The Dark Side of Maintenance

A picture of the moon, with the words, The Dark Side of Maintenance

The Earth and Moon are tidally locked; a gravitational phenomenon where the duration of the Moon’s rotation on its own axis is equal to the time it takes to complete one orbit around Earth. This synchronization causes one side of the Moon, the near side, to perpetually face us. The opposite hemisphere—the far side—is often mistakenly referred to as the “dark side of the moon” despite receiving an equal amount of sunlight. In this context, “dark” refers to the unknown or unexplored, rather than a literal absence of light.

Within the realm of shipboard facilities management, ensuring equipment is well-maintained is of paramount importance in satisfying both operational and public health requirements, yet it too harbors its own “dark side” known as reactive maintenance. Reactive maintenance is a strategy that involves fixing equipment only after it has malfunctioned or broken down, with the objective of restoring it to its standard operating condition. This approach may initially seem appealing for obvious reasons; however, any perceived benefits persists only until the equipment malfunctions.

While it is a prevalent maintenance strategy in the maritime industry for a variety of assets outside a vessel’s machinery spaces, it’s not necessarily the most cost-effective or efficient methodology, nor does it support with upholding the highest standards of public health. Critical equipment, such as reverse osmosis units and evaporators used for the production of potable water, halogen analyzers, filtration systems in recreational water facilities, laundry washing machines and dryers, and fridges and freezers in the galley, are all vital in ensuring the well-being and safety of everyone on board.

Therefore, it is essential that maritime companies consider the alternatives, rather than settling for reactive maintenance as the sole viable solution.

The Problems with Reactive Maintenance

In our earlier study of the CDC’s Vessel Sanitation Program (VSP) inspections, we highlighted that the most common violation identified on cruise ships during these inspections pertained to the maintenance of food facilities on board. Further analysis in our follow-up article—VSP Inspections: A Problem Understood Is a Problem Half-Solved—revealed that the majority of remedial actions taken by cruise lines post-inspection mainly consist of repairing the specified asset and instructing food service crew to promptly report any maintenance issues to the vessel’s technical team.

Responding to facility maintenance concerns only as they occur results in a continuous cycle of repeated public health inspection findings. It is a reactive strategy that is, ultimately, a less cost-effective and efficient choice for maritime organizations striving to ensure optimal asset performance and high standards of health and safety on board. Moreover, when companies utilize a reactive methodology for maintenance, they frequently address only the immediate problems with equipment, rather than identifying and resolving the underlying causes for the malfunction.

Adopting a reactive maintenance strategy can be myopic for any business, leading to a multitude of significant issues arising from its application, including:

  • Unpredictable Budgets: When facility equipment breaks down on a ship, it often requires an immediate resolution: most vessels don’t have redundant assets. Emergency repairs frequently incur additional costs, either from the expedited delivery of spare parts or having to hire external contractors to come aboard. Consequently, this makes it challenging for shoreside technical superintendents to set precise maintenance budgets for their fleets or provide accurate CapEx forecasts.
  • Extended Downtime: One of the primary drawbacks of reactive maintenance is prolonged equipment downtime. This is especially detrimental for passenger vessels, as it may disrupt hotel services, leading to guest dissatisfaction. Both of these factors can negatively influence a company’s financial performance.
  • Increased Health Risks: A commonly overlooked aspect of reactive maintenance is the unintentional escalation in the likelihood of adverse health-related incidents, including the spread of infectious diseases. For example, the failure of critical appliances, such as a blast chiller or a dishwashing machine, can cause significant disruption to the safe handling of food. When ships lack sufficient equipment to quickly lower the temperature of potentially hazardous food items, the risk of bacterial growth exponentially increases. Similarly, malfunctioning dishwashing machines can result in the improper sanitization of food equipment and utensils, elevating the risk of contamination and subsequent illness. Moreover, when these issues arise amidst a disease outbreak, they can exacerbate the situation significantly.
  • Reduced Asset Life Expectancy: Maintaining critical equipment at the bare minimum level leads to a gradual decline in its performance and efficiency. This is due to the accumulation of unresolved issues and postponed maintenance tasks. Such a strategy increases the probability of frequent breakdowns and necessitates equipment to be replaced sooner than would be necessary with consistent preventative maintenance. Over time, equipment subject to reactive maintenance alone will deteriorate quicker because of subsequent failures. Consequently, companies fail to fully leverage the financial investment made in their initial purchase.
  • Higher Energy Costs: Improper maintenance of equipment can lead to increased energy consumption as the asset must exert extra effort to perform its regular functions. This results in a higher power usage, which can further damage equipment, and cause unnecessary and expensive inefficiencies.

How Alternative Maintenance Solutions Can Help Elevate Public Health Standards

Opting for a reactive maintenance strategy offers certain immediate advantages, which explains its widespread adoption throughout the maritime industry. While foregoing any preventative maintenance measures undoubtedly saves costs in the short term, this approach can result in substantial financial consequences for companies in the long run. Concentrating efforts only on addressing issues and failures as they arise usually implies operating a vessel with a leaner facility maintenance team. Furthermore, while reactive maintenance involves no initial planning, scheduling, or downtime of equipment, it must be weighed against the unavailability of assets due to unexpected malfunctions in the future.

These examples illustrate the paradox of a shipboard facility maintenance program that relies solely on reactive measures. While they may have been implemented originally as a cost-saving initiative, over time they typically become more expensive than anticipated. Embracing a proactive approach to facility maintenance can transform the field of maritime asset management, leading to improved operational effectiveness, a significant reduction in costs, and improved hygiene standards on board.

In a future article, we will evaluate the merits of two prospective alternatives to reactive maintenance: namely, preventive maintenance and predictive maintenance. It’s important to recognize, however, that there is no “one size fits all” approach to facility management. Nonetheless, maintaining a healthy balance between preventive and reactive maintenance strategies is crucial for achieving both cost-efficiency and operational effectiveness.

Ultimately, any assessment of the benefits and disadvantages of each maintenance strategy must consider the implications for, and risks to, a vessel’s public health standards. The designation of critical equipment on ships is defined as any piece of equipment, control system, or safety device whose failure could precipitate a hazardous situation or directly cause an accident, resulting in harm to individuals or the environment. The International Safety Management (ISM) Code requires companies to identify such equipment and ensure measures are in place to promote their reliability, including regular testing and maintenance.

The dark side of the moon mirrors the often overlooked aspect of public health within the maritime industry. Historically overshadowed by safety or environmental concerns, the moment has come to recognize that equipment essential to ensuring public health standards on board is equally critical, necessitating the implementation of routine maintenance regimes as standard. For a maritime company to truly excel in public health, a comprehensive approach is essential, and this must include the prioritization of facility maintenance on board the vessels in its fleet.