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How to Figure Out When Your Air Conditioner Will Break

Data informed Maintenance team

By Joe Bousquin

Operators use analytics to boost portfolio performance.

Joanna Zabriskie found a way to beat the heat this summer. 

By leveraging operations data from the 305 properties and 90,000 apartment units she manages as president of Des Moines, Iowa-based BH Management, Zabriskie was able to predict how many air conditioners were likely to break this summer. She then used that data make sure what she needed was available, so her residents didn’t melt while her staff waited for parts.

“What’s exciting is now that we have the data, we can take a look back and see what work orders popped up last year, and then get ahead of that for next year,” says Zabriskie, a seasoned property management pro whose excitement is palpable at the mention of leveraging data to improve NOI. “Then, we let our vendors and partners know so they can have that supply on hand for us.”

That type of data capture and ability to plan ahead is the culmination of rolling out SightPlan, a maintenance and operations app at all of her properties. She also uses two years’ worth of internal data aggregation from her portfolio, so she can see those types of granular details about all her communities in one place. 

“I wish you could see my computer screen right now,” Zabriskie gushes. “We’ve spent the past two years creating our own database from all the different systems we use—from property management to accounting to shopping scores and training. We’ve used it to create dashboards that show the metrics we think are important to drive better performance in our portfolio. We call it BH Fusion.”

BH’s rollout of the app, along with the creation of BH Fusion, is an example of how operators are using the increasing amount of data available to them at rental properties today to run leaner and more efficiently, while proactively staying ahead of the curve in the never-ending job of property management. 

Now, not only can Zabriskie ensure that her replacement condensers will be available ahead of time, she says she’s cracked the nut of getting her maintenance personnel to adopt technology in their jobs -- a notoriously difficult challenge within the apartment industry -- by using the app’s social aspect that lets residents rate their service. 

“What’s really been interesting to see was the whole-hearted adoption of this platform by our maintenance teams,” Zabriskie says. “I’ll go out to a site and they’ll show me their phone and say, look at the stars I got from this resident for doing their work order. They love it.”

Fixing Things Before They Break

At Atlanta-based Cortland, which operates 52,000 units, CIO Scott Moore will soon not only be able to predict how many of his HVAC units are likely to fail, he’ll have the data to pinpoint which ones he should replace before they do.

Through an initiative that’s currently installing operating sensors on the mechanical equipment at Cortland’s properties, his goal is to take preventative maintenance to a new level by isolating potential issues before they become problems. 

“The goal and the vision is to know that an AC unit has been running for 12 hours, but it hasn’t changed the temperature in the unit,” Moore says. “That would indicate that it’s going to fail in the middle of summer, and we can replace it proactively. That’s obviously going to be a much better experience for our residents.”

Knowing when things are likely to break—and heading them off before they do—will also help Cortland manage its own cash flow and expenses, a key component of NOI.

“Obviously, the more information you have in the data, the more intelligent capital planning decisions you can make,” says Moore. “That’s the goal, to increase the longevity of our existing capital and what financial underwriting we can do.”

Data-Informed Design

Beyond knowing which air conditioners will fail—or planning to buy more condensers for the ones that will—developers are also using data analytics in their portfolios to help them make better design decisions at properties. 

At Washington, D.C.-based Fore Property, managing partner Jim Sullivan has been pulling data on design elements from the 25,000 units he’s developed to drill down into the specific amenities and layouts of his future apartments.

“We’re trying to be analytical on the development side for what we should be incorporating in our projects,” Sullivan says. “We’re going through our existing portfolios and finding out things such as how many couples are actually sharing a one-bedroom apartment. If that number is around 10 percent, we’ll then add double vanity sinks to 10 percent of our units.”

Taking that quantitative approach allows Sullivan to dial in much more granularly on the unit mix at his communities, rather than using guesswork. “It’s better than just putting in dual vanities for 50 percent of your units,” Sullivan says. “If you do that, you just create added costs with no benefit.”

Choosing Data Wisely

With so much data available to rental housing operators at their properties today, one big challenge apartment pros face is choosing which stream of data to pull from.

“One piece of equipment can have multiple data streams,” says Thano Lambrinos, Vice President, Smart Building Technology at Vancouver, Canada-based QuadReal Property Group, operator of 12,000 units. It is building its own analytic database to gain efficiency in its portfolio. “We start by talking to our technical services people to ask them which data they need to make the best decisions in their job.”

Back at BH Management, Zabriskie has worked with her internal teams to create detailed metrics that drill down to the key performance data they need to do their jobs—from property managers to maintenance techs to leasing consultants—to make sure they’re on track and hitting the numbers that matter most.

“We have standard benchmarks at each property, and our bonuses are based on how well they meet those benchmarks,” Zabriskie explains. “Our dashboards let them know where they are against their bonus, green, yellow or red. Then, it will tell you how many leases you need, what your occupancy rate should be, or how many days outstanding your work orders need to hit to get to that number. Each benchmark has a dashboard that we can look at portfolio-wide, or for each individual property to see how they’re doing.”

Now that’s managing to the numbers.