Keeping the Lid on Energy

University of Michigan Health System Searches for savings as steady expansion drives up energy demand

By Dan Hounsell  

For Joe Stchur, the numbers tell the story of his challenge. Facilities in his organization, the University of Michigan Health System, contain 5.5 million square feet of space, including 500,000 added in the last year alone. Another 1.1 million square feet — in the form of a new hospital and an eye center expansion — are scheduled to open by 2011.

As the organization’s director of facility operations, Stchur is responsible for more than just ensuring the facilities support the organization’s efforts to provide quality health care. He and his staff also must ensure the energy efficiency of the facilities. And, as those numbers reveal, that challenge is growing rapidly. Stchur’s current focus on energy wasn’t always such a pressing priority.

“Reducing energy use as the organization grew is not something we found time to do,” Stchur says. What has changed in recent years is the organization’s rapid expansion, teamed with energy prices that have climbed sharply.

Now, he says, he describes himself and his staff as “environmental stewards, energy watchdogs for the department.”

Challenges and Hurdles

The department’s task is complicated by the fact that the system must purchase all of its power from the University of Michigan’s power plant.

“We’re our own little city, our own little power authority,” he says. “In a lot of ways, that hampers our efforts because we can’t cut any deals. Other places can cut deals with utilities, but we can’t.”

And that’s not all. A host of additional challenges make Stchur’s task even more difficult. For example, the hospitals must be kept cooler than other types of facilities because of such areas as operating rooms, which keep energy demand steady and relatively high.

Also, many of the organization’s electrical substations are outdated. As a result, planned conversions of steam absorption chillers to more energy-efficient centrifugal electric chillers must wait for upgrades to substations.

“There’s a two- to three-year wait for electrical infrastructure support,” he says.

In addition, the university closed its incinerator in 2001 for environmental reasons, which at the same time eliminated heat recovery from the incineration process and forced the organization to generate heat elsewhere.

“These are opposing forces,” Stchur says. “We’re more environmentally friendly, but at the same time, we’re using more energy to get there. Getting environmentally friendly costs us more money.”

Improving energy efficiency in a large and expanding organization means that no waste goes overlooked, no matter how small it might seem. Stchur points out that items such as small shared refrigerators — often located in offices — use far more energy than larger units shared by more people.

Also, he has sought to replace coffee machines in waiting areas, which waste energy by keeping water hot constantly.

“Even when they’re idle, they keep the water at 180 degrees,” he says. Newer units brew the coffee into insulated carafes, which eliminates the energy used to provide constant heat and lowers the building’s cooling load.

Efficiency Strategies

The campaign to bring the organization’s energy use under control includes actions that are both large and small.

One large, relatively straightforward strategy involved upgrading the facilities’ lighting systems. The department has changed out T12 fluorescent lamps and mercury vapor ballasts, replacing them with T8 lamps and metal halide ballasts. The project involved three phases.

The first phase, which involved lighting systems in areas of the facilities where lights operate 24 hours a day seven days a week, has a three-year payback, Stchur says.

The second took place in areas where lights are on 18-20 hours a day five days a week — warehouses and other large areas — and has a payback of five years.

The third involves office areas, where lights operate the least amount of time. The payback for these lighting system changeouts is 8-10 years.

The facility operations department also took greater advantage of the university’s thermal storage basin to curtail energy use. The 2.2-million gallon, 20-year-old basin enables the organization to make chilled water at night during spring and fall. Using that water minimizes the use of chillers during the day.

Stchur says the department also made greater use of building automation systems’ stop-start schedules to more closely match the heating, cooling and lighting to occupant activities. Maintenance technicians also installed variable-frequency drives on fans and pumps in order to provide slower equipment starts and stops, which minimizes energy use.

In addition to energy-use concerns, the university, like most other organizations, faces rising costs for water use. To address this issue, the department will install more touchless faucets and flush valves throughout its facilities, which also will support the organization’s infection-control efforts.

Awareness and Education

Efforts to minimize energy waste and maximize equipment efficiency within the health system have relied heavily on the people with the most intimate knowledge of the facilities — front-line maintenance and engineering technicians.

The department created an award program that offered workers 10 percent of the savings resulting from a successful energy-saving suggestion, Stchur says. One HVAC mechanic collected after identifying a problem with the sequencing of the return air dampers in one area of a facility. And a steam fitter pocketed $8,000 based on his suggestion for a more efficient process of generating hot water.

Also, the department undertook a public relations campaign that reinforced its role as environmental stewards and asked workers throughout the facility to join in the campaign. One poster developed by the department urges workers to “Drop — and give me 68 degrees,” and asks them to:
• dial individual thermostats to 68 degrees in the winter
• dress appropriately for the work environment
• call the maintenance department with any heating or cooling issues.

Stchur’s efforts also include talking with building occupants about their ideas for saving energy and, in some cases, helping the understand why an idea might not be as energy-saving as it seems. One idea involved installing occupancy sensors to automatically shut off lights when occupants leave an area. As Stchur points out, such a project is likely to have a 20-year payback, given the up-front cost of the sensors and the labor to install them.

Stchur says his department’s efforts undoubtedly have paid off in terms of saving energy and money for the organization, which is essential with energy use growing by about 5 percent each year.

The frustration is not being able figure out the exact savings. He says campus leaders regularly ask him how much conservation efforts have saved.

“We just can’t put a number to it,” he says.

One final factor that complicates Stchur’s efforts is the realization that the department has to remain focused on the organization’s core mission — providing health care.

“In office buildings, for example, they can meter this stuff and pay attention much more closely,” he says. “We’re in a tough place because we’re so focused on patient care.”

Snapshot: University of Michigan Health System

  • Location: Ann Arbor, Mich.
  • Facilities: Three hospitals, 30 community health centers, 120 outpatient clinics
  • Square footage: 5.5 million
  • Lease square footage: 800,000
  • Total licensed beds: 913
  • Faculty and staff: 12,930
  • Department of facilities operations employees: 187

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  posted on 8/1/2007   Article Use Policy

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