Guest Column | April 15, 2014

WWEMA Window: Deferred Maintenance — What Are We Really Saving?

By Michelle McNish, president, E & I Corporation

The United States continues to face water and wastewater funding issues. As the industry struggles, it consistently encounters the age-old problems of governance and funding, which has led to delays in accepting and implementing best practices for maintenance.

Deferred maintenance can be defined as maintenance work that has been deferred on a planned or unplanned basis to a future budget cycle or postponed until funds are available. Replacements, major component repairs, mechanical equipment repairs, and/or infrastructure repairs are all projects that are often deferred to the next annual funding cycle. Deferred maintenance also includes preventive maintenance activities and minor repairs that should have been performed but were not. This is usually done in order to save costs, meet budget funding levels, or realign available budget monies. 

But are we really saving by deferring?

Why is maintenance deferred?  The bottom line is to save a dollar. At the time, the decision-makers weigh out all options and sometimes decide there is no other choice but to defer. So a decision is made to do nothing (that’s basically what it amounts to). But there’s a cost associated with doing nothing.

We all know the cost of doing business has skyrocketed. The water and wastewater industry is not immune. Regulatory requirements, compliance issues, chemical costs, and cost of goods, just to name a few, have all played an integral part in stressing the budgets. 

Rick Biendenweg, former assistant VP of information resources at Stanford University, focused his career and research on deferred maintenance and facilities renewal. Simply put, Biendenweg’s and his colleagues’ research states:  Every $1 deferred in maintenance costs parlays to $4 of capital renewal needs in the future.  In essence, his work proves the “pay me now or pay me more later” adage. 

Municipalities continually face deferred maintenance in their water and wastewater infrastructure, which in too many communities is over-worked and under-budgeted. The system is deeply stressed, the financial and natural resources are limited, and the needs are not negotiable.

It is likely that financial challenges facing water and wastewater infrastructure today will not be solved with one simple approach. However, with improved management practices, many municipalities are prioritizing their rehabilitation and repair of critical equipment and extending their service life.

The city of Harlan, KY, installed a mechanical bar screen at its wastewater treatment facility circa 1993. Thirteen years later, with the bar screen still in operation, it had certainly performed beyond their expectations. However, they had a decision to make: Do they do nothing, the bare minimum to “make do,” or do they perform an extensive rehab to extend its life even longer? The decision was made to work with the bar screen manufacturer by formulating a cost-effective solution to replace key parts to prolong the screen’s service life.    

By not deferring maintenance, you can improve your equipment reliability and durability over the long term, which saves time and money. In most cases, reconditioning versus replacement reduces cost as well as lowers equipment downtime.

Michelle McNish is president of E & I Corporation and is VP of operations for McNish Corporation. She is a member of the WWEMA board of directors.

Image credit: "water main," © 2013 MTAPhotos, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: