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Meet the Experts: Spanning the Life of Equipment

Three experts discuss how long your equipment should last, how to maintain it and when to realize it's time for a change.

There is nothing more important than the first impression you make upon every individual walking through your door. And, while the way your staff greets those people will weigh heavily on that first impression, what your members and prospective members see when they enter your facility will have one of the greatest impacts. Visit almost any fitness center, and the most notable visual in the facility is the equipment. Therefore, your equipment not only must be in working order, but it needs to look great. And that can only happen if you maintain it at its highest quality, know what signs to look for that tell you the equipment is getting too old and recycle when it's time. Three experts discuss how.

Meet the experts

Mark Clayton, president, Fitness Equipment Source, Sandy, Utah

Chris Creighton, president, Healthline, Houston, Texas

Roy Greenberg, vice president, Global Fitness Inc., Gardena, Calif.

Average life expectancy

Despite the price tag of equipment, it doesn't last all that long. Remanufacturers agree that the average life span for cardio equipment is approximately three to five years, while the average life span of strength equipment varies. Creighton says that, for new cardio equipment, the average life span in a commercial facility and other types of heavy traffic installations, is three to five years. In fact, according to Clayton, there was a study conducted that revealed that "the average life span of cardio is about five years before replacement parts need to be put into units, and about 80 percent of the replacement parts that are being replaced at five years are [due to] heat-related damage." For remanufactured equipment, Clayton says that his company has found that the life expectancy is about four years.

While five years seems to be the average, Greenberg says that the cycle is shortening to as little as three years in many fitness centers. "The rate of technology has sped up substantially, and ... club owners are trying to keep up with the Joneses," says Greenberg. "We are seeing a huge trend toward cardio with integrated entertainment."

Strength equipment has the ability to withstand time much better, depending on the type of equipment. "Free weight equipment, like benches, racks [and] plateloaded equipment, has a life span of about three to five years," says Creighton. "This equipment takes the greatest amount of beating," due to bar weight plates and dumbbells banging and dropping, as well as weights slamming against frames and upholstery. However, he says, circuit training and selectorized units take less of a beating because their plates are in the form of weight stacks, and they will last as long as seven years.

Both Clayton and Greenberg, though, say that even though seven years is the average, many facilities will keep their strength equipment a lot longer. "When it comes to strength, there's really no telling," Clayton says. "I see circuits that are 10 years old that have never had anything done to them other than maybe cables replaced here and there. There's nothing that really goes wrong with strength; the welds don't break, [but] upholstery needs to be replaced ... and belts, as [well]. I see 20-year-old circuits that come through [our business] that are fully operational."

The Short-Term Lease

With the fast pace at which equipment manufacturers are introducing new products, they have put into place some savvy marketing programs. The latest one is known as the short-term lease. According to Chris Creighton, president of Healthline, Houston, Texas, the short-term lease is designed for most large facilities with more than one location. "These leases are set up with built-in maintenance contracts and a guaranteed buy-back on the old equipment at a set price ... every three years, allowing the customer the opportunity to purchase the new technology as quickly as the manufacturer can get it to the market," Creighton says. "This is great for the customer [facility], as well as the manufacturer." The fitness center gets the tax write-off and builds its credit up, the equipment is guaranteed to be maintained and there is a guaranteed buy-back price in contract form from the manufacturer to put the new equipment in. Says Creighton, "Why would you want to keep old technology in your club?"

Prevention equals longer life

When it comes to maintenance, cardio equipment takes priority. A good preventive maintenance plan will double the life expectancy of any cardio piece, says Clayton, who likens cardio equipment to automobiles: "Anything that moves [needs] maintenance." Clayton makes some specific suggestions for maintaining equipment, including making sure that treadmills are on a dedicated, isolated circuit, which will stop the machines from robbing amperage from the internal components, thus shortening the life expectancy of the lower motor control boards. For all equipment, he suggests wiping it down daily, vacuuming the motor compartments monthly, and making sure to lubricate with a silicone- or Teflon-based product. However, make sure not to over lubricate, which allows more particulates in the air to attach to it and act like sandpaper. "I see that every day," says Clayton. "You take the motor housing out and it looks like a blanket in there - a fine half-inch layer over everything."

By maintaining cardio equipment regularly, facility operators can save money. "They say that prevention is better than cure, and this applies to our industry," Greenberg says. "A preventive maintenance program can ... add years to the products, while reducing out-of-pocket expenditures once warranties expire. Poor or inadequate routine maintenance and wearable parts replacement can lead to premature failure of core components, and can turn a great machine into a bottomless pit of expenses."

Clayton adds that the same maintenance tips apply to strength equipment. "Lightly lubricate the guide rods with Teflon or silicone - no petroleum," he says. And, "don't use chemicals on any products - soapy water only. Even your naughahide product manufacturers recommend soapy water." And last, let your members help in the maintenance of equipment. "I put disposable wipes on every machine," says Clayton.

Knowing when to retire

There are two issues related to retiring equipment. First, equipment needs to be replaced when it becomes too costly to maintain. Second, it needs to be replaced when it's passé to your members.

"When equipment starts to become too costly to maintain, it is time to ... trade up to newer equipment," says Greenberg. Look for specific things that are going wrong with cardio equipment. "The first thing you'll start to notice is [that] circuit breakers are tripping, either on the breaker box or on the machine," says Clayton. And, "when you start hearing clunking sounds on ellipticals, that means [the] bearings are starting to fail." Clayton adds that if you start to feel vibration in a product, that means you have an issue that needs to be addressed right away. "The sooner you address the problem, the less it's going to cost," he says. "But, when you start seeing numerous failures in equipment in a short time, that's when you want to say, 'time's up'."

Eventually, members will ask about newer technologies. "One of the things I see, [which] I think a lot of club owners make a vital mistake [about], is not getting rid of their equipment every five years. Cardio equipment changes fast, and, after more than five years, it becomes passé," says Clayton. "Government [facilities] put a three-year limit on their equipment. They do what they call life-expectancy studies that say the value of this piece of equipment will last 'X' amount of time, and, before we have to put money into it, we'd rather get new equipment. Three years is a little extreme, but I would say five years [will keep it] fresh."

Over the years, equipment manufacturers have changed the way they do business, which also affects whether members will view your equipment as outdated. "What the manufacturers have done to make sure you change your equipment out on a regular basis is similar to the auto industry," says Creighton. "Our industry has found [that] changing the look of the equipment on a fairly regular basis will outdate your equipment faster than it will wear out." For instance, he explains, in the past, strength equipment manufacturers wouldn't change their look for up to 10 years. Instead, they would merely come out with new units to isolate a muscle group that may have a new twist, and then just add that piece to their existing line. "That has all changed," he says. "Every three years, all of the equipment changes." This is the same with cardio equipment now, except cardio manufacturers completely change their look or technology about every two years.

Trade up or trading in

Just because it's time to make a change doesn't mean that you have to have the newest technology on the market. Remanufactured equipment is also an option. "When it comes to used equipment, the manufacturers now are in the process of setting up partnerships with ... remanufacturers that have the experience, the wherewithal and the capacity to handle the overwhelming demand for good, solid, well-maintained products to go back into the field to smaller commercial facilities that just don't have the large budgets the big guy's have," says Creighton. "As with the demand for popular, used, expensive vehicles, such as Mercedes, Lexus and BMW, ... customers want and will buy these used vehicles through dealerships."

It's all about what's new to your members, not necessarily what's new to the market. But, make sure that, whatever equipment you have in your facility, it looks and works great!

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