Hey folks, Phil Zito here and welcome back. In this post, I'm going to be covering whether it's possible to save energy and improve comfort at the same time.
So, lately, I've been seeing a lot of folks on social media talking about energy. If you're in New York or California, in the United States, you know that there are some significant changes coming regarded to mechanical systems, energy performance, etc. Then you have, at least in the United States, federal government talking about greenhouse gas reporting for a lot of publicly traded companies. So, if that goes through, naturally, what will follow will be a reduction in greenhouse gas admissions. And if that follows, how do we do that? Well, we do that largely by reducing energy.
So, in this post, we are going to talk about how to reduce energy and improve comfort at the same time. Now, I am not going to get into the politics, but regardless of how you may feel about reducing energy, the reality is, you're most likely in the very near future, going to be required to do it through codes and legislation. So, we might as well start getting ahead of it and thinking through what we can potentially do.
So, you are told to reduce your energy by 10%, maybe even by 20%, your energy consumption or energy demand. There's two important points there, because those are totally different things. So, you’re probably thinking, “Oh, crap, I've got to do this. I've got to reduce my energy consumption or demand by 20%. How in the world am I going to do that and improve comfort at the same time? Well, I'm going to be laying out some tips and tricks.
Now, this might actually, in my opinion, happen before even legislative or code requirements, enforce it. I think it's going to be because the cost of energy is going to continue to increase, we're going to see increasing reduction of consumer spending, because folks are going to not have as much money with inflation, which is going to reduce revenue to businesses, which they're going to want to save through reducing operational costs. I don't think it's going to affect the construction side of building automation. We still are short on a lot of assets. We have a ton of backlog on the books, but I do think it's going to affect the operational side of businesses.
So, you're asked to reduce 10 to 20%. What can you do? Well, the first and most obvious thing that I do whenever I'm consulting with an organization, and they're asking how they can reduce energy, it's not to suggest analytics, and do a retro site audit, and spend all this money. I simply look at their schedules.
If you have a campus environment, or a school environment, or a hospital, I'm willing to bet that there are multiple portions of your built assets that do not need to be running. So, that's the first thing, is we can reduce our costs by getting our schedules under control. That seems so obvious. I feel kind of silly mentioning it, but it is something that a lot of folks unfortunately, for whatever reason, do not do. They may start off with schedules, but they just let them go by the wayside.
Schools will be left running all summer long, even though maybe they're only being used in the morning. However, they're running off a normal Monday through Friday, 8-4 schedule, and it’s crazy. You see the same in hospitals. Entire areas of the hospital, that aren't needing to be conditioned during the night hours, being conditioned. This especially becomes true in certain spaces, like imaging rooms, or operating rooms where maybe you have your ER-focused operating rooms and your ER-focused imaging rooms, but the rest of those, they're doing 20 to 30 air changes an hour. You're dumping a ton of money and energy.
Now, you may be saying to yourself, how does this increase comfort, Phil? I get that it saves energy, but how does it increase comfort? In my experience, a lot of buildings are undersized. So, you'll see a lot of buildings that are undersized and then you’ll see a lot of buildings that are oversized, but you don't tend to see buildings that are properly sized.
The reason behind that is depending on when they were built, they were either built in a cost-centric time. So, the time that they were built, they were worried about cost, and they would undersize these systems, or they were built in a low energy cost time and they would oversize these systems because stuff was cheap. They would decide to oversize so that they had the capacity.
Either way, as you get your schedules dialed in, that is diverting conditioned air and conditioned water from spaces that do not need to be controlled, and do not need to be regulated. Allowing that comfort, those temperatures, to be directed to the spaces that actually do need to be regulated. So, that is the first thing that I would do.
Often times, just turning off some spaces is going to allow better airflow to the spaces that need it. You're going to have improved comfort. It's quite possibly the cheapest thing you could do. Most owner operators can actually do it themselves.
Just simply decide when you want to occupy those spaces. I'm not saying you turn everything off, I want to be clear. Usually what I advocate for, if it's a space that might need to be used, but isn't currently occupied, then put it in standby. Even a shift of deadband by 4 to 8 degrees, that's recoverable within a couple of minutes, depending on the air changes in the space, but that also reduces load significantly.
Solar Gain/Pressure Loss
The next thing I'd say, as far as saving energy and improving comfort, is being aware of things that we typically don't think of as a building automation operator, or a building automation contractor. Those would be things like solar gain, pressure loss, through improperly sealed buildings, or improperly pressurized buildings. So, this is another thing that you can look at that will have a good effect on energy.
So, for example, if you have too negative of a building, you're taking in air from outside and it could be too cold or too hot. You're unnecessarily spending energy to condition that air, and you're taking that energy away from spaces internally that may need it. Because typically, you have an under-pressurized building, a negative building, and you're trying to control this negatively pressurized building. What's the space that most the energy's being dumped in? Usually it's the atrium or the entry area, right? That's where you're dumping a lot of energy. What spaces are now not getting those BTUs, not getting that energy? Typically, it’s the more interior spaces, so now you're losing comfort because spaces aren't getting the energy they need in order to condition themselves and you're spending energy on areas that you may not necessarily need to condition if you were to get your pressurization correct. As I mentioned, pressurization is also solar gain. So, that's something that you really need to be aware of.
I'm reminded of a police headquarters we did in Dallas, that had floor to ceiling glass windows and an under-floor system. They did not put the appropriate glazing on the windows, they did not use shades, so during the summer, the southern facing window would get tremendous heat gain. The interesting thing, because it was under-floors, you would have stratified conditioned air. So, you could argue that not only was the issue related to design, but it was also related to the exterior.
So, the problem is that with an under-floor system, it throws the air about six feet up in the air, so, you'll be conditioned at up to about four feet, and then the air starts to stratify. Then you start to have hot air just kind of piling on there and forcing that cold air down, because hot air typically is going to have more mass. So, that hot air is now forcing that cold air down, that space just becomes like an oven, and it just has this effect. So, simply adding in shades, and adding in shading and glazing on the windows really helped in conditioning that space and making that space not overheat. So, you're able to save energy and improve comfort for relatively low cost.
Another thing to do is to look at your setpoints. So, when I deal with a lot of sites, I realize that they have the same set points throughout the year. Now, when a space is in this is in an area where, depending on where you're located in the United States, there's this thing called ASHRAE 55. ASHRAE 55 expresses this thermal comfort corridor, and basically, the thermal comfort corridor is overlaid on top of a psychrometric chart.
It shows where you can keep temperatures based on dry bulb and relative humidity. So, you can look at potentially an 80-degree dry bulb with the right relative humidity as an interior space temperature. I personally wouldn't advocate for that, I'd be miserable if I was a tenant paying for that.
So, be cognizant that if this is commercial office space, typically, in your terms, you have to provide certain temperatures or certain levels of control. Sometimes you can pass those energy costs onto customers, but sometimes you can't. If you're in a more municipality, or a university or school, where people don't have a choice in whatever environment you give them, you can do you a 78-degree setpoint with the right relative humidity, and that can feel relatively cool if you're using the appropriate ventilation to get that evaporative effect.
So, let's dig deeper into that. So, what you would do is you would increase your fan energy costs, but you would decrease your central utility pumping and your central utility cooling costs by maybe using outside air if the enthalpy is low enough, or by simply raising the temperature in the space if your relative humidity is under control. Remember, as we make temperature higher, all things considered, relative humidity is going to decrease because the relative humidity of a space, it's relative to that temperature.
So, you have this thing called grains of moisture per pound of dry air. That is the amount of moisture that's in the air stream, and that moisture in that air stream is going to stay the same, but it's relative to the dry bulb temperature. As dry bulb temperature increases, your capacity for humidity and moisture storage in the air stream increases. Thus, if your moisture amount stays the same, your relative humidity decreases.
So, if you already have a fairly low relative humidity and you increase temperature, you're going to have an even lower relative humidity. Then if you have airflow across the human body, in the case of fans, or maybe increased airflow through your VAV boxes, you then are able to take advantage of the evaporative effect and make people feel comfortable while saving energy. So, I would argue that this maybe doesn't necessarily improve comfort, and it doesn't maybe necessarily decrease comfort, but it does increase energy.
So those are three of the quick hits, they really shouldn't cost you anything. If you are semi capable with building automation controls, and you understand things like psychometrics, you should be able to make these changes on your own.
Now let’s look at more cost sensitive things. We're going to start to look at things like retro commissioning, heat, energy, cooling recovery units, and utilizing analytics to predict potential faults.
From a retro commissioning perspective, this is something that should be super easy for you, it’s just very labor intensive. Now one, when I say it should be super easy for you, and you're wondering what I mean, in Google, you just type in retro commissioning plan buildings:PDF, and when you type that in, you're going to get the retro commissioning handbook from the state of Oregon. You're going to get the ENERGY STAR retro commissioning handbook, you're going to get the EERE, you're going to get the EPA, you're going to get the Cleveland Clinic. I mean, this is just the first results, so you're going to get all of these resources.
That's one of the things that I hope you've picked up over time if you've read our blogs, is like, if you are trying to build a building standard, and you're an operator, or you're a consulting company, just Google file type PDF, and you will find a building standard. Take what you like and build out your building standard.
Well, if you're trying to do retro commissioning, exactly the same, you literally Google retro commissioning plan, buildings, file type PDF, and the results populate. IF you click one of the links, it literally walks you through what to do, how do you do it, step by step, and then it's just a matter of executing the steps.
Now, yes, it is labor intensive, and it is skill dependent. What I mean by that is, you have to have people actually do the labor, grab the data, validate the mechanical systems, validate operation, and it is skill dependent, in that the people who are grabbing the data out of the building automation system, or implementing the logging, or validating systems operations, they do need to know what they're doing. So, there is a skill, and there is a labor-intensive aspect to retro commissioning.
That being said, at the end of the day, retro commissioning is going to deliver to you both cost and non-cost centric, both energy conservation measures as well as facility improvement measures. So, you may find that you have something running 24/7 that doesn't need to run 24/7. Well, that is an almost no cost change, right? It's literally going to take you a couple seconds to login and change that. Now you're saving energy.
On the flip side, you may find that like the tubes in a boiler completely corroded or actuators are completely off the shaft of dampers, and dampers are kind of like, rusted shut. That's going to cost material and labor costs to retrofit.
I'll give you a specific example. We did a state building, and I'm not going to call out the state, but it had a hole in the side of the building. Nno matter how efficient that building was, it literally was just like a 2x2 foot hole. Maybe it was an outside air intake in the past, but no one sealed it and it was just letting in this humid hot air. So, very inefficient.
Now, you could just take some insulated sheet metal and put it over that and that would still improve things, pretty low cost. But when you have to actually fix mechanical defaults, those should both improve your energy efficiency and improve your comfort. However, you have to weigh those against the cost.
Now I've talked about this in the past, about doing ROI calculations, about being able to make decisions on energy conservation measures or facility improvement measures based on ROI. So essentially, the ROI decision would be for you to look at the cost to implement this. You would look at the savings and then you would look at if you invested your dollars into another opportunity, what would be the cost and the savings.
You would see which one gives you greater savings, and then you pick the one that gives you greater savings. That being said, not everyone thinks logically, not everything is logical. There are a lot of politics in play.
I worked with a large social media company, and they were trying to do an integration for their sites. They were getting into debates like, putting meters in their grease traps, to measure how often they switched the grease, because of waste. Now, that wasn't efficient, and they weren't really saving money, but from an environmental perspective, which was a value to this organization, they were reducing waste of that food oil.
So, you know, oftentimes, you will see, especially in larger organizations, that there's a social component that will drive action that isn't necessarily logical. Because, if they took that exact same amount, and they invested that in, demand control ventilation, or in chiller plant optimization, they would actually have a better impact on the environment. Oftentimes, the people who are influencing and making these decisions are not mechanically-oriented. Thus, they are speaking on stuff that they are not necessarily experts on, you know, so just take it as you will.
Analytics, especially on existing assets, can be costly. I don't care what anyone on LinkedIn tells you about how wonderful their product is and how amazing it is, at the end of the day, there has to be data normalization. So, if anyone is trying to sell you on analytics at all, ask them how they are going to collect and normalize your data, and what is the cost associated to that. While I like analytics, and I think they are extremely valuable, there is a first cost associated with analytics on existing assets, and it is quite high. It is what keeps a lot of analytic solutions from being adopted.
So, let's say that you, in whatever way, can take care of that first cost, maybe you get an incentive from a local utility. This is something to consider, something that you need to be aware of, while I am not an advocate of connecting your building to the grid and doing demand response, I don't like giving over that control to someone who does not have my best interest in heart, right? The utility does not necessarily care if your building achieves its business outcomes.
Now, there are certain protected assets, like hospitals, data centers, etc, where the utility can't just cut power to them. However, your average commercial office building, etc, their primary concern is overloading the grid, not making sure that your tenants are comfortable. So, if you are going to go down the demand response route, as a utility incentive, do be aware of that. Now, that being said, they also will give you potential tax rebates, or even pay a portion of your analytics costs, depending on the utility. So, that's something else to keep in mind as you're approaching analytic solution.
Let's assume that you've done a naming schema, you've kept your data fairly normalized, you're using a BACnet system, it's not terribly hard to integrate with. Now we come up to the second cost of analytics that a lot of folks don't consider, and that is the cost of adoption and implementation. So once again, I come back to that retrofit conversation.
So, the first three things I told you are not very skill intensive, but retrofits and analytics are skill-intensive, both on the implementation side as well as the execution side. You need to have a staff that is able to understand what is going on with the system. They can read the analytics data and know what it means and what actions they can take.
That being said, if you have a staff that is technically savvy and can do that, that you can save significant amounts of energy and improve comfort. Take for example, and this is the go-to analytics fault example we always use, you have simultaneous heating and cooling, or you have runaway outside air intake, or you have a plant that is not properly tuned, and is not being responsive, maybe like a trim and response sequence, etc. So, you have those things, but do you understand how to address those things?
One of the biggest issues I see with analytics is the cost, not only of implementation, but of training up and developing your team, and putting standard operating procedures in place, to actually execute the faults.
The third issue I see with analytics, and I hope you don't take this as me trying to poopoo analytics, because I do find them valuable. Personally, I think everyone should upskill their operational staff, because if you haven't been paying attention, there's a lot of inflation, and inflation increases costs. The contractors, I love them, we do a lot of business with them, but they're not going to let their profit margin just disappear. They're going to increase their costs, too. And I guarantee you, a lot of the operators, and the operational facilities, they have not increased their operational budgets to account for these jumps in costs. So, the first time they get a $200-$250 technician fee per hour, and yes, those are coming. It’s called burden rate, and depending on where you're at, in the US, you could very well see $200 to $250 service fee per hour. I guarantee you, that's not budgeted for.
So, what if you invested, and I'm not trying to sell you all on training, even though we are a training organization, what if you invested in training and developing your folks so that they could handle at least level one and level two triage things, like you should not be calling out a service contractor to change a setpoint, or to like run a schedule, or make a small modification to a graphic? Trust me, they're super busy, and you're going to not be priority. So, if you can self-handle those things, great. So, analytics, right, you are going to have to be able to execute. So, like I said, skill up and be able to execute. There's a cost associated with that.
The third thing, and I've seen this time and time, again, is cultural adoption of analytics. I remember when we lived in Wisconsin, our small five school, school district went and did an energy conservation project, they put a bunch of Distech controls in. So, Distech put in the controls, and I remember that they were having issues with the energy efficiency. It turned out that they had this 70 year old maintenance guy who was friends with the superintendent, and his belief was that he could manage these five schools manually, better than a control system. So, he was going in and literally manually taking the clutch and adjusting valves and dampers and actuators, and disconnecting them from the control system. Then he was arguing that well, because he didn't understand how to log into the control system, that it didn't work, because it couldn't do what he wanted it to do. So, he just put everything in manual. It was like crazy land.
As a taxpayer, I thought this was stupid. It was so ridiculous. My wife is telling me not to get involved with it, not to say anything, and everyone knows us in the community. But it was ridiculous to watch this guy who's going around and manually adjusting hundreds of valves. Like what the hell, this is just stupid.
So, you have to fight against that with analytics, as well as with retro commissioning. People literally believe, and I don't know why, that analytics are going to take their job. No, analytics are going to give you more to do. That's why I say if you're going to implement analytics, you better have the cost structure in to support all of the things that are going to become aware, because you better believe that those analytics reports from that analytics company are going to find their way to your executive team and make you look bad. So, you better be able to work on that stuff.
So that's another cultural fear, right? It's going to make us look bad, it’s going to make us look like we haven't done our jobs. And it may, and maybe you didn't do your jobs. But on the flip side, maybe it's also showing that you were doing the best you could, but you really can't do any more. I mean, I don't know anyone who can watch 100 PID loops at the same time, and really interpret the data and make changes.
Energy & Temperature Recovery
Okay, so that brings us up to our third thing, which is going to be energy and temperature recovery. So, these things require major retrofits of your mechanical systems, and depending on your environmental variables, you may not get the greatest gains. With energy recovery, whether it's an energy recovery chiller, like a heat pump chiller, whether it's an energy recovery wheel, like enthalpy wheel or temperature wheel, or maybe it's just some recovery heat exchangers. Those cost money to implement.
In my experience, unless you have large temperature swings, you're sometimes not going to get the recovery. Those actual systems tend to do best in harsher environments because you have greater swings. If you have a mild environment, you're better off economizing and using that then you are on using recovery.
Recovery can save energy and improve comfort at the same time. It's going to reduce that build up effect, and you all know what that build up effect is. That build up effect is where you condition a space. Maybe you're trying to maintain 72 degrees, but you can only maintain 73. So, now you're returning 73, and it's getting hotter. Now you're only able to condition 74 and then it's returning 74. Before you know it, you're being overcome by heat, either heat gain through the shell of the building, through the skin of the building, or your being overcome just simply through maybe having to introduce outside air. You have a demand for that outside air that is just overpowering your plant.
Heat recovery, as well as cooling recovery, as well as energy recovery, can assist in those situations by taking some of the return air and utilizing it for a purpose. Maybe you're taking some of the heat out of the return air and you're transferring that to a heating loop, maybe domestic heating. Maybe you’re taking your condenser water heat and using that to heat some domestic water.
Okay, so I've given you a ton of possible ways to save energy and improve comfort. Please don't ignore this, this is coming. This is something that if you're an owner operator, you are going to have to deal with, if you're not dealing with it already. I don't want you to be blindsided. A lot of folks have asked me, “Phil, what do you think's going to happen over the next nine months with our industry? I think, and I hate saying this because I do not like people suffering that's horrible, but I think the fact that utility prices are going to continue to increase, I don't see that changing anytime soon, is going to increase energy costs in buildings, which is going to increase the demand for professionals to come in and fix that energy demand.
I think I read like 75% increase in energy costs. I mean, that's insane. So, when you have that, you're going to really have to optimize your strategies. You're going to see demand for analytics, for retro commissioning, for strategy optimization. So, if you can position yourself as a contractor, as someone who is out helping an owner analyze the operational cost of their asset, but the energy costs as well as their comfort costs, and you can help them implement strategies, you're sitting on like a retrofit gold mine. There's a lot of utility incentives still out there that you can take advantage of from a retrofit perspective.
For example, if you Google energy commercial rebate, we’ll see rebates for small to medium businesses, some age factor rebates, refrigeration rebates, insulation and water heating rebates. Based on that, we can look at what the utility will do from an energy precision. This one offers 0% interest loans from $5000 to $4 million for an energy efficiency financing. So, you can finance, at 0% interest, some energy efficiency projects. Imagine coming to a customer, and working with the utility for an analytics project, and telling them you can bring a 0% loan that on an analytic solution, is going to reduce your energy, improve your comfort, hit your energy and sustainability goals, hit that stuff, and do it at 0% interest. I mean, that is a very wise investment, in my opinion, when we look at that equation again, right?
We look at, they’re most likely going to have to spend money on increased energy, and if they're doing that at basically net zero, granted, there's going to be the profit that's tacked on for the contractor, but you're doing that at 0%, which means that your other money can be diverted to things that maybe produce 6% returns. So, maybe you can divert your money to investments that produce more revenue. There's a variety of things that you can do.
So, I really hope these strategies help you all out. I hope you've taken some stuff from this. I hope that our talk about analytics and retro commissioning, has given you kind of a peek behind the curtain. If you're looking to do retro commissioning, or maybe you're an owner who's looking to do retro commissioning, definitely use that trick that I taught you about simply Googling retro commissioning plan buildings file type PDF, and I think that will help you out a ton. You can find a lot of documents that will really take care of you.
Thanks a ton and take care.