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When Deferred Maintenance Went Wrong: 3 Examples

February 10, 2021

We’ve all been there. A pesky maintenance task pops up and we figure “Eh, what’s the harm in waiting another day?” But before we know it, that once-small task has snowballed into a big, hairy, costly burden that gets the attention of your COO or CFO. (Yikes.) At what point did we go wrong?

Having some items on your maintenance backlog is perfectly healthy. However, most organizations are well past that healthy level. If you’re looking for a sign to get ahead of your backlog this year, this is it! Keep reading to find three real-life examples of deferred maintenance gone wrong and what we can do to bounce back.

1. The Collapse of the Arecibo Observatory Telescope

December, 2020; Puerto Rico

For 57 years, the Arecibo Observatory Telescope helped the world make great strides in radio astronomy. From helping NASA pick landing sites for the Apollo and Viking missions, to the discovery of mysterious radio wave flashes in deep space, the Arecibo Observatory telescope played an important role in outer space discoveries.

In August and November 2020, two cables supporting a 900-metric-ton platform of scientific instruments unexpectedly broke. The first to fail was an auxiliary cable installed in 1996; the second was a main cable from the original construction of the telescope in 1963.

The Collapse of the Arecibo Observatory Telescope

After the first cable snapped, the National Science Foundation assessed the damage and initially determined that the telescope couldn’t be safely repaired and must be torn down. But before the telescope could be dismantled, the entire instrument platform came crashing down on December 1st.

Major collapses don’t happen out of nowhere.  According to John Mathews, a professor at the Pennsylvania State University who often visited the site, “deferred maintenance has been a problem for decades, and it’s only gotten worse.”

While the ultimate cause of the collapse hasn’t been determined, deferred maintenance paired with a set of natural disasters over the last 10 years including hurricane Maria in 2017 certainly expedited this disaster. Had proper budget been in place to manage the most critical deferred maintenance and preventive maintenance tasks, the telescope may still be standing today and be available as a tourist attraction. As it is, we will never know.

Although the telescope was set to be decommissioned, deferred maintenance still needs to be managed. This is a key take away for building operators to constantly be monitoring maintenance backlog, even for older buildings or ones that are set to be decommissioned in the next few years.

Deferred Maintenance Planning Cheat Sheet

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2. The Oroville Dam Crisis

February, 2017; Northern California 

Since 1968, the Oroville Dam has been used for flood control, water storage, power generation and water quality improvement in northern California. It’s the tallest earthen dam in the United States, standing 770 feet tall (that’s about 55 stories!)

Despite its impressive stature, due to its age and maintenance practices there were known issues prior to the crisis. In fact, environmentalists requested $100 million to fix erosion issues in 2005 but it was rejected by the federal regulators. In February 2017, heavy rainfall from the California floods caused damage to the dam’s main spillway. The California Department of Water Resources stopped the spillway’s flow in order to assess the damage and determine next steps.

The Oroville Dam Crisis

What started as a $100 million dollar request, turned into a $500 million dollar disaster. That old saying “a penny saved is a penny earned’ certainly doesn’t apply when talking about deferred maintenance, as events like this always end up costing much more than proactive maintenance and repairs.

Not only was there a major financial impact with this disaster, but it created a major safety risk for over 180,000 people. Breakdowns as a result of deferred maintenance often have much more than just a financial impact, often leading to safety and health issues, insurance rate adjustments, and long-term damage to building valuations.

3. The Growing Maintenance Backlog at Denver International Airport

Today; Denver, Colorado

Opened in 1995, the Denver International Airport (DEN) has become the fifth-busiest airport in the United States. It generates $33.5 billion a year and serves over 69 million passengers, making it one of the busiest airline hubs in the entire world.

In recent years, however, out-of-order escalators, broken bathroom fixtures, and other backlogged maintenance projects have become a common occurrence in a once-gleaming airport. The airport has struggled to stay on top of maintenance on tens of thousands of pieces of equipment, vehicles, machinery and moving parts.

Growing Maintenance Backlog at Denver International Airport

A preventive maintenance program has been in the making for over eight years, yet the airport still struggles to devote attention and resources to basic upkeep, major renovations, and expansions. This resulted in an ever-growing backlog of routine inspections, check-ups, and preventive work on 7,000+ items (including building systems, parking lots, escalators and other large equipment).

While nothing has gone terribly wrong (yet), the Denver International Airport is a notable example of the struggle between focusing on new projects and dedicating funds towards deferred maintenance. Let’s face it, it’s fun and exciting to open up a brand new building or add a new service through an addition. But as building operators know all too well, the non-sexy maintenance work is often an afterthought.

While these are all extreme examples of deferred maintenance gone wrong, there are important lessons for building operators, owners, and financial executives to consider during the next budgeting cycle:

  • For older buildings or those set to be decommissioned, deferred maintenance doesn’t stop
  • Failures resulting from deferred maintenance often result in more than just a higher price tag
  • The need to balance new renovations and builds with ongoing maintenance and repair needs

Free Resources for Preventive Maintenance Planning

Deferred maintenance: You can run, but you can’t hide!  All jokes aside, it’s easy to become frustrated by not knowing where to start when it comes to tackling your backlog. The good news is that implementing a proactive process can be painless if you develop a solid strategy and use the right tools.

Download our latest Deferred Maintenance Planning Guide to get your team moving towards a more proactive strategy this year.

Deferred Maintenance Planning Guide Call to Action button

Mitch Comstock

Former Product Marketing Manager and Innovator for AkitaBox.

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