5 Commissioning Questions for Return-to-Office Energy Efficiency
Tuning up a building to optimize operations and save energy is always a good idea, but especially now as workers are return to the office and the way the building is used may be changing.
As more and more organizations welcome employees back to the workplace, this could be an opportune time for facility managers to conduct an office space tune-up. Acting now can not only help provide a safe and healthy environment for returning workers, it can also help improve energy efficiency and hedge against rocketing energy costs. Even if your facility is in great shape, now could be the time to implement a plan to keep it that way. Monitoring-based commissioning (MBCx) can be a logical next step to improving tenant comfort, reducing operations and maintenance expenses, and improving overall energy efficiency.
Traditionally, retro-commissioning (RCx) is an organized review process designed to improve the efficiency of an existing facility’s equipment and systems. In a pre-COVID-19 world, it was a great way to resolve problems that may have existed during the design or construction phase of a project or those issues that can naturally arise over time due to aging equipment and systems. While retro-commissioning remains an excellent way to realize significant savings at minimal costs, it also has the potential to pay dividends mentally as well as physically as workers prepare to return to office buildings.
Today, retro-commissioning can be just as important to creating a verifiable healthy and safe work environment as it is to reducing operational and maintenance expenses. Building owners, managers, and operators should consider the following questions as they prepare facilities for re-opening.
1. Is it time for a tune-up?
Retro-commissioning is basically a systemic evaluation of opportunities to improve energy-using systems in a building. Think of it as having a skilled mechanic lifting the hood of your classic auto and deciding which controls and settings to adjust to align engine efficiency with how you actually drive. If your vehicle has been sitting idle for an extended period, it would be wise to have it inspected before firing it up and hitting the road.
With COVID-19 shuttering many businesses for the past two years, many buildings have been operating at lower capacities with some systems sitting idle. Low occupancy can mean decreased demand on building systems. For a low- or no-load building, going into the summer season with occupants returning to the office can be like starting up systems for the first time when a building was new. Cooling systems are prone to problems caused by prolonged inactivity. And like a car sitting idle in a garage all winter, a smooth restart may be questionable. Shuttered or underused office spaces could face similar concerns about reopening.
As more businesses look to head back to the office, more systems will be coming back online. If they are not operating smoothly, facility managers face the risk of occupants viewing workplaces more negatively than in the past. What was once considered an annoyance (an office being too hot or too cold, for example), may now be seen as “unhealthy.”
2. How can “prices at the pump” be locked in?
Many building owners and facility managers may be wondering if they missed the boat guaranteeing lower energy prices. In recent years, building owners and operators have enjoyed low natural gas prices as reflected in correlated lower electricity expenses. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), that benefit appears to have ended in 2021.
With recent geo-political unrest, sanctions, and the hottest summer on record in the Lower 48 states, space cooling demand drove record levels of electrical power generation and consumption. Until now, many building owners were seeing lower operating costs with low prices and lower demand resulting from changes in workplace use stemming from the global pandemic. Employees working remotely shifted day-to-day operation and maintenance expenses dramatically for many businesses. It was a good time to take advantage of lower energy prices while demand was low.
That was then. This is now. Even if your operation missed locking in long term energy contracts in the past, now may still be the best time to lay the groundwork for future benefits. Locking in energy prices now could still be a bargain in the long run as the reduced volatility in fluctuating energy costs can be budgeted, making business planning easier.
3. What is the best way to get the “most mileage” out of the energy purchased?
To say we live in unprecedented times is an understatement. Political, social, scientific, and environmental factors seem to be in flux to a degree unseen in modern times. While events can be unsettling, opportunities for a better future abound. This is especially true in the built environment world. Here are two indicators that point to making this a great time to commit to reducing energy consumption and costs by increasing building systems efficiency:
Return to Office: The lasting impact of the global pandemic on how day-to-day business is conducted is still being defined, but there is no question changes will be made. A report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), the ongoing crisis presents an opportunity to shift to a more efficient energy system with multiple benefits. This is an opportune time for companies to take stock of their current resources and requirements. What will “return to office” mean? Will it be a return to a pre-COVID status quo? Do the efficiencies remote working translate to a new way of operating going forward? If your organization is considering a hybrid approach to office attendance, this could be the ideal time to evaluate your building system needs. Systems that have been sitting idle or under-used may warrant a careful inspection before being brought back fully online.
Greater Environmental Awareness: Addressing employee health and safety concerns is also a great time to improve environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals of your organization. Making your building more energy efficient can create ESG benefits beyond the bottom line. Committing to a program of energy reduction and efficiency can pay dividends in positive public awareness, an improved environment, and better work performance. A qualified expert in LEED and other certifications can help you reach goals of net zero carbon emissions.
4. How do I pop the hood and get to work?
Having a qualified mechanic do a detailed vehicle inspection may turn up some pricey problems. However, not looking for them in the first place does not protect you from facing trouble down the road. Likewise, ignoring signs that a retro-commissioning review is warranted may ultimately be more expensive than finding and addressing potential systems failures before they happen. Even if catastrophic problems are not found, a thorough retro-commissioning process may result in various recommended upgrades or changes.
Attention to the operation of building systems has evolved in anticipation of a post-pandemic era with increased focus on ventilation, air changes, and thermal comfort. The feedback loop in building systems must be reliable. During the recent period of prolonged low occupancy, it is likely dampers, sensors, and actuators have fallen out of calibration. A retro-commissioning process can:
- Perform operational checks of HVAC equipment
- Check calibration of sensors and dampers
- Identify areas of thermal comfort concern
- Provide operational and energy efficiency recommendations that do not compromise occupant comfort and minimize potential costs associated with operating a building post-pandemic
- Provide a list of recommended capital projects
Retro-commissioning can offer greater peace of mind to returning workers.
- Retro-commissioning can help put systems through paces and identify areas of concern or maintenance needs
- Effort and cost put into upgrading filtration and increasing ventilation rates can be completely nullified if a control sensor is not working correctly or a valve is not actuating to properly cool the air – leaving a space stuffy or uncomfortable
- Occupant comfort perception is as important as ensuring proper airflows and indoor air quality (IAQ)
With or without a pandemic entering the equation, it is also possible your building is an excellent candidate for retro-commissioning if any of the following criteria apply:
- The building was never commissioned or re-commissioned
- The building has been expanded and/or renovated
- Building systems never seemed to operate as expected
- There has been a change in how the building is used
- Pre-pandemic complaints from tenants about space being too hot or cold
Retro-commissioning can help verify that building systems and processes are properly functioning as originally designed. If they are not, steps can be taken to correct problems by realigning and recalibrating systems.
5. Is retro commissioning worth the time and expense?
For existing structures that have never undergone the commissioning or re-commissioning process, retro-commissioning is certainly worth careful consideration. The process usually results in improved equipment and system functionality that goes beyond basic operation and maintenance. It can provide a comprehensive review of a building’s energy performance, which can result in reduced costs and increased environmental dividends. Retro-commissioning can also improve day-to-day processes through the careful review and updating of operation and maintenance guides, system diagrams, and sequence of operations. This can reduce costs and improve life spans for equipment and systems. Ignoring the efficiency of building systems can ultimately prove more costly to your business, your employees, and the environment.
Saagar Patel is the operations director for ESD’s Sustainability and Healthy Buildings group. He is a licensed Professional Engineer (PE), a LEED Accredited Professional (AP), a WELL Accredited Professional (AP), and a Certified Commissioning Professional (CCP). Patel is actively involved in ASHRAE and BOMA (Building Owners and Managers Association) and serves on the Building Decarbonization Working Group for the City of Chicago and the Illinois Energy Code Advisory Council.