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Working around building occupants in institutional and commercial facilities is a challenging aspect of project management for maintenance and engineering managers.
A global pandemic is not the ideal strategy for managers addressing that challenge. But when colleges and universities switched to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, it gave managers an unexpected though hardly welcomed opportunity to address projects.
The pandemic sent home more than 30,000 students and hundreds of faculty members at Sacramento State University in California. The empty campus the exodus created gave the university’s maintenance team a chance to take on a tough project more easily – a lighting retrofit inside one of the university’s most vital buildings.
“The library is our largest building but also one of our highest-use buildings,” says Ryan Todd, director of energy and sustainability. “This was a great time to do a project of this scale in a building that probably would have been the most difficult building to tackle during a normal semester when students are there.”
An easy choice
Retrofitting the library was on the team’s priority list five years before the pandemic following a study by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.
“Our local utility will come out to some of their largest clients and do a study to determine what the energy-saving possibilities are,” Todd says. “For them, if we reduce our load, that makes their job easier. They paid for a study (five) years back and eventually, what we were able to do is segue into tackling this project.”
The six-story library was an easy choice for an energy-savings project. It is the largest building on campus at 275,000 square feet. It still had the original lighting systems dating back to 1968, when the north side of the building opened, and 1988, when the south building expansion was completed.
“There were no controls,” says Ray Keck, project manager in facilities management. “The lights were just on. I’m sure back in the day, (the university) just said they’re fluorescent lights and so cheap to run, we’ll just leave them on.”
The original lighting layout consisted of 5,000 fixtures that stayed on almost constantly. But what was considered energy saving 50 years ago is not the case anymore. Before the retrofit, the library had a standing weekly work order for lightbulb changes, costing the university $15,000 a year in material and labor costs.
With the building basically empty and a $100,000 rebate offered by the utility to complete the project, the pandemic was the perfect time to move forward.
“Our electricians tackled some of the outdoor lighting surrounding previously, some of the stuff you need a boom lift to get to, but that’s minor in comparison,” Todd says. “To be honest, this made the project more worthwhile, the fact that it hadn’t been piecemealed from a total project standpoint.”
The library wish list included all the typical requests a manager would expect when upgrading a lighting system that is more than 50 years old.
“We wanted daylight harvesting,” Todd says. “We wanted full controls. We wanted LEDs and motion sensors. We had specifics that were detailed in that study.”
All those goals resulted in a $2.36 million price tag for the project.
Work in the library began in August 2020 and was completed in January 2021. Even with the building empty, the maintenance team hired a third party to do the installation. Crews replaced the original 5,000 lighting fixtures with 3,000 LED two-by-four kits. The new fixtures improved light-intensity measurement to 30-32-foot candles, up from 17-20-foot candles.
“We cut out a third of the lights and pretty much doubled the total light levels,” Todd says.
The maintenance team first consulted with staff electricians during the specification process, learning a lesson from a previous lighting project in another building that did not go well.
“We made sure during the whole thing to get our electricians involved in the conversation, because we don’t want to choose something they have to deal with on a daily basis that they hate,” Todd says. “That was probably the biggest part early on when we said, ‘Here are the requirements for what we want control-wise, but these guys have to be okay with the system that we choose because they’re the ones who will use it every single day.’”
Another important contact during the specification process was the library’s dean, who helped determine the color light temperature. The manufacturer sent three options, and the dean played a significant role in making the final decision.
“We had a fairly demanding client in this case, someone who was very hands on,” Keck says. “Those of us who have worked with her learned you just don’t make decisions without her. You bring her in, and she’s a great partner for that.”
For Todd, giving a stakeholder a say in the final decision was an important step in the process.
“Color was huge because when you talk to the people that are in a space and there’s been an LED retrofit project and they talk about the lighting and don’t like it, they’re not happy,” he says. “But if you bring them in and want them to select the color they want, then they have some buy-in for the project.”
Energy-savings numbers from the project are still being calculated, and the university only recently started welcoming students back to campus after a two-year absence. The measuring and savings estimate process continues.
The project is expected to save the university an estimated $100,000 annually in energy costs and reduce the building’s energy use by 54.5 percent. Controlling the lighting levels with sensors and controls, as well as adding a demand response element, will enhance the savings projections over time.
The retrofit will also help decrease the campus’s greenhouse gas emissions by about 386 metric tons to 1990 levels this year and keep it on track to reach its sustainability goal of full-carbon neutrality by 2040.
The successful project also has paved the way for more lighting projects as funding becomes available.
“We do consider the library the template for moving forward,” Keck says. “Right now, we’re sitting on $7 million worth of lighting upgrades. We’ve got a priority list we’re going down and engaging the contractor now.”
After the success of the library project, the maintenance team is operating under the adage of if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.
“Most of the buildings up next are just academic buildings with classrooms in them, none of them as unique as the library and all of them with significantly less lighting than the library,” Todd says. “It’s a mix of academic buildings, administrative, the standard campus buildings. It’s hopefully going to be the same kind of lights, just on a significantly smaller scale.”
While the pandemic was nobody’s chosen way of clearing out a campus, the Sacramento State maintenance team made the best of a bad situation. The university hopes to see the payoff continue long after COVID-19 is no longer a threat.
“This project probably would have been done off-hours, and we would have paid a premium for that, so we would have gotten less scope and spent more on labor than product,” Keck says. “Normally, we’re constrained by the academic year. We’ve got three months in the summer and another month between Christmas and the end of January where we try to fit things in.
“We didn’t expect this, so all of a sudden, we’re being asked what we can do during this time? This was one of the projects that happened to have good timing for this. It’s gotten a lot of attention, and it’s made such a difference. Not just the energy usage but the level of lighting in there.”
Dave Lubach is managing editor for the facilities market. He has seven years of experience covering facilities management and maintenance.