Maintenance for the Unable and Unwilling

Kevin Marois

I keep giving advice in these columns, but I am not certain that everyone wants to do all the things I suggest. Maybe machines are the bane of your existence. You only tolerate them. (But that’s alright because they probably don’t like you either.)

You cannot be in this business without equipment. So let me make some suggestions for things you can do without getting your hands dirty. Taking control of this area of your business doesn’t mean you have to hold the screwdriver.

Understand the process and names

This is an area that I find quite frustrating and I know it frustrates my customers as well. I ask very precise questions but I often find myself asking several follow-up questions to confirm an imprecise answer. If I can’t accurately understand the information you are giving me, I cannot make a recommendation.

If you can’t communicate the problem accurately to me and I cannot communicate the solution clearly to you, we are both wasting our time.

Error code on a washer. Accurate info is critical to correct diagnosis.

We deal with one service technician in a plant who started as a carpenter. He has had to work at it for a few years, but now he understands how the machines work and the names of the parts. He doesn’t understand everything about the machines, but he can understand instructions and follow them.

When you call and say “the thing fell off the side of the boiler!” I can’t help you (that was an actual call).

You may not understand the mechanics of how your dry cleaning machine works but you need to know the names of the main parts. You should be able to discuss the process that makes up a cleaning cycle. Yes, it is work learning all of that but this is your livelihood. When you spend $100,000 on a machine, you should expect to have to spend a few hours learning to operate it properly.

The same goes for laundry, pressing and stain removal. How do those machines work and what problems occur when they stop working properly?

Build a team

Regardless of whether or not you are going to do your own maintenance, you need to build a professional team. Just like you have a banker, accountant and lawyer, you also need an equipment technician, electrician, welder, plumber, IT guy and maybe even a general handyman.

Make a list and continually develop your relationships with each of them. What is the best way to get them on your team? Take their advice and pay them early.

If I call Wayne (my electrician) and tell him something is an emergency, he will have it fixed the same day. Why? Because he knows I trust his advice and he knows he will be paid within a couple of days. You think that is crazy? Try running with a machine down because you couldn’t get anyone to look at it right away.

Customer photo when we were trying to diagnose a problem with a vacuum pump. Photos help a lot!

Rather than being at the mercy of some stranger, take control and build yourself a team. You need to develop long-term relationships with these people. They hold your business in their hands. These are the people you hope will rescue you when you are down. Try to call them more often than just when it is an absolute emergency. Learn to trust one another.

Keep manuals

One of the first things you need to do is find or get manuals for all of your machines. They have information on preventive maintenance. The manufacturer knows that machine and is trying to help you succeed. Follow the recommendations. Can you make a check sheet and make sure things are done?

Those manuals will save you money if your technician ever needs a wiring diagram or to confirm an adjustment. They can also be used to train your staff in the correct operation of the machine.

Buy an air dryer

There are few things that will make as big a difference in your maintenance costs as an air dryer. Compressed air contains water. Water washes out the lubrication in valves and cylinders. Eventually you will have problems with cylinders moving slowly or not at all. Valves may not open or may stick open. Shirt units move erratically and your pressing quality will suffer.

An air dryer will pay for itself very quickly. Your nice new machine will run fine for a couple years and then it may start to have intermittent problems. If you wait till then, you may have already caused serious degradation to the condition of the machine.

Take control

How do you take control? Start with the machine manuals. List the scheduled maintenance that the manufacturer recommends. Doing those things will eliminate a significant portion of your breakdowns, and save you money in the long run.

Scale build-up on a pipe. There must have been a leak at one time. LOOK at your machines.

You should have a list of everything required for every machine. List it monthly and quarterly and then make sure that it gets done. If your staff sees you caring for their machines, they will also take better care of their machines.

Schedule a weekly walk through the plant to look, listen and touch your machines. Look for leaks and smell things. Machines almost always give you a warning before they break down. You just have to be listening.

Maintenance without dirty hands

So you don’t want to do maintenance – then why are you reading my column? You are reading it because you have machines and they are out of control. Only you can fix this problem.

You are the owner/manager/supervisor – maintenance is your responsibility. You are not there for your good looks! Take control back from the machines. You are in charge.

Kevin Marois founded Calgary-based Integrity Mechanical in 2003 to service plants in western Canada. He writes on issues related to equipment, its purchase, maintenance and use. You can reach Kevin at or via his website

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