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Retrocommissioning: Ongoing Challenges, New Approach
The cost of powering institutional and commercial facilities represents a significant operating expense for any organization. Over the years, maintenance and engineering managers have considered many approaches to lowering utilities costs related to operating facilities. These approaches have ranged from piecemeal quick fixes all the way to capital-intensive retrofits financed through energy service companies (ESCOs). In the past several years however, one method, retrocommissioning, has increased in popularity due to its delivery of low-cost energy-reduction opportunities that yield significant savings and attractive paybacks.
Those familiar with retrocommissioning know it is an extremely cost-effective method for relatively quickly reducing energy costs in existing buildings without the need for capital investments. Unfortunately, for many reasons, retrocommissioning projects often do not sustain the energy savings they create over the longer term. This result means managers must repeat the process to recapture the energy-efficiency gains the original process was designed to provide.
This situation exists not because retrocommissioning is ineffective as an energy efficiency tool. Instead, it exists because procedures for building management, operations, and equipment maintenance really have not changed much over the past 50 years. Given that energy-using and control systems in today's buildings have grown exponentially in complexity and sophistication, the outdated, traditional approach to building management and operations no longer works.
Spotlight On Roles
Addressing this challenge is vital to successful retrocommissioning and requires that managers first recognize their role — and that of others — in the building operations process and in maintaining the status quo.
Managers. They are responsible for assessing the skill level of and hiring building operations and maintenance personnel. But too few managers use formal training in assessing the expertise of candidates for that position, and they might not understand the appropriate metrics for assessing job performance.
Instead, the accepted approach is that if a manager does not receive complaints about the comfort of building occupants, front-line technicians must be doing their jobs effectively. This performance metric is obviously wrong because it fosters an "uptime at any cost" mentality and, worse yet, ignores the fact that uptime does not translate into efficient performance of energy-consuming systems. It is quite the contrary. It is one of the primary reasons retrocommissioning reveals energy-savings opportunities in the first place.
Building engineers. Many building operations and maintenance personnel have no long-term or formal training in energy efficiency beyond basic information provided by the utility company or from vendors of energy-efficiency solutions.
Ongoing commissioning activities, which are extremely valuable in maintaining retrocommissioning energy efficiency in any large building, are not part of the curriculum when it comes to maintenance training. But even more damaging is the fact that too few building operations and maintenance personnel are competent in operating the control systems that govern the operation of energy-using equipment in their buildings.
Instead, in an effort to maintain the "uptime at any cost" scenario, many building operators simply override the control system to ensure continuous operation of building systems and minimize comfort complaints. Given the critical role that building automation systems (BAS) play in building energy efficiency, this is a recipe for an energy disaster.
Vendors. Energy-efficiency solutions, software and energy-efficiency products abound, and managers are the targets of vendors. Solutions range from capital-intensive energy performance contracts to prescriptive solutions that save energy only for certain systems. The list of fragmented solutions seems endless as manufacturers work to capitalize on the growing demand for energy-efficiency solutions.
Unfortunately, the universe of offerings too often causes managers and operators to specify and install energy-efficiency solutions on a piecemeal basis. Often, they do not give enough thought to a larger, more strategic energy and environmental plan that maps out a realistic strategy for the building. The outcome is marginal, largely undocumented returns from the investments and a missed opportunity to capture significantly greater returns from a more integrated approach.
Service contractors. Service contractors often oversee the BAS, and mechanical service companies maintain large pieces of HVAC equipment, such as chillers, boilers, and air handlers. In most cases, the activities outlined by contracts have not kept pace with the need for more energy-efficient equipment.
Service contracts for control systems are perhaps the most commonly underused resource available to the maintenance and engineering department, largely because most managers and technicians do not have sufficient knowledge or experience to direct the controls contractor toward tasks that offer energy-efficiency or system-performance value. This is especially dangerous when we consider that about 75 percent of the energy savings from any given retrocommissioning project is control-system related.
These conflicting objectives exist in most facilities, but there is a better way.
Retrocommissioning: Ongoing Challenges, New Approach