A service technician is called in to replace the drive motor in a nine-month-old autoscrubber. Although the machine is almost new and its motor should have lasted many years, the staff had not cleaned the machine after using it. Floor finish and dirt build-up had soiled the internal parts, stretching out the drive belt and burning out the motor. The result: an avoidable $2,000 repair bill.

Allen Rathey, owner of Boise, Idaho-based Rathey Communications, a cleaning consulting company, tells this story and many like it. He recognizes that cleaning professionals who fail to invest time, money and energy into keeping their floor cleaning equipment in good working order may end up making costly mistakes such as these.

But housekeeping executives can avoid these problems with a solid preventative maintenance program.

Problem: Employees don’t use floor machines correctly, causing unnecessary wear and tear.

Solution: The most basic step in caring for a piece of floor-care equipment is to use it correctly.

“Don’t try to use your equipment in ways it wasn’t intended for,” warns Tony Pottinger, marketing manager for Tornado Industries, a manufacturing company in Chicago. “For example, if you use your vacuum cleaner to remove debris that is too large, the belts could wear out prematurely, or the hoses could become clogged.”

Problem: Equipment is not properly cleaned after each use, and cleaning performance suffers. An automatic floor scrubber with a worn or damaged floor squeegee, for example, may leave soiled cleaning solution on the floor, creating a dirty appearance and shortening the floor surface’s life.

Solution: Workers must properly clean all equipment after each use.

Cleaning is essential because machines that accumulate dirt are at risk for overheating, explains Michael Savidge, chief engineer and technical advisor of NSS Enterprises, a Toledo, Ohio-based manufacturer. “Hair, string or other debris can get wrapped inside the machine and cause wear in the bearings.”

Employees should completely empty solution tanks in riding scrubbers or carpet extractors after each use to prevent mildew and clogging. For vacuum cleaners, change the bag when it is full. Although this simple task often is overlooked, it is a critical one. Running a vacuum with a full bag can wear on the motor.

Problem: Equipment is not inspected regularly, which allows minor problems to snowball into major repairs.

Solution: Regularly inspecting equipment helps catch minor problems before they do more harm than necessary.

“After each use, or on a regular schedule, such as daily or weekly, perform a general inspection of your equipment,” advises Savidge. “Make sure that the fasteners are tightened, and inspect all belts and wires. Look for accumulation of dust or dirt that would clog ventilation, and remove any hair or string that has gotten lodged around moving parts. Finally, look carefully for any damage in the machine.”

Keeping a daily maintenance log for each machine is an excellent way to record regular cleaning and inspections. When a problem comes up, supervisors can check the log entries to determine if the problem stems from mistreatment by a specific employee, lack of maintenance or something out of the cleaner’s control.

Problem: Cleaning workers or their trainers do not know how to perform routine maintenance on floor machines.

Solution: The best advice for basic equipment maintenance usually comes from the machine’s manufacturer or distributor. Read the owner’s manual carefully; for example, it will give information about how often the vacuum cleaner’s bag needs to be changed or its belt needs to be replaced. Other sources of information can be supplied by the manufacturer’s or distributor’s technical support, or by on-site visits from maintenance contractors.

Trained employees can do some basic repairs in-house. At least one person from every cleaning crew should be trained in the basic mechanics of machines they use. But the perfect maintenance program would require every cleaning employee to know when to report the need for minor attention.

Often, this training can be for safety as much as for responsible maintenance. In fact, some mechanical training is federally mandated with machines such as propane buffers, says Casey Forsyth of ServiceStar, an Alabama-based repair shop.

The reason: He once came across a customer’s employee who had bypassed the safety valve on a propane buffer and was running fuel directly into the carburetor.

“That was a disaster waiting to happen,” he says.

While manufacturer’s representatives and distributors often can provide this necessary training, so can many equipment maintenance providers. Generally, training should consist of basic maintenance, repairs and replacement.

However, highly technical maintenance and expert repairs are best left to qualified service professionals. In fact, managers should check equipment warranties carefully; some coverage becomes void if someone other than a service professional attempts complex repairs.

“The last thing you want to do is wait to call for help until cleaning crews have a machine torn apart and don’t know how to put it back together again,” says Forsyth.

Problem: Cleaning professionals spend a lot of their time, energy and money on in-house repairs. But repair problems sidetrack them from their core task – cleaning.

Solution: Some cleaning professionals, rather than investing their resources heavily into in-house equipment repair departments, choose to outsource their work.

Many manufacturers, distributors or independent service providers also can handle equipment maintenance on a case-by-case or long-term contract basis. Maintenance agreements may include regular preventative maintenance training for custodial staff, scheduled on-site inspection visits by service professionals and necessary repairs. However, these maintenance agreements require an additional cost beyond that of the actual equipment purchase.

Problem: A frequently used piece of equipment breaks down and needs extensive repairs that will take several days or weeks. During the repair interval, equipment can’t be used, causing downtime or cleaning interruptions.

Solution: “When you factor in the cost to fix the machine, as well as productivity lost during down time, it pays to invest some money in preventative equipment maintenance,” says Bill Hughes, marketing manager for Fort-Worth, Texas-based manufacturer Powr-flite.

But when equipment repairs are unavoidable, a prior investment in a maintenance agreement could pay big dividends. Some maintenance contracts will provide temporary replacement equipment while repairs are performed, eliminating the possibility of lost productivity or customer dissatisfaction which cleaning interruptions can cause.

Problem: The housekeeping department does not value preventive maintenance. For example, time pressures might cause managers who don’t appreciate the need for preventive maintenance to allow employees only enough time to do cleaning and not to service the equipment. Or supervisors may not properly train employees in basic equipment maintenance procedures.

Solution: Employees should receive regular and thorough training regarding proper equipment use, storage and maintenance procedures. In addition, housekeeping managers must hold workers accountable for following through on basic maintenance tasks. There should be a complete record of these tasks in a daily maintenance log.

Preventative maintenance involves proper equipment use, cleaning machines after each use, adopting a regular schedule of inspection and performing basic repair. All four of these components must be integrated into a comprehensive maintenance plan if housekeeping executives hope to get the most out of their equipment investments.

A good program also pairs a cleaning staff that is trained and accountable for routine maintenance with an outside troubleshooting and repair source, such as an independent service provider, a distributor or a manufacturer.

Lynne Knobloch is a cleaning industry writer currently based in Mishawaka, Ind.