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January 2006

Building a Great Shop

A well-thought-out maintenance shop can save a lot of time and money and keep maintenance personnel productive.

Written by Gary Pavlick, Product Manager, LIF-TRACK | 0 comment

How would you define “efficiency” in a vehicle maintenance shop? How about “the availability of parts, tools and equipment in a sufficient workspace that enables you to do the job in a minimum amount of time.”

Nah, that’s too much like a soundbite, and it doesn’t include the word “heat.” These are specialty vehicles, after all, with unusual parts that are difficult to access and take a lot of time to fix. You can’t just throw up a pre-engineered building with room for a workbench and vice, welding machine, torch, a big-ass toolbox (specialty vehicles, remember) and some drums full of oil and grease and make it efficient, can you?

Well, perhaps—if you do it right.

Working conditions in this business are challenging. Grooming vehicles get worked hard in harsh conditions. They have lots of snow and ice packed into their tracks and tiller when they enter the shop, often with mud and stones picked up along the way. Many of you are face-up under a groomer, laying on a creeper whose caster wheels won’t roll over the gouged concrete floor, in rising water with the snow and mud coming down in gobs, working in a cold draft while the heater up in the rafters is blowing full-blast. Even if you’ve got the right tools in each hand and all the parts you need wedged into your crotch , your situation is far from ideal.

Each of these issues requires a solution, and each is related to two key words: sufficient workspace. This is not just about square footage.

First, we must acknowledge a big-picture reality unique to ski areas—real estate. Inevitably, maintenance shop site selection, size and shape are secondary to guest needs, and that creates pressure to compromise. Therefore, the challenge is to identify and prioritize the key maintenance shop criteria that will guide the design of your “sufficient workspace.”

There is always a solution to the obstacles—so long as certain parameters are maintained. No matter what size your area, you can build an efficient shop. For example, Bob Hoyt and his staff at King Pine, N.H., were able to incorporate sufficient height and floor space for a snowcat lift and a mezzanine in their pre-engineered, single-bay building. And they added heated floors to boot. Kicking Horse, B.C., deferred a major shop addition by adding a tent. You can achieve the necessary height and width in a well-insulated, heated fabric structure, amazingly enough. The solutions are there; you just have to find them.

Start at the Top
Let’s begin on the outside. For most buildings, roofline is an aesthetic decision, and never a starting point for design. But given the nature of maintenance work, efficiency demands attention even to this detail. For a maintenance shop, the roofline impacts function—inside and out. You should be thinking about the roofline from the beginning, but don’t be surprised if you change your mind more than once as your plans take shape.

Recently, both Snowmass and Stowe built very large, double-bay facilities, and both chose to slope the roof to the sides (i.e., the ridgeline is perpendicular to the overhead doors) so that snow and meltwater do not drop in front of the doors. This is something to consider if you don’t have a large site footprint and a lot of area around the building for parking. Think windshield replacements. But depending on the number of bays and the interior configuration, the roofline decision can really drive the height, complicate the structure and seriously increase the cost. What started out as a pre-engineered building package may suddenly become engineered structural steel framing with very few common pieces.

Not every resort is in a heavy snow area, and conventionally sloped roofs (ridgeline parallel to the overhead doors) on multiple-bay shops are more common because they cost less, and that’s fine as long as you consider how to deal with snow and melting. Snowbasin and Tamarack each constructed a double roof, i.e., with an airspace layered between the ceiling and the roof, to alleviate the problems of snow buildup and slide.

To minimize the amount of mud and rocks the cats drag in, consider pouring a concrete apron in front of overhead door areas. In heavy snow areas, experience strongly suggests this apron be heated.

Moving inside, consider your bay options. There are two types of bays: single (drive-in/back-out) or double, (typically, the vehicles enter from either side and park blade to blade). Most managers prefer double bays, but singles can also suffice. Site constraints often dictate the decision.

$64,000 Question: How to Lift
Site constraints aside, the decision that drives the design of the entire building concerns heavy lifting. Your choice—overhead crane, jib crane, vehicle lift, or forklift—affects the building height, structure, and heating system, and forces the architect to consider where and how the overhead doors will track. A crane might not be in your immediate plans, but it might be a good idea in the future—so really think this through, and keep your options open.

Why make a big deal of this? Because it affects how efficiently your shop operates. Let’s say you opt for an overhead crane. Make sure the overhead doors run up between the wall and the craneway beam and up over the bridge. Oops—ducts or heat or whatever are often located up there. So, think about how all these items can co-exist. And what happened to all your drops, like electric, and exhaust, and oil and grease reels? They’re not dropping now, not with an overhead bridge crane running through. It’s easy to picture the reels coming off a column on a rack; it’s another to figure out how to run all the pipes to that column—and where are those overhead doors again?

Is an overhead crane necessary? No. But snowcats and plows and front end loaders have heavy components and implements you often need to lift up and off, and an overhead crane does this really well. If you’re a Stowe or a Snowmass, plan for a crane. If you can’t afford the equipment when you erect or expand your building, budget to buy one later—and design the structure for the loads and the vertical space that a three-ton crane will need. It’s cheaper to install the structural steel for the seats or craneway beams initially than to add them later. Sun Peaks took this route, for example.

Next decision: Which type of overhead crane will you install—underhung or top-running? Top-running requires fixing a crane rail to the top flange of the craneway beams. That means more material and labor to get them lined up straight and parallel.

Now the real nitty-gritty: How long should the bridge be, and which direction should the bridge travel? If you have double bays, are you going to span 70 feet with the bridge, or just half? Or, are you going to run the opposite direction and the depth of just one double bay? (Does your hair hurt yet?)

Here’s a thought. A double bay has space for two snowcats. If you run the crane down the bay, when you take something off one cat you can only put it in one spot. If you have three or more double bays, and you run the crane across from left to right and maybe only span half the building, you have two or more places to put something.

Smaller resorts with only a couple of bays can opt for a jib crane with a long swing located between two bays—you might want to share it with the welding and fab bay.

Another reason to raise the roof, whether you install a crane or not: vehicle lifts (full disclosure: this is how I make my living). Lifts provide access to the underside and really unlock the human potential for productivity. Think back to that guy on the creeper we talked about. Lifts enable mechanics to do better quality work in less time—just ask anyone who’s got one. But you don’t want the overhead crane hook to grab the winch of a cat on a lift as the crane’s traveling through the shop, so raise the roof some more to make sure you’ve got enough height under the hook.

As you think all this through, recall your earlier decisions on the roofline and how that will impact your structure. Yeah, now your hair hurts.

Is the Heat On?
Suspended radiant heat tubes are very effective, but can you place them above the crane which is under the overhead door track, without frying the crane trolley or a tractor cab on a lift? For these and other reasons, every resort should seriously consider in-floor heating tubes. They reduce overhead clutter, and eliminate water and drafts at floor level. Very, very cost effective, even for a smaller area like King Pine, N.H., especially if you add ceiling fans to drive the warmth back down. (Curiously, in-floor heat is common in the West, but not in the East—where it is arguably most needed.) If you use in-floor heat, plan ahead if you might install vehicle lifts or other fixed equipment that needs to penetrate the floor. Box out the heating tubes from entering the footprints of those areas.

Spatial Layout and Bay Size
Yes, size matters. PBs are three to four feet longer than BRs when the tillers are dropped; you should always plan around the longer machine. Allow enough room between the tiller comb and the door so you can walk between the two, and allow ample space between the blade and your toolbox or workbench.

Remember, there is often pressure to reduce the size of your footprint, so emphasize to your A/E consultant that your minimum depth requirements are for interior dimensions; A/Es tend to plan in terms of exterior wall dimensions. If you lose two feet of interior space, it can make a huge difference. You will store items that are three or four feet deep, such as barrels or tires, along the walls, so plan accordingly. Don’t let the walls encroach on your workspace. This is one of the biggest mistakes made in shop design.

Water, Water Everywhere
Since snow accumulates on the tiller, place drains right below it and pitch the floor steeply from the door to the drain. For a double bay shop in a heavy snow area, a trench drain down the middle of the shop makes a lot of sense, too, so that water drains away from the cat to the front and to the rear. Make sure the concrete contractor pitches the slope at least 1/8 inch per foot, without any flat spots or collection areas, to keep the water moving. The drainage system must be able to remove lots of water! Make the drains bigger than you think necessary, and slope the floor more steeply than for a typical shop.

Whether you run heat through the floor or not (but especially if you do), protect the concrete surface from ice points on the tracks with a prophylactic: floor plates. Floor plates, fixed to the floor under the path of the tracks, should be attached in such a way that they can be replaced after a few years of abuse. Epoxy-hardened cement products are an alternative, but the preparations and temperature conditions are critical and difficult to control. Two resorts that tried this in the past year had bad luck.

All the Rest
Good lighting, natural and artificial, is a necessity. Include several lines of window panels in your overhead doors, and research the type and quantity of light fixtures you’ll need. Check out the new cost-effective fluorescent lamps; they emit an incredible amount of light.

Since the building footprint is often minimal and more height is often better than less, many efficient shops incorporate mezzanines for parts storage, offices or employee areas. Mezzanines and second floors are very cost effective compared to enlarging the footprint.

Next, consider tool storage and other equipment. Some equipment is essential; some, such as reels, may be optional. Exhaust removal, bulk fluid and waste oil storage, fluid distribution (reels, racks or bulk tanks), welding and fabrication areas, other shop equipment that takes up a lot of space like floor jacks, water and wash areas—all need to be considered to determine how to best incorporate them (even if they are added in later). If other departments are going to share the building, consider their equipment and space requirements also.

The most complicated environmental issue is fueling. (We’ve left it to last because it’s the least sexy part of the process.) Many areas use above-ground storage tanks and piping, with a concrete containment around these and the fuel pumps. Since concrete containments will also contain snow and water, don’t forget a canopy.

Without question, there is a lot to think about when it comes to the maintenance shop. Drainage, roof and floor slope, and floor plates are easily overlooked, but they can make a huge difference in a shop’s utility. If done right, your technicians will be more efficient and productive. And they might even stay warm.