This Old House Needs 150 Service Calls a Day

Ray Dankel

Ray Dankel, an electrical operator, is wiring a mockup of large security lights designed to increase the number of lumens reaching the ground.

Photograph by Candace diCarlo

Down in the basement of the Franklin Building Annex is the latest tool in the never ending battle to save university buildings from decay. It is a midrange computer that thinks the whole university is its own old house -- an old house composed of 124 buildings built between 1872 and 1996 and used by 50,000 patrons any day of the week.

"Old buildings are only part of the problem," says Jim Wargo, Penn's executive director of Physical Plant. "Right there in the mix you also have high tech research buildings that must be at specified temperatures all the time, give or take half a degree. You have Victorian houses and skyscrapers, gyms and classrooms, a whole smorgasbord of buildings, each one clamoring for personal attention. And you also have about 180 craft people to give maintenance care to it all."

The campus requires so much maintenance that a large computer has joined the Physical Plant work force.

"Until the 1970s universities throughout the United States had paid little attention to their buildings," says Wargo. Then in 1972 the book "The Decay of the American University" was published. "The book made people realize something had to be done in a hurry to save the infrastructure of universities in America or risk having to replace facilities worth billions of dollars and lose our leadership in teaching and in research. Penn trustees were very good in allocating money to undertake the maintenance that had been deferred for so many years."

A whole new attitude developed about how to maintain the infrastructure, says Director of Utilities and Maintenance Lou Visco: "Grounds people had been taking care of the grounds surrounding a building and a few things inside. But the needs of the buildings themselves had changed. Instead of housing a few systems to make work possible, they were now housing all kinds of high tech systems. Weather control in the winter, for example, used to be having a radiator in the room. In the summer it meant opening the windows. No air conditioners, central temperature controls, no complicated phone lines or FAX lines or even outlets for coffee makers."

So the old grounds people found themselves taking care of new buildings for scientific research where small changes in temperature would nullify an experiment. They also were in charge of old buildings that had to be modified to preserve their historic value and yet equipped with things the original architects didn't even dream about 50 or a 100 years ago.

"Computers started appearing everywhere in buildings that were never designed to have them," Wargo says. "Rooms were now suffering from the 80-degree hot air computers dump into rooms that were never meant to take that heat. Telephone connections and electric plugs were popping up everywhere.

"The functions we assign to buildings keep changing constantly, but their design remains constant," Wargo says.

"Our buildings are loaded with systems that require frequent maintenance if we are to avoid having to work in a permanent crisis mode," Wargo says. "They demand a lot of specialized people such as carpenters, plumbers, electricians. And their work has to be tightly coordinated."

That is how CHAMPS, the new house keeping computer in Physical Plant, got into the picture.

"CHAMPS (Computerized History and Maintenance Planning System) is our newest weapon in our battle to keep up," Visco says.

"It is as if CHAMPS was obsessed with stopping whatever threatens this old house. It handles about a 150 complaints a day, schedules maintenance crews, asks and sends for cost estimates of repairs. Of course there are people behind each stage, but the computer is the one that makes it work like a smooth operation."

The computer also keeps statistics that allow Physical Plant to do a better job. "It keeps a detailed history of problems in a building for the last four years," says Visco. "When certain kinds of breakdowns keep happening over and over again, we look for other factors that may be the root cause of the problem. We then try to use that information to solve it for good."

CHAMPS was installed in the summer, and it has made all the difference.

"This computer is like a field general sending 180 foot soldiers to make sure 124 roofs don't leak, 20,000 toilets don't clog, or that 150 malfunctions are fixed in a day," says Paul D'Angelo, associate director for construction, planning and grounds. "By allowing us to consolidate related jobs at a building, CHAMPS is saving us time and work hours. Our planning and scheduling makes more sense now and we are responding faster to complaints. We have also been able to get a better prioritizing system that guarantees we do first things first. And in this business every little victory counts."

Needless to say these victories are rather short-lived. After the 150 daily maintenance jobs are completed and the maintenance crews retreat home to get some rest, the tireless actions of weather, time and usage keep doing their nonstop wrecking of the old house. And when those foot soldiers return the following morning, a battle similar to the one they held the day before starts all over again.

Originally published on January 14, 1997