Q: As a facilities engineer, what advice do you have for lowering my operating costs through energy savings options?
A: As we turn the page on a new year, many of us pause to consider things we might improve upon, both professionally and personally. For the facilities engineer, those midnight musings might extend to how we might improve the buildings we are responsible for, especially the efficiency and bottom line costs of their operations. Your laser focus should be squarely zeroed in on energy consumption, and typically the biggest targets are your HVAC and lighting systems—but don’t forget the opportunities to put a stake in the heart of “vampire power” (also known as standby power) where thousands of electronic and electrical devices are designed to continue consuming electricity when switched off or in standby mode.
So to kick off the Ask the Facilities Guy 2014 columns, I want to overview items to consider in your bid to make the coming year one of peak building performance and maximum ROI in reducing your operating costs. Following are some steps to take on your road to New Year success.
Know what you’re dealing with
Too often facilities professionals are under pressure to act quickly, often utilizing a “ready, fire, aim” approach. The pressure to “just do something” results in under-optimized results and can create future facility headaches. Before you do anything, undertake a facility commissioning review so you identify your highest priorities. Then put your facility on a continuous commissioning diet, so you maintain peak operating efficiencies of your key building systems.
One of my favorite facilities management mantras is, “What you don’t know will kill you.” Clean manufacturing facilities drive that point home tenfold, due to their more complex building and process systems.
Buildings and their systems are designed to perform to specified standards. The passage of time, however, diminishes performance, as do system modifications, sometimes undocumented. This results in declining building performance, increased energy consumption, and hits to your operations budget.
The Building Commissioning Association (BCA) defines existing building commissioning (EBCx) as: “…a systematic process for investigating, analyzing, and optimizing the performance of building systems through the identification and implementation of low/no cost and capital intensive Facility Improvement Measures and ensuring their continued performance. The goal of EBCx is to make building systems perform interactively to meet the Current Facility Requirements (CFR) and provide the tools to support the continuous improvement of system performance over time. The term EBCx is intended to be a comprehensive term defining a process that encompasses the more narrowly focused process variations such as retro-commissioning, re-commissioning and continuous commissioning that are commonly used in the industry.”
Three key objectives drive commissioning: reducing energy use and operational costs, safety/security, and occupancy comfort. The main goal of commissioning is to verify and document that the facility systems function as the original design intended. Research and manufacturing facilities—particularly those requiring controlled environments—add complexity to retro-commissioning due to more complex process utilities which consume vast amounts of energy. Building commissioning has always placed a strong emphasis on HVAC systems.
The Building Commissioning Association outlines the purpose of existing building commissioning in their Best Practices in Commissioning Existing Buildings guide, as:
• Verify that a facility and its systems meet the CFR
• Improve building performance by saving energy and reducing operational costs
• Identify and resolve building system operation, control, and maintenance problems
• Reduce or eliminate occupant complaints and increase tenant satisfaction
• Improve indoor environmental comfort and quality and reduce associated liability
• Document system operation
• Identify the operations and maintenance (O&M) personnel training needs and provide such training
• Minimize operational risk and increase asset value
• Extend equipment life-cycle
• Ensure the persistence of improvements over the building’s life
• Assist in achieving LEED for existing buildings
• Improve the building’s ENERGY STAR rating
To the facilities engineer, a lofty set of purposes takes a back seat to driving down operating costs. Cx payback can be fast and significant, in terms of operations costs (both saved and avoided) and energy consumption, as well as increased productivity driven by improved employee comfort and health.
One last word on setting your baseline: always hire an independent commissioning agent who is a certified CxA professional—not someone working for one of your contractors or equipment suppliers and not a member of your operations and maintenance staff. Your commissioning agent needs to function as an independent expert and your advocate.
Research new technologies
The quest to reduce energy costs has spurred an almost gold rush fever in R&D with new innovations constantly coming to market. Do your homework and stay up on these fast moving trends. In particular, research the latest news in building automation systems (BAS) with its myriad centralized, wireless controls, dashboard, and automated central controls. Their focus is to ensure that energy is only being utilized when it’s actively needed, so you’re not, for example, heating, cooling, or lighting unoccupied rooms. With the added convenience of mobile monitoring and wireless networks, these innovations are home runs. Hosted cloud options enable both system integration and the opportunity to outsource or collaborate with consultants or vendors, providing an extended staff. One word of caution—integrate your IT experts into the program for security’s sake in this hacker-happy world.
There are also interesting “plug and play” HVAC retrofit options coming on the market, with the ability to increase efficiency, extend the equipment life, and reduce the upfront costs versus system replacement.
Engage with and take advantage of the work being done by professional organizations. For example, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) is working on standards to measure building energy usage. Look for issuance in 2016 that will enable ASHRAE 90.1 higher efficiency targets to become effective.
Pick the low hanging fruit first
The three lead demons consuming your building’s energy are heating, cooling, and lighting. You’re not alone, this is the pattern worldwide. These are your key targets in your quest to reduce your energy consumption, and your operating costs.
Within these three targets, HVAC systems—most notably chillers—consume the most energy. So pick your targets accordingly to maximize your ROI. The uniform objective of minimizing energy usage in unoccupied spaces, coupled with new technologies, have driven a degree of convergence between a building’s HVAC and lighting systems, so integrating their management makes sense and saves cents.
Apply your engineering talents
While the technology is rapidly evolving, engineering principles remain pretty constant. So apply some well-used facilities engineer principals, updated in their technology and applications:
• Before installing anything, make sure your maintenance team is well-trained, up to the task, and has adopted a proactive approach to the job. The days of hanging out in the basement and waiting for the boiler to blow were relegated long ago to the dust bins of history.
• Utilize outside engineering services as appropriate. Keeping abreast of the quickly evolving technologies and components is tough, and today’s facilities engineer has a lot of initiatives on the burner. Consulting mechanical and electrical engineers can function as extended staff, should be fully informed of the latest options and can engineer system modifications with independent judgment. Tying decisions about building systems to a single equipment vendor limits both the advice and the options you receive.
• Engineering design is king. One example I’ve outlined in previous columns is the use of VFDs instead of fixed speed fans in your HVAC systems. By constantly adjusting the fan speed based on demand variables, you can produce significant energy reductions. Just don’t forget to also engineer a monitoring system to keep your air quality in check.
• Building automation systems are your new best friends. Faster than a speeding calculator, these silent partners can continually monitor and operate systems in proper sequence, continuously utilizing and adjusting algorithms.
Continuously test, measure, verify, and adjust
You can’t adjust the roadmap if you don’t know where you’ve been. With today’s available software, there’s no excuse for failing to develop and analyze performance data in order to identify both operating deficiencies (popularly known as opportunities) and performance gaps. This work, along with a sound continuous commissioning program, will put you on the road to success in minimizing both your energy consumption and your operating costs.
In conclusion, I hope this brief overview was helpful. In future Ask the Facilities Guy columns, we’ll delve deeper into using some of the specific options briefly outlined here. Reducing energy costs is a critical program initiative in today’s facilities world—thanks for your comments.
Richard Bilodeau’s 30-year career includes plant engineering positions in clean manufacturing. He has designed, operated, and supervised the construction of advanced technology facilities and engineered clean manufacturing facilities for lithium-ion batteries, medical devices, electronics, and pharmaceuticals. Contact: TheFacilitiesGuy@smrtinc.com
This article appeared in the February 2014 issue of Controlled Environments.