a An Introduction To Hotel Engineering
  By: Carl Corrigan, RPA FMA CEOE
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The following information is intended to provide a cursory overview of building engineering with the hope that it will give the reader an enlightened sense of perspective.

The role and mandate of any property engineering department is the
protection of the building’s/owner’s assets; the structure from the façade or building envelope, to the integrity of the floors, walls, ceilings and all of the furniture, fixtures, and equipment (FF&E) contained therein. This includes the electrical transformers and the distribution throughout, the domestic water distribution and sewage, the heating-ventilation-air conditioning system, (HVAC), the fire alarm system and fire safety components, the vertical transportation system (elevators), the property surroundings like parking and landscaping and pest control. Utility management such as electrical, gas, steam, water. Kitchen and laundry equipment. Lighting and sound systems and on and on.

The items in the preceding paragraph I like to refer to as the base building system or the physical plant as these components form the basis of all properties whether office or hotel or apartment block. A building is a building. The end use or purpose of the building is what differentiates how the engineering department is managed, and indeed, how the building is operated.

Aside from the base building, office buildings are quite easier to maintain. Generally, offices and shops within commercial buildings are subject to various lease arrangements, with the tenant often being responsible for all maintenance and repairs within their space and proportionate costs of the utilities and taxes . The property operators are usually only responsible for the base building and common areas. The same concept being applied to apartments and condominiums.

The important element here is what is contained within the lease or rental agreement. Office building hours are usually fixed, say, from 7:00am to 6:00pm; electronically controlled locks securing every outside door and alarm systems readied by time clocks. Security guards sweeping all areas at random and responding to any alarm calls. Weekends are generally in lock-down mode 24hrs a day. The after hours involvement of building staff are the building cleaners, normally contracted, however, engineering is rarely called for after hour situations. Tenants that would use their offices during off base building hours may contract for HVAC services and pay for the cost.

Hotels are much more extensive and demanding. The engineering department has the responsibility for everything in the building as well. Depending on the organizational structure of the hotel, some elements are assigned to other departments. The Security or Loss Prevention department may take on the task of fire systems but ultimately this is the responsibility of the engineering department as the building operators to monitor for regulatory compliance.

Hotels have often been given the analogy of a cruise ship or a hospital in that the operation is 24 – 7. Twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week. When the guests are sound asleep the systems of the building continue to operate. The heating and ventilation units are running, the domestic hot water is being heated, the laundry may be operating, the night cleaners making their rounds, desk clerks and night auditors all doing what they have to do. Behind the scenes, there is a flurry of activity, and everything has to work so that everyone can do their jobs and the guests are safe and comfortable.

Without minimizing the contribution of other departments, of which there may be as many as ten or more, the bottom line is if there is no engineering department there is no hotel. Take away those services like hot water or elevators, heating or cooling, electricity, kitchen equipment, laundry equipment etc, you simply would have no customers. When everything is working the next most significant department of course is housekeeping whose efforts keep the property clean and attractive, tending to the guests comfort in their rooms. Removing a restaurant from the system will not close the hotel, or closing the bar or lounge will not cause the hotel to cease operations. Again, all departments should contribute to a seamless operation where the guest comfort and safety and satisfaction are paramount.

The pages following will attempt to shed some light on the various segments of hotel engineering although some aspects are interrelated and not really separable. Hopefully, by narrowing the focus the reader will gain a rudimentary or cursory understanding of the role of the engineering department.


Staffing levels are going to be dictated by quite a number of variables. The variable that seems to pre-empt all others is the financial performance of the property, although manipulating the contribution or size of the engineering department will only defer more costs to further down the road. Factors other than financial can be building specific; the amount of rooms, meeting space, grounds, age of building, available talent pool, plant size (boiler room etc.) swimming pools and peripheral equipment.

The class of hotel also influences the caliber of maintenance. You can repair everything with sticky tape and glue, or you can do it right and replace the part. Scheduling plays a role depending on how busy it can be on any given shift. Hotels can be very busy in the evenings after dinner when guests return to their rooms and start using all equipment. More engineering staff may be required on the afternoon shift. Does the hotel require a midnight or graveyard shift?

The general rule/formula for the staffing level or department size is expounded by Frank D. Borsenik, a professor of engineering at an American University who gives a relatively accurate basis around which to set parameters. Reviewing my notes from the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University compliment his opinion. When all the operating equipment, systems, building surfaces, are taken into consideration it is determined by following manufacturer’s recommendations and current best methods, that in the areas of preventive maintenance and frequencies of maintenance required, the formula is 3.1 engineering full time equivalents per 100 available rooms.

That means that a hotel of 500 rooms would have 15.5 FTE’s to properly maintain a hotel building in a state of good repair. Some hotels have other “appendages” such as retail and commercial, residential, or convention or marinas, which will add to the maintenance requirements. Mistakes are made in dismissing these areas as “self maintained” because of triple-net leases, where the tenants handle their own maintenance. This is not to be confused with a building of unitary function as previously mentioned, such as, office buildings, apartment buildings, factory or retail malls.

Forgotten behind the scenes is that the plumbing, ventilation and virtually all systems are sized larger and are generally more extensive in providing services to these locations. The tenants themselves have requests of maintenance and their own work has to be approved and monitored. The common areas still have to be maintained. Adjustments to the recommended number of FTE’s are feasible if the work is contracted out. Unionized properties may or may not have issues with contracting out.

The formula of 3.1/100 available rooms is arbitrary as the physical property will dictate the staff required to maintain a building in a state of good repair. The cyclical “financial pressure” that has plagued most building operators and the slash and burn mentality that prevails will have a negative impact on the quantity and quality of maintenance.

The hotel is a business, and the prudent operator should operate it as such, however, should be cognizant, that saving a dollar on maintenance today will cost him two dollars tomorrow. During the course of my thirty-seven years in the business of hotels, commercial, and residential I’ve seen all too often where managers have cut costs irregardless of financial performance but based on their own political ambitions. The other greatest folly is rewarding by way of bonus or other accolades the engineering manager for budget performance.

I have seen where engineering managers have received hefty bonuses at the end of the year and behind the scenes have left devastation. Fan damper motors tied together with coat hangars, leaking pipes with little wooden wedges hammered into the holes, fire dampers wedged open because the fusible links had failed. Had these things been repaired and money spent the bonus would have been less. Temporarily increasing profits may lead to a manager’s promotion or transfer, and in a year or two they are gone leaving the successor holding the bag as the “deferred maintenance” comes back to haunt.

These temporary measures are sometimes necessary and a recent survey of several hotels has shown that the common level for engineering during a “crisis” period is 2.3/100 available rooms after cutbacks. This is crisis management. These levels of cut-backs should only be sustained for a number of weeks as guaranteed deterioration will make it difficult to catch up or recover.

Never, should it be expected that requests for projects or creating what never existed should be handled by in-house staff when a department is staffed at the lower level; a misconception is that it is business as usual and other departments wonder why it may take so long to honour their wish list.

Generally, without getting into specific trades, a smaller operation can do well with generalists. A person who is proficient in electrical, in plumbing, in mechanical, in carpentry, painting; suffice a person with the necessary mechanical aptitude and skill. Caution should be exercised in the level of repair that is undertaken by any one trade person so as not to exceed his or her expertise or to do work when a permit or license is required.

Local regulations and authorities having jurisdiction should be consulted to determine if there are any code violations. Depending on the staffing level you could hire a kitchen and or laundry mechanic, at minimum staffing levels – these could be contracted out. Generalists by nature can be quite proficient in a variety of trades and excel at either one or more and are usually less expensive.

To hire a licensed tradesperson is not feasible and hotels usually will not compete on a salary basis as it could cost as much as two or three times more what they would normally pay. The tradesperson would have little versatility outside their specific training and would only be suited to a larger hotel that had a sufficient amount of work to keep them fully occupied in that particular trade.

It would make no sense to hire an electrician for $75,000 a year unless that person would have sufficient volume of electrical work ($75,000 +) to make it cheaper to have one on staff. More often than not, if a licensed trade person is working for you it is only because they are between jobs and will leave when there is an opening elsewhere for their skills.

For the complexities of a building and its systems it normally takes a good year and sometimes more to learn where everything is and how everything works. From valve locations, breakers, systems layout to operating procedures. Seasonal layoffs should never be considered for a couple of reasons; one, a year or more has been spent in training the individual who may permanently leave.

This is not the same as a person trained as a server who is required to walk from the kitchen to a table. Secondly, the hotel’s off-peak season is the engineering departments busiest time as they are now able to access low or non-occupied areas. Managers of other departments having little to do often invent or create make-work projects for engineering which effectively competes for the time and dollars from the areas that have been deferred.

The organizational chart of a typical engineering department would normally consist of the following criteria:

Sample: 450 room hotel. 3.1/100

Director of Engineering

Administrative Assistant - Asst. Director of Engineering

Shift Engineers (4)

Engineers (Generalists) (7)

The positions of the Director of Engineering or Chief Engineer or Maintenance Manager or by whatever that position is called, is usually certified, as well as the assistant position. Some of the major hotels make it mandatory. The position should only report to the General Manager and is a executive committee member. There are properties where the reporting line of the Director of Engineering is to a Rooms Division manager, or other; which defies logic.

Engineering is a department with a function of it’s own and an engineering manager has to insist that the Engineering Department comes first! The building comes first. The guest comes first. Engineering has responsibility of all departments including those areas – boiler rooms, mechanical rooms, all behind the scenes, that a rooms division could never fathom. Rooms can represent a small piece of the pie when compared to food and beverage and the building mechanics. Engineering in some instances should only report to a corporate engineering position who’s neutrality would ensure that budget funds are funneled to the building and the assets.

The administrative assistant given today’s phenomenal amount of paperwork, records keeping, parts ordering, purchase orders, inventory, payroll and job assignment and dispatch is an essential full time position. Scheduling of work will enable response to issuing departments on a timetable. This position reports only to the Director of Engineering.

The assistant Director of Engineering, or assistant maintenance manager, again, by whatever term is used must be able to make instant decisions and operate the department effectively. This position has full authority over the departments operation and the shift engineers and engineers. The position reports to the Director of Engineering and in absence, to the General Manager.

The shift engineers are normally the “runners” that carry the radio or pager and their primary function is to respond to the day to day maintenance requests generated by the housekeeping department or PBX, or those that may be assigned to them and it is emphasized written maintenance requests depending on the nature of the request. A direct verbal request by a guest is given first priority and is paged. Fire or flood is paged.

All else is to be written on a maintenance request form that is then distributed or assigned by the administrative assistant. The nature of the frequent spontaneous requests by the shift engineers especially at night when they are by themselves, should not be assigned tasks such as painting or projects of a long duration.

The engineers, are those general workers whose skills are utilized by the assistant director of engineering for those jobs outside the scope of the shift engineers requiring longer time to complete or are more extensive. Staffing levels in the “crisis mode” should determine that it is maintain only and that projects or wishes or to create what never existed is costed out to appropriate outside trades. To do otherwise is detrimental to the property.


The most disruptive method of communication for maintenance requests is VERBAL.

Normally when an engineer is sighted on route to a job site it inevitably happens that someone “Could you fix this?” I suppose it’s normal for everyone to take the easiest route or the path of least resistance. When an engineering person is on route to a job they generally have brought the tools and materials for that particular job and are while on route forming a plan of attack in troubleshooting. I recall sending an individual on a job that would have taken thirty minutes including travel time, to come back an hour and a half later because he was interrupted with other jobs while on the way. Verbal requests should not only be avoided, they should be refused.

The best way of communicating maintenance requests has always been to fill out the appropriate maintenance request form and submit for action. Each area department head should inspect their areas daily, making out request forms as they go. Managers work in their area every day but seem oblivious to deficiencies. It is not nor should it be the responsibility of the engineering department to inspect or maintain areas that are managed by others.

Walkthroughs are another good method of keeping on top of the property’s condition. A walkthrough should be conducted monthly of all public or common areas. Public or common areas are those areas of the building that do not specifically come under the jurisdiction of any one department or department head; such as lobby, grounds, public washrooms.

If walkthroughs are to be conducted of a restaurant or lounge or meeting room etc., the department head responsible should be held accountable for any deficiency and be able to produce a copy of the maintenance request form for that particular item. If the question is one of cleanliness, then again show a request of the housekeeping department to action. Too often, engineering will get a request for a burnt light or paint touchup just minutes before the guest arrives.

I read somewhere once “that lack of planning on your part shouldn’t make it a crisis on my part”. The message for other departments is to be a little pro-active. In just about every hotel that I have had the pleasure to work in, and in discussions with colleagues at other properties, the most offending department for unreported deficiencies and damage is banquets.

They usually are the ones to call ten minutes before a meeting starts to report a critical light burnt out or a piece of equipment not working. Meeting rooms will have holes poked into the ceiling or walls, doors knocked off their hinges. I have had scrapes in walls repaired only to see them damaged again within minutes. All hotels seem to have the same common challenge with the banquet department.

In their defense I have observed with banquets that it may be a staffing issue where part timers are only called in for the last minute for functions and they really don’t care. Regular staff are too few to handle equipment properly as I see many a banquet person moving an eight-foot table by themselves and of course smacking into doors and walls. I never see supervisors “supervising” or inspecting vacant meeting rooms.

Lists of actions due to inspections are also good, however it then makes it incumbent on the engineering department to then write up maintenance request forms for assignment.

The maintenance request form is one of the most essential tools for which the engineering department operates. They are used to track trends, monitor inventory and labour and to ensure that things are not forgotten. Completed maintenance request forms should be sorted by type such as plumbing, electrical etc to indicate trends and frequencies. They can then be actioned in an attempt to eliminate repeating problems.

A good example of studying trends towards a solution is a hotel where I had started to work and it was mentioned to me that all guest room fan coil units leak condensation in the summer when the air conditioning is on. Too late to investigate and repair all four hundred and fifty units, we set up a room layout template and proceeded to chart each report of a leaking air conditioning unit during the summer season.

We would normally have liked to pre-empt any guest complaint but as this situation was happening for the previous twenty-five years that one more season wouldn’t hurt. The survey indicated that 25% of the fan coil units had leaked and resulted in many repeat complaints exaggerating the extent of the problem. Unfortunately more that one hundred units were leaking but it went back to a construction deficiency where all the drain lines of these units were sloped uphill.

The fault was not only with the plumbers however; the drywall installers pushed up on the metal studs pushing up on the unit drain lines. The plumbing error is where they measured from the ceiling concrete slab to slant the drain line but the slab they measured from was poured on a slope as well. Engineering had one person of each shift who did nothing but drain these condensation pans daily to help prevent their leaking. They did this for twenty-five years! Now that the drains have been corrected and the problem resolved the engineers can go on to other things. Tracking request history is important.


Budgets by and large are an interesting vehicle for fiscal manipulation. The engineering budget is split into two categories, heat light and power, and repair and maintenance. Depending on the location of the hotel the heat light and power budget might consume 4% or more of sales revenue with repairs and maintenance at about 5 or 6%. The combined average being about 10% of sales revenue. Note that a renowned consulting group determined, albeit 1991, that of full service hotels over 200 rooms and an average rate of $75.00 or more, it would cost about 10.3% of revenue.

It should be understood that HLP consumptions and costs are variable due to weather, room occupancy, restaurant and banquet covers, market price volatility. Predictability can only be assumed, however, baselines for utility consumption can be established to provide a relatively accurate consumption pattern for billing units. Regression analysis is one such method.

Keeping records of all utilities, heating degree-days, cooling degree-days, guests in house, covers, will provide background information to weigh against billing unit consumption. Meter information should be gathered on a daily basis to quickly diagnose any anomaly in consumption such as major leaks or equipment malfunction. The general ledger, chart of accounts will indicate each utility, i.e.; electricity, natural gas, steam, water and sewage etc.

Caution should be exercised when gathering utility history from P&L statements as these statements have sometimes gone through numerical gymnastics. I once had a utility budget pared down by a controller telling me to just say, “tell them the weather changed.”

The repair and maintenance portion, R&M covers the balance of the engineering expenses such as labour, building, mechanical equipment repairs, kitchen repairs, uniforms and on and on, covering almost all repair contingencies.

What must be understood with any budget is that it is a guide only. Engineering budgets are best replicating historic data for that particular property. Zero-based budgeting is not possible, or at the least will not be accurate at year-end. When budgets are made it is only a foggy view of the next fiscal year.

An unexpected pump failure could cost $10,000.00 to name only one incident or the cost of natural gas go up 150% in one month. There are some hotels attempting at monthly forecasts that as a tool may arrive at some idea on how achievable the budget might be next month. Engineering forecasts are best kept to the weather.

Inevitably once the engineering manager submits the annual budget it is often “massaged” to placate corporate offices.
The end result of any budget is a reflection of management’s commitment to the level of maintenance they would like to see in their property.

Scheduled Maintenance

A plan to do maintenance work in the future is usually of two types and that is scheduled maintenance and preventive maintenance. Scheduled maintenance is that type of work that requires longer durations to complete, planning of manpower and tools and materials required, co-ordination with other trades and possibly outside contractors.

The timely replacement or maintenance on a major piece of equipment could involve shut downs of other departments or blocks of guest rooms. Projects such as building of walls or complete painting of areas could also come under scheduled maintenance. Indeed, any project requires scheduling and planning.

Preventive Maintenance, as it’s name implies is the intent to perform timed inspections, minor adjustments, lubrication based on manufacture’s recommendations with the ultimate goal of preventing unscheduled breakdowns and prolonging the life and efficiency of the equipment. During the course of the inspection if it is determined that major work may be required, then work orders are generated to schedule the maintenance.

Room Maintenance, both guest and meeting rooms again follows the above with inspections and generating work orders to schedule and correct deficiencies. The frequency of inspections should be determined to happen sometime before the area slow periods.

If guest rooms occupancy is peak in summer then schedule the inspection just prior to the downturn as it will give time to order necessary materials and schedule the labor to accomplish the tasks. The importance of inspections cannot be over emphasized because I have yet to see room attendants or banquet staff adequately report deficiencies.

Breakdown maintenance can be both negative and positive. Negative if it has an impact on guest comfort, safety, or is detrimental to the smooth flow of production that keeps other departments operational.

Breakdowns can be very expensive if it happens after hours and outside contractors are required, or if say the main chiller shuts down and all your guests walk out. Positive as you would not want to spend $100 a year on preventive maintenance on a blender worth $50. Also, in maintenance repairs don’t waste $20 worth of time to repair something only worth $10.00.

Contract maintenance is mandated in some instances such as for elevator service, kitchen hood exhaust cleaning and fire systems. The reasoning behind this is to ensure that the work is performed by qualified technicians, and may also require licenses and special knowledge. Local regulations and insurance companies usually require these contracts. It also serves the purpose of making sure the work gets done irregardless of budget restraints. Maintenance contracts or contracting out is almost always necessary to complement an engineering department that is undersized.


The hiring of engineering management personnel is unfortunately processed by persons without a technical and mechanical background. The difficulty with some properties is that they may not have the corporate resources to use a engineering person on staff, either at head office or a similar hotel in a chain. The benefit of experience and certification in property and hotel operation is apparent.

Often, again for the sake of the bottom line engineering management are hired based on little experience and know-how to save on dollars. There are some instances where power engineering 4th class or higher is required to satisfy boiler and pressure vessel regulations, however these only form the minimum entry level requirements of power plants in lumber mills and power process industries and may be necessary if the building has equipment with heating surfaces and refrigeration exceeding normal capacity.

Power Engineering does not confer on anyone the ability to operate buildings, especially hotels but could be an indicator of mechanical aptitude. There are other preferred courses in property management and building operations. Like anything else, you get what you pay for!

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