Sustainable O&M Practices  

by Catherine Coombs Bobenhausen
Viridian Energy & Environmental, Inc., a Vidaris, Inc. company



"Operations and maintenance" (O&M) includes all aspects of running a building over the course of its useful life. Because of the far-reaching nature of O&M, a well-designed and properly executed program is critical to the overall success of a "sustainably-designed" facility.

Such a program should:

  • Set demanding performance goals on both a daily and ongoing basis;
  • Measure performance so that the building can be benchmarked against other buildings;
  • Adjust to changing occupant needs by modifying the HVAC, lighting, electrical, telecommunications, safety, housekeeping, and building automation control systems, as needed;
  • Repair, upgrade, and recommission building systems to ensure that they are working to meet current needs;
  • Extend the useful service life of materials and equipment;
  • Prevent disruptive failures in the building and its systems; and
  • Promote greater productivity.
Photo of the architectural entries of the EPA Kansas City Regional Office

The architectural entries of the EPA Kansas City Regional Office are designed to capture dirt, mud, pollen, snow, salt, and other contaminants from footwear and prevent them from entering the building. Originally conceived as a permanent grating "walk-off system," an easier to maintain stone floor with walk-off carpets was ultimately selected. This system can reduce the frequency of vacuuming, cleaning, stripping, and recoating of floors, and extend the life of floors and mechanical equipment, contributing to lower operational costs.

Courtesy of GSA and Koll Construction

An effective, properly designed O&M plan includes upkeep of the HVAC and building systems so that building energy efficiency targets are met over the life of the building. It can also foster achievement of a facility's pollution prevention goals, which aim to reduce use of hazardous materials, minimize solid waste, and eliminate the use of ozone depleting substances.


One goal of effective O&M is to achieve the intent of the original building design team, i.e., so that building systems deliver services (including the appropriate amount of outside air) to building occupants. O&M is also the discipline through which long-term goals of economy, energy efficiency, resource conservation, and pollution prevention can be achieved, while meeting the comfort, health, and safety requirements of the tenants.

The following should be incorporated into an effective O&M plan:

  • Master schedules for operations and preventive/predictive maintenance (see also WBDG Reliability-Centered Maintenance);
  • Continuous monitoring of equipment performance;
  • Early detection of defects or failures in equipment through use of service alarms or other means;
  • Minimization of equipment failures by use of preventive maintenance, standbys, etc. so that the failed component can be isolated and repaired without interrupting system performance; and
  • Use of internal and external test systems to locate faults and fix problems quickly.

Proactive O&M can yield benefits such as reduced solid and hazardous waste generation, less hazardous air pollution, extended service life of equipment and building materials, reduced absenteeism and worker's compensation claims, better indoor air quality, and fewer occupant complaints.

A. Concepts

Effective O&M strategies for high performance buildings should:

  • Integrate indoor environmental quality (IEQ), energy efficiency, and water conservation into established policies and procedures;
  • Provide regular professional development and training for O&M personnel (e.g., 24 hours/annually which includes on-site, hands-on training on the building systems and sustainability aspects);
  • Establish a facility-wide team to evaluate and improve on O&M practices; and,
  • Incorporate environmentally-protective features into all contracts, maintenance, and procurement practices.

As part of the O&M plan, procedures, and manuals should be prepared and updated in a timely fashion, including:

  • A written best practices equipment preventive maintenance program.
  • A master equipment list, with model and serial numbers, required spare parts, equipment specifications, and parts suppliers list.
  • An equipment history record file, noting dates of installation and repair history.
  • Operating manuals and specifications for equipment.
  • Air balancing reports and airflow specifications.
  • As-built blueprints of mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems and control blueprints showing how the systems operate.
  • Building commissioning results.
  • Preventive maintenance charts for each piece of equipment and work orders for those activities.

Effective O&M practice should address waste reduction, reuse, and recycling:

  • Source reduction, eliminating the use of hazardous materials, is the first step in an overall waste reduction strategy.
  • Once this is accomplished, materials that can be recycled should be favored.
  • Only when these two options are exhausted should other materials be considered.

Effective O&M practice should stress indoor environmental quality (IEQ):

  • Acceptable IEQ is often easiest to achieve if "source control" is practiced, not only during building construction, but also over the life of the building. For example, the designer may select building products that do not produce noxious or irritating odors. The O&M and cleaning staff can also avoid creating IEQ problems when they are provided with safer maintenance and cleaning products. While HVAC systems may be designed to isolate operations (kitchens, dry cleaners, etc.) from other occupancies, the O&M staff should check to see that pressure differentials are in fact maintained, to avoid the undesirable flow of contaminants from restrooms, kitchens, parking garages, laboratories, etc. to occupied spaces. See also WBDG High Performance HVAC.

  • O&M can also be the first line of defense in controlling moisture and mold growth in buildings.

O&M should promote Pollution Prevention (P2) goals by eliminating pollution through process changes, recycling, and substitution of non-hazardous or less hazardous materials:

  • P2 practices can affect buildings in many ways, including better public image, enhanced productivity, reduced regulatory burden, lessened liability, and improved environmental and air quality.

  • Conventional O&M practice includes setting up and running the facility's recycling program for office paper, cans, glass, etc. Advanced recycling programs, such as the Sunnyvale Recycling Program, now include fluorescent lamps, batteries, carpet and ceiling tile takeback programs, and recycling of electronic equipment.

B. Recommendations

Responsibility for effective O&M is shared by a number of individuals, at various stages of the building's life, from conceptual design through renovation or demolition.

The Original Building Design Team should:

  • Lay out the HVAC system so that maintenance and inspection will be easy to accomplish, including enough room to repair equipment in mechanical rooms, and including access doors in ceilings or walls to reach air handling units, filter banks, fan-coil units, terminal boxes, and controllers or sensors that require regular maintenance and calibration. See WBDG Functional/Operational.

  • Provide proper storage facilities in the building, such as a separately exhausted central chemical supply area near the loading dock, janitor's closets on each floor, dedicated recycling storage areas, and handling and transport mechanisms.

  • Include permanent walk-off grilles or mats at all entrances to eliminate tracked-in dirt. Use landscaping or railings to keep people on the pavement near the building entrances.

  • Select durable, low-maintenance, soil-resistant, low-emitting building materials, equipment, and furnishings. In heavily trafficked areas, carpet tiles may be preferable to broadloom because small stained sections can be replaced and recycled, avoiding use of powerful carpet cleaners. See WBDG Evaluating and Selecting Green Products.

  • Provide documentation of design intent for building systems.

  • Incorporate controls and feedback systems for building systems to inform the facility manager.

The Facility Manager should:

  • Oversee building commissioning and recommissioning.

  • Procure preventive HVAC maintenance services if qualified in-house staff are not available.

  • Schedule regular and preventive/predictive maintenance for all HVAC equipment. See Reliability-Centered Maintenance (RCM).

  • For lighting, assess the relative advantages and disadvantages of group re-lamping programs. Particularly in large installations, periodic replacement of all lamps can be more cost-effective than replacing individual lamps.

  • Provide waste reduction and management (sorting, salvaging, recycling, disposal) planning, and contractor oversight.

  • Carefully schedule disruptive work such as plumbing, carpentry, painting, and renovation.
    • If possible, schedule during unoccupied periods.
    • Inform building occupants about major activities that may affect health or comfort and be sure to maintain acceptable indoor air quality.
    • Seek opportunities to recycle and/or reuse construction and demolition waste.
    • See IAQ Guidelines for Occupied Buildings Under Construction by Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors' National Association.
  • Coordinate housekeeping and custodial operations with building ventilation schedules to ensure that adequate ventilation is provided both during and after these activities.

  • Institute an integrated pest management (IPM) program that creates the least possible risk to people, property, and the environment.

The Procurement Officer should:

  • Institute purchasing policies that promote resource efficiency and toxicity reduction. One example would be instituting a lamp purchasing program which specifies that lamps contain less than 80 picograms of mercury per lumen hour of light output.

  • Establish cleaning practices that favor products with low toxicity and minimal environmental impacts. This may involve contractual changes with the cleaning service as well as special training for custodial staff.

  • Work with maintenance staff to determine the types of cleaning agents needed. Conventional cleaning supplies often contain harsh, irritating chemical ingredients that, especially in concentrated form, can cause harm to employees.
    • Consider use of appropriate portion control devices such as mechanical dispensers for safe mixing of cleaning solutions, to reduce worker exposure to chemicals, save packaging, and reduce chemical consumption.
    • Restrict heavy-duty cleaners to heavy-duty jobs.
    • In the case of flooring, it may not be critical to use a disinfectant; a mild detergent at neutral pH may suffice.
    • In areas where disinfectant is required, a dilute solution of an intermediary grade disinfectant (e.g., phenolic disinfectant) or a quaternary ammonium ("quat") disinfectant at a neutral pH may be appropriate.
  • Seek less toxic substitutes that have been proven to do the job.
    • Products labeled non-toxic, non-petroleum based, water-based, free of ammonia, phosphates, dye or perfume, readily biodegradable, and using recyclable containers, are options to consider.
    • Products labeled "WARNING", "CAUTION", "DANGER", "FLAMMABLE", "POISON", "REACTIVE" should be avoided, unless there are compelling reasons for their use.
    • Pump sprays should be favored over aerosol cans that contain propellants.
    • When applicable, one way of determining the general hazard associated with a product is to review its National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) label.
  • When appropriate, select "certified" environmental cleaning products. Lists of these products are available from the government and third party certifiers. Evaluate the basis for certification to ensure that the attributes selected are important to the facility.
    • EPA's Sustainable Marketplace: Greener Products and Services includes cleaning supplies and equipment that have "environmentally preferable" attributes. Information is also included on chemicals to avoid.
    • Third party certification services: Green Seal has standards for operations and maintenance criteria for green facilities, for industrial/institutional and household cleaning products, and for floor care products, which set performance, environmental, and packaging requirements. SCS Global Services provides product testing for specific environmental attributes, to verify the accuracy of specific environmental claims such as biodegradability. It has also evaluated products for indoor air quality performance based on a test method recently developed in California. Product listings and their attributes are provided according to construction specification categories, facilitating use in specifications. The European Union Community also has an Eco-Label program which includes all-purpose cleaners.
    • California's South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) has a Clean Air Solvent (CAS) Certification Program that is useful for selecting cleaners that do not contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
      • It should be noted that most cleaners are water-based and the issues of concern are often related to the extreme pH of the cleaner (e.g., highly alkaline floor stripping solution or hydrochloric acid bowl cleaner) or respiratory irritancy (e.g., ammonia, bleach) rather than VOC content.
      • The SCAQMD product list identifies cleaning materials used in maintenance operations containing no more than 25 grams of VOC per liter of cleaning solvent. The most common and effective cleaners that meet this criteria are water-based or aqueous cleaners.

Maintenance Staff: The input of the personnel who use the cleaning products is critical to a successful transition to lower toxicity materials. The custodial and maintenance staff should:

  • Participate in selecting cleaning products, by, for example, attending vendor demonstrations, and participating in trial use of lower toxicity materials.
  • Minimize use of cleaning products. Overusing an ineffective product can be worse, and more expensive, than using a limited amount of a very effective one. Alternatively, better equipment such as automatic floor scrubbers that require little or no detergent should be requested.
  • Follow safe handling, disposal, and storage practices.
  • Stop using products that do not work.

Tenants should:

  • Purchase products with less packaging by ordering supplies in bulk or in concentrated form.
  • Produce less waste, for example, by using "paperless" electronic communications, reusable silverware, and cups.
  • Recycle glass, paper, and mixed waste.


No matter what the building's use or size is, it is important to operate it responsibly and maintain it properly. Below are some operational and maintenance practices for a facility.

Maintenance Supplies

Dust Control

  • Maintain barrier floor mats.
  • Use high efficiency air filtration.
  • Use high efficiency vacuum cleaners (see Carpet and Rug Institute for list of vacuum cleaners tested for particulate removal).

Floor Cleaning

Moisture, Leaks, and Spills

  • Dry surfaces promptly. Water-damaged, porous building materials or furnishings, if not dried and cleaned within 24 hours, may have to be replaced.
  • Prevent moisture condensation.
  • Maintain the building envelope, including the roof.

Pest Control

  • Use integrated pest management (IPM) methods of pest control as part of the overall building maintenance program.
  • Shut down ventilation system(s) and remove occupants until pesticide applications are completed.

Relevant Codes and Standards

Additional Resources


Trainings and Programs


  • Closing the Circle Awards—Federal facilities can qualify for these awards which focus on waste prevention, recycling, and green purchasing activities under E.O. 13101, environmental management under E.O. 13148, and green/sustainable buildings under both executive orders.
  • EPA's Building Education and Assessment Model (I-BEAM) computer software—integrates IEQ, energy efficiency, and building economics into a management tool for commercial buildings. Among other features, it includes an IAQ management and maintenance program, and a tool for calculating the cost, revenue, and productivity impacts of various IAQ activities.
  • EPA's Sustainable Marketplace: Greener Products and Services—provides contract language, specifications, policies, environmental standards and guidelines, other useful references, and product brand lists.
  • EPA's Buildings Air Quality Action Plan —provides an action plan for implementing a well-designed O&M program (see Step 5).
  • Office of the Federal Environmental Executive, Green Purchasing—contract language, implementation guidance, case studies, links to products and services that have successfully been used by others, and expert contacts are provided for green janitorial products and services.
  • Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP) Operations and Maintenance in Federal Facilities—provides up-to-date information including definition of terms, advanced metering, and other essential concepts.
  • Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards—Provides national recognition of outstanding chemical technologies, like environmentally preferable O&M products, that incorporate the principles of green chemistry into chemical design, manufacture, and use, and that have been or can be utilized by industry in achieving their pollution prevention goals.