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Catching the (Building) Drift

By Colin Neagle

Routine maintenance is not just for cars. Institutional and commercial buildings need regular maintenance to avoid costly and preventable expenses too. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory analyzed the impact of commissioning and retro-commissioning in large commercial buildings. Not unlike cars, which have commonly sustained retrocommissioning practices for centuries, buildings are vulnerable to equipment deficiencies and general wear and tear over time that can cause buildings to drift away from their ideal operational environment intended when they were initially designed and built.

The numbers are higher than managers might think. As a result of this drift, properties can see energy efficiency deteriorate by 10-30 percent over a one- to two-year period, according to research from Texas A&M University and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. That is a notable decrease in a surprisingly short period of time. In addition to its impact on energy efficiency, building drift drives up maintenance costs and capital expenses, disrupts tenant comfort, and can lead to equipment issues that pose a safety risk in buildings.

The many causes of building drift — such as building design flaws, construction mistakes and defects, and malfunctioning equipment — can lead to equipment failure, unnecessary energy use, and compromised indoor air quality. The longer these issues remain unchecked, the more expensive they become to rectify.

In fact, depending on how long these problems go unaddressed, the financial impact could be staggering. Evan Mills, author of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory analysis, wrote in the report that by using best practices, commissioning can “result in zero- or negative net cost as non-energy benefits more than offset commissioning fees,” with the potential to save more than 50 percent of whole-building energy use.

“Significant first-cost savings (e.g., through right-sizing of heating and cooling equipment) routinely offset at least a portion of commissioning costs — fully in some cases,” Mills wrote. “When accounting for these benefits, the net median commissioning project cost was reduced by 49 percent on average, while in many cases, they exceeded the direct value of the energy savings. Commissioning also improves worker comfort, mitigates indoor air quality problems, (and) increases the competence of in-house staff, plus a host of other non-energy benefits.”

What is the most cost-effective and impactful way to approach commissioning? Mills recommends “a monitoring-based paradigm for identifying and quantifying opportunities on an ongoing basis.” Being proactive is the best course of action. Just as in football, where the best offense can be the best defense, the same approach is relevant in dealing with building drift. Continuously monitoring equipment so it can be maintained or even replaced before causing a costly problem can prevent unnecessary energy expenses, repeated maintenance costs to fix equipment retroactively, and capital investments when equipment needs to be replaced.

With facility optimization tools, property-level staff can monitor building performance continuously and receive actionable information to address problems proactively. In doing so, managers can get in front of building drift, maintain optimal energy efficiency, make the facilities teams more productive, and protect the organization against risk and unnecessary costs over the long term.

Commissioning is not just about saving energy. It’s multi-faceted. As Mills wrote in the report, “it is a risk-management strategy that should be integral to any systematic approach to garnering energy savings or emissions reductions. Commissioning ensures that building owners get what they pay for when constructing or retrofitting buildings, it provides insurance for policymakers and program managers that their initiatives actually meet targets, and it detects and corrects problems that would eventually surface as far costlier maintenance or safety issues.”

Managers need to start to think of buildings as they would a car, boat, or house: continuously monitor them to get proactive about preventing deterioration before it costs money to fix. In doing so, they will be better equipped to prevent unnecessary costs and maintain optimal energy efficiency.

Colin Neagle is marketing manager for EnerNOC, www.enernoc.com.

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posted on 9/15/2017