Maintenance Standards

By Jim Carr

The development of comprehensive maintenance standards is as important to you and your agency as a detailed business plan is to any commercial, for-profit enterprise. Unfortunately, like the much maligned business plan, creating these standards often falls under the “things to do before I die” list instead of the “things I must do today in order to succeed” list.


Why? Creating these standards is viewed as hard work--a potential time-sink full of information gathering, information organizing, meetings, meetings, meetings and, eventually, decisions and approvals.

But, like eating fruits and vegetables, exercising a minimum of 30 minutes a day and flossing, developing a set of maintenance standards is crucial to the long-term health of your agency. Of course, as with daily exercise, you already know this.

But, did you also know that, once you’ve done the hard work of creating a set of standards and then managing them, your life will be much easier?

When you’re done, you will have eliminated all those daily (hourly?) maintenance priority questions. You will have streamlined the maintenance budgeting process because you now know, day-in and day-out, what you’re willing to spend on maintenance at each park and each facility. And, you’ll be able to give your superiors something tangible to hang their hats on--data to use in response to challenges from sports associations, parent groups, city council or whoever else wants to know why there’s a worn patch of dirt in front of the soccer goal. (The answer very well may be because it meets the standards for normal, in-season turf wear and tear.)

So, how do we go about getting this work done?

Spread the Wealth (Um, I Mean Work)
Step number one, as always, is to round up appropriate staff. In this case, you’ll want to take care to include all staff in the process. The goal is to ensure that you take a close look at each phase of maintenance activities, determine what, in reality, is the current level of maintenance for that area, and then decide if the current level of maintenance is adequate or if it needs to be improved.

In order to avoid that “monster document” syndrome--the one where a lot of trees are killed, but nobody actually uses it, start by having your staff define the minimum expected condition of the existing facilities. What does it take to keep them clean, safe and accessible?


A good example may be your natural turf soccer fields. Your staff, both those who maintain the fields and those who deal with the patrons who use the fields, should take part in the discussion. You should document how you’re currently maintaining the fields (how often they’rei mowed, fertilized, watered, what height you keep the grass during the growing season vs. mid-summer, how often trash cans are dumped, how often toilet paper in the restrooms is changed and so on), and then determine if what you’re currently doing is providing a clean, safe and accessible facility. If the answer is no, you need to change your current approach. If it is yes, you can dial in your current approach as the de facto maintenance standard.

As part of the process, you may very well decide that during the season, when the fields are being used multiple times a day, worn spots in the turf are acceptable--as long as they don’t occur in certain problem areas or beyond a certain size. You may also decide on how you’ll repair the fields each year and to what standards you’ll maintain the fields prior to the start of the next season.

At the end of the discussion, document your decisions (write them down), and include them in the master document used by the operations or maintenance supervisor.

The benefits of including everyone are many:

1. You don’t kid yourself about what’s being done by whom and when.

2. Your staff develops a sense of ownership over the standards.

3. You create a higher level of acceptance by your front line staff (the ones actually doing the work).

4. You discover and eliminate inefficiencies.

5. And, hopefully, you provide a better product for less money.

Also, as you work through the process, make sure to avoid discriminating between parks or facilities because of location, community influence or lack of neighborhood involvement.

The Power of Standards Surveys
One great way to monitor the success of your new standards is to conduct surveys on a regular schedule. A typical survey may be used by park staff and management to gauge the level of buy-in with its new standards, but can also be an excellent way to involve park advocacy groups, neighborhood associations, sports user groups or even elected officials.

This process allows a park agency to be even more transparent, both to its own staff and to the community for which it’s providing a service.

If you go this route, make sure to develop an easy-to-digest Survey Summary, which provides information on the percentage of standards met each quarter. This information, not all the survey detail, can be invaluable for budget preparation, justification and exploring the total cost of ownership of maintenance activities. This information will also assist you in prioritizing your maintenance efforts, identifying future capital improvement projects and flagging potential deficiencies in staff allocation and supervision.

It also helps when you get the call that your maintenance budget needs to be slashed. With this data, you can go to your municipalities’ decision-makers and show them what, exactly, it means if they cut your budget.

It’s much easier for them to make a decision (or not cut your budget) when you can demonstrate that the cuts will mean you only mow the town square park once a week, which means the grass will be over three inches high most of the time, and that you will not be able to afford the annual re-seeding of the youth sports fields, which could cause both parent complaints and an increase in sports-related injuries in the coming season.

Jim Carr is the founder of Jim Carr & Associates. He has worked in municipal government for 25 years, many of them as Maintenance Superintendent for Portland (Oregon) Parks and Recreation, where he directed Grounds Maintenance efforts for more than 3,000 acres of parklands encompassing over 365 multi-use athletic fields. You can reach Jim via e-mail at