buildings during the first few weeks. We are the front line of facility operations, and without us, the maintenance process goes from proactive to reactive. Frequently used mechanic quotes include, "If only I'd arrived sooner," or "Wow, what would have happened if THIS went unnoticed?"

If a leak starts and someone puts a bucket under it, it’s my job to find the bucket before the whole hall is flooded. We aren't always there at the right place and time, but sooner is better than later. Okay, you got it: Mechanics can't work from home.

My first day back was April 1 and I was foolishly curious as to what I'd find in the buildings. Not surprising, the mechanics were also tasked with lavatory and touchpoint cleaning, garbage removal and, later, entrance door opening. Although it made sense, as we were the only staff back, it added an extra challenge in the attempt to catch up on our own work.

The added cleaning responsibilities were not entirely impossible, as there simply was not anyone around to clean up after. Seeing another person was an uncommon but pleasant surprise. I did have to skip over some preventive maintenance tasks initially, but was able to catch up with the key issues without too much time lost. My building coverage fared pretty well, with the exception of a couple heating water system leaks (think back to the mechanic quotes). Some other mechanics — maybe not so lucky. We all have our turn. After the third week of initial closure under our governor's executive order, I was assigned in-person walkthroughs every Monday through May 7, 2020, and returned to my regular hours after that. 

Solution: Learn from the Wrong Turns

It's not hard to reflect on what to do in a future pandemic given the same set of conditions. If everything repeated again exactly the same, we would jump right into the proven, effective procedures, skipping the wrong turns. This also parallels the building mechanic position philosophy.

We do tasks over and over in our buildings and we know what works to keep operations going year after year. Except, most conditions are not always exactly the same, so we make turns to adjust to the variables. “Wow, why is this not working like before? Let's try this. Nope — wrong turn. I guess we know not to go there now.”

Wrong turns can be good learning tools. The point is that we start with repeating successful procedures while paying attention to new variables. Experience, right? What has been done can always be done better, especially if well practiced. Let's hope that we do not become well practiced with working through pandemics — but let’s plan on it anyway. 

We were all challenged with COVID-19. We need to make sure there are how-to handbooks to help guide us to the right path faster as this pandemic evolves — and in the case of future pandemics, too.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.