By Tony Jones
There are some undeniable truths when it comes to self-storage facility maintenance. Mechanical components such as rolling doors, access gates and HVAC systems will eventually need service or repair. Standard fixtures like paint, flooring and pavement need care or will look unkempt over time. Landscaping also requires regular attention. No matter the size or location of your facility, site upkeep is essential.
This is why self-storage managers are often responsible for daily, weekly, monthly and annual maintenance tasks. But sometimes chores are too time-consuming or difficult for an operation to tackle internally. It may make financial sense to hire an outside company, particularly if it saves the manager from missing calls and visits from customers.
Do you outsource maintenance at your facility? If not, why not? Following are some common misconceptions associated with hiring a maintenance company and the truth behind them, bolstered with insight from operators and vendors on costs, quality, seasonal issues and more.
Myth 1: Outsourcing Is Too Expensive
Facility managers can perform most maintenance tasks/repairs themselves to save money.
This is a decidedly mixed bag. Whether its cheaper to have a manager handle most maintenance depends largely on the skill of the manager and the extent of the task or repair. Most operators believe general duties can be performed cost-effectively in this manner, but outsourcing certain jobs is sometimes a necessity.
We dont outsource our regular facility maintenance because its cheaper to have us do it, says Keith Monaghan, who manages A-1 Westside Storage in Bend, Ore., with his wife. However, they do outsource fence and gate repair, drain-basin cleaning, significant snow removal, asphalt work, and the painting of RV-parking lines and curbs.
In general, if the task requires special tools or training, we have the professionals take care of it, Monaghan explains. The owner doesnt shy away from paying for services that we need if we cant do them in-house.
Landscaping is one of those duties that sounds manageable but sometimes proves more cost-effective to outsource. MZC&D, a senior member of the Self-Storage Talk (SST) online community, says he was surprised by its affordability. We recently had some landscaping done, and I thought for sure they would be way more [expensive] than what I could do it for. But surprisingly, they were able to do it for less than what I could rent the equipment for.
SST member and self-storage owner mseguin believes managers should stay focused on customers. When it comes to landscaping, depending on the property, we use company maintenance personnel and contract landscapers. In either case, we want our manager to be in the office answering calls, and not mowing the lawn and pruning trees.
This is where the issue of affordability gets tricky. Saving the cost of hiring a maintenance company is one thing, but is it really a good use of resources to put managers on the job at hand? For Pogoda Cos., which owns or manages 38 facilities in Michigan and Ohio, the answer has a lot to do with the size of an operation and the scalability of its infrastructure.
For storage facilities with less than 1,000 doors, it is more cost-effective for the facility manager to perform most maintenance tasks/repairs vs. an outside company, says John George, Pogodas vice president of operations. Utilizing a facility managers known abilities to perform in-house maintenance tasks that are at an acceptable safety level is cost-effective and helps ensure continued high standards for the facility.
Tasks such as changing light bulbs, trimming bushes, oiling gate chains and painting small projects can cut costs while boosting curb appeal, but even these duties are best handled when someone is available to cover the office. The primary responsibility of your facility manager is to answer that $1,000 phone call. In most cases, he only gets one opportunity to close the deal with the prospective tenant. Planning by the manager with scheduling is essential in getting these smaller tasks complete, George notes. That being said, if there are larger maintenance issues to work on that are more costly and dangerous, we always go with an outside company. This significantly reduces the risk involved, workers comp claims, and lets the manager focus on more important tasks.
The distinction of task priority is an important point that can sometimes get lost when scrutinizing every dollar spent. James Fawcett, president of Accent Building Restoration Inc. (ABR), a company that specializes in self-storage services including cosmetic construction, painting, maintenance and other repairs, says hiring professionals for maintenance and repair jobs generally saves operators money in the long run. Even when a manager or owner is able to do it himself, there is an opportunity cost involved, he explains. What might he be doing instead that will generate revenue for his business? Fixing a hasp on a roll door certainly doesnt generate revenue, but selling a lock or being available to rent a unit will.
Fawcett also believes storage operators shouldnt underestimate the value of trained expertise, particularly as technology plays an increasingly integrated role with facility operation. Today you have security systems, automated gate systems, elevators, cameras, climate-controlled buildings, magnetic locks on swing doors, controlled-entry times depending on the type of tenant, etc. Self-storage has evolved over time, and the need for a more highly skilled maintenance technician is more important than ever, he says. If you hire a professional, he can fix your problem quickly and right the first time, allowing the facility to run at maximum efficiency and keep those unrentable units online.
Myth 2: Youll Be Overcharged
Maintenance companies will find problems to fix (and charge for) that arent really there.
If you are hiring a true professional maintenance company, this shouldnt be an issue, Fawcett notes. Sometimes this comes down to perception. Our maintenance technicians are trained to look for additional problems when they work at a site. This is not to increase business but to take care of problems in one visit rather than numerous trips. Most maintenance companies charge some sort of trip charge, so the more you can have one company do in one trip, the less costly all of the repairs end up being.
While knowing the versatile skill sets of hired maintenance personnel can help operators make discerning judgments about the validity of recommended repairs, its also important for them to be knowledgeable and forthright about work that has already occurred at the site. A good and reliable maintenance company will only fix what needs to be fixed and nothing more, George says. Proper direction from the manager or regional manager regarding the exact problem will keep the focus on just that issue. Letting the maintenance company know what you have done in the past or what you are trying to fix will help it focus its efforts.
For projects that will require more than $500 to complete, George recommends getting at least three bids to verify theyre reasonable and help ensure companies are reputable. In a lot of cases, the lowest bid is not always the best bid because the work tends to be of a lower quality, he says. This method also allows you to negotiate with your primary maintenance company to get a better price.
Researching what is involved to complete a project prior to obtaining bids is also a smart way to protect against disingenuous bids or paying for unnecessary or low-quality work. Always ask questions and be sure you understand the scope of the work the contractor will do and that the specifics are included on the bid, suggests Gina Six Kudo, general manager of Cochrane Road Self Storage in Morgan Hill, Calif. For example, a painter needs to clean and prep surfaces, not just slap a coat of paint on. If the bid doesn't include cleaning and prepping, call the next painter on your list.
Myth 3: The Manager Can Maintain the Doors
Its cheaper to have a manager clean and maintain doors than to hire an outside company.
Among the most visible components of a storage facility are its unit doors, and their appearance and working condition can speak loudly to customers. Faded, dented or rusted doors and parts can give an immediate, negative impression. But with the potential for hundreds of doors at any single property, is it cost-effective for a manager to tackle the tasks of cleaning and maintenance?
This myth actually holds a lot of truth, depending on the severity of the project. Having your manager clean the doors is fine on a daily or move-out basis. In fact, cleaning the entire unit upon a customer moving out should include the inside of the door and the tracks, says Teresa Sedmak, president of Everbrite Inc., which manufactures Everbrite Protective Coating, ProtectaClear coating and a variety of building cleaners. However, for restoration of oxidized doors or metal buildings, it can be less expensive to have an outside company come in. The manager is typically busy with customers and may not have the time, equipment or training to do the job properly.
One of the common mistakes Sedmak sees that winds up costing operators money in the long run is the use of harsh cleaning methods. Some people use cleaners with silicone, like Pledge, which create nightmares in the future when painting or restoration is needed, she says. Nothing sticks to silicone, so adhesion becomes a problem when restoring or painting the metal.
Pressure or power washing can cause water to seep into seals and jeopardize tenant belongings, and the acid in vinegar can rust and corrode the metal parts of a door such as the hasp, lock and aluminum strip at the bottom, Sedmak says. The best thing to use to clean doors is to hand wash them with a mild soap and water and a soft brush or cloth, she notes. Rinse with plain water to rinse off the soap. Original Dawn dish soap is an excellent cleaner. It does not leave any film, and it rinses clean.
Myth 4: All Snow-Plow Companies Are the Same
Snow-plow companies are pretty much the same; look for one that is cheap and efficient.
Self-storage operators in every geographic region must contend with seasonal maintenance issues, whether from snow, rain or a relentless heat and UV rays. Snow plowing is among the most common and costly winter maintenance tasks for operators in many states. Many tasks can be handled effectively in-house with a reasonable investment in equipment such as shovels or a snow thrower, but clearing an abundance of snow is often counterproductive.
As a large regional player in the Midwest, Pogoda Cos. knows snow all too well. Not all plow companies are the same, says George, who highly recommends hiring an outside company with experience in plowing self-storage sites. The company needs to understand where to push the snow and that the doors can be easily pushed in by the snow. Improperly placed snow piles could require additional heavy equipment at a hefty cost, he explains. In addition, using an experienced snow-plow company will help keep your building safe from inexperienced driver damage and any damage to your customers belongings.
Another reason for not getting the cheapest deal in town is that the company will plow you to death. If a company promises to plow at $80 per time, it will more than likely try to plow your lot two to three times per occurrence or will charge you a ton of money for salting the property. In the end, you end up paying more money. Its best to have strict guidelines. These guidelines include when to plow, how many inches to plow, and how to determine the snowfall amount.
When it comes to keeping costs low, these perceived maintenance-company myths certainly have elements of truth, but they can quickly be dispelled if operators underestimate the technical difficulty of a project or overestimate the maintenance skill of a manager. The severity of the miscalculation can be particularly costly if in-house maintenance and repair projects interfere with the daily efficiency of facility operation or compound an existing issue and cause the need for outside expertise that would have been less expensive at the outset.