Energy Performance Pitfalls
Too many facility executives overlook the importance of training, operations and commissioning in energy efficiency
At first glance it seems implausible: a building with dated systems delivering better energy performance than a facility with newer, more efficient technologies. But it’s not only true, according to a study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star® program, it’s common.
What’s wrong? The first suspect might be the effectiveness of ostensibly more sophisticated, more efficient technologies. Maybe those systems aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
But a closer look at the issue makes it clear that the problem isn’t the technology. It’s a failure by many facility executives to recognize that technology alone isn’t enough to produce an energy-efficient building.
The purpose of the EPA study was to find out if the agency’s Energy Star program was doing what it is supposed to do: recognizing the most energy-efficient office buildings. The Energy Star label is awarded to buildings that rank in the top 25 percent of comparable buildings nationally for energy performance and meet industry standards for indoor environmental quality.
To figure out if the program was doing its job, EPA analysts turned to a U.S. Department of Energy database known as CBECS (Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey), which contains energy consumption and cost information for more than 5,700 buildings, of which more than 1,200 represent office buildings; those buildings were sampled to represent the characteristics of the stock of commercial buildings nationwide. The average energy performance of office buildings in the CBECS database gave EPA a benchmark against which it could compare office buildings that had earned recognition as Energy Star. Both the Energy Star and CBECS buildings used in the study were at least 50,000 square feet in size to assure that the data sets were more comparable in terms of building and operational characteristics.
The conclusion of the study: Energy Star buildings were 44 percent more efficient than the average CBECS building.
On an energy consumption basis, Energy Star buildings were 47 percent more efficient. On an energy cost basis, Energy Star buildings cost 43 percent (42.5 percent) less to operate in 2000 constant dollars. EPA also compared Energy Star buildings with average buildings in the Experience Exchange Report compiled by the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) International. Again, Energy Star buildings were more efficient, witnessed by the fact that their energy cost was 42.9 percent less than buildings in the EER— also in 2000 constant dollars.
That analysis confirmed that Energy Star as it related to commercial buildings was on track. But a closer look at the data turned up a surprise: Although buildings labeled Energy Star and the most efficient CBECS buildings were closely matched in energy performance, the two groups of buildings had very different characteristics. Perhaps the most striking difference was in the kinds of energy-related technologies found in the two groups. Energy Star labeled buildings had far more efficient technologies — chillers, variable speed drives, variable air volume (VAV) systems, energy management systems, economizers and motion sensors — than did the CBECS buildings.
More digging turned up another surprise. Many of the worst performing CBECS buildings actually had substantially more sophisticated energy-related technologies than did the best performers. More variable speed drives, more energy management systems, more economizers, more variable air volume systems, more motion sensors, more chillers — and more energy use.
Evidently, many buildings that had invested in energy efficient technology aren’t getting the energy savings they would have hoped for. Surprised? Many experienced observers of energy efficiency efforts aren’t. And that includes the Energy Star analysts who conducted the study.
“We suspected going in that a well-run building with average technology can outperform a brand new building with the best equipment, if that building is run poorly,” says Tom Hicks, a program manager within Energy Star. “There are a lot of new technologies that can help. But you can’t just plug them in and walk away from them.”
Training to the Rescue
The problem, says Hicks, isn’t the technology. It’s the way the technology is sized, maintained and operated.
“There are all kinds of things that can go awry,” says Hicks. “Often, the operating staff goes back to what they know, just to try to keep people comfortable.” Suppose that, after a new energy management system has been installed, the staff gets complaints that it’s too warm in the morning. In the past, the chillers were always turned on at 4 a.m. With the new system, that might not be necessary. But starting the chillers at 4 a.m. will eliminate occupant complaints. And with an energy management system, the operators don’t need to come in at 4 in the morning to get the chillers started.
“It’s like any tool,” says Alan Mulak, program manager of the Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships, a non-profit organization that promotes energy-efficiency projects and training. “The tool can do a very good job if you have a good operator. The problem is that you have very sophisticated building systems and people who don’t know how to run them.”
Mulak remembers one hospital that had installed automated HVAC controls but never trained the staff. So if the staff got hot or cold complaints, they simply did a manual override. Pretty soon, the system was calling for heating and cooling simultaneously — and projected energy savings were out the window.
“That’s a very common problem,” says Mulak. “I’m not pooh-poohing the system. It was an excellent system.” The problem was that the operating staff didn’t know how to use the system.
Mulak admits he’s biased when he says that training should come first — his organization provides training, after all — but he’s not alone in emphasizing the importance of good operating practices.
“Buildings don’t run themselves,” says Jim Cooke, national facility operations manager for Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. “You can’t install a system with all the bells and whistles and then just walk away. You need people who know what they’re doing to monitor and manage energy use.”
Although there is very little data on the way the most efficient CBECS buildings are operated, there is plenty of evidence that buildings performing at Energy Star levels make operating practices a high priority. Part of the equation in most Energy Star labeled buildings is technology. But that’s not the whole story. “The technology was coupled with a management structure that was supportive of energy performance,” says Hicks. “There is a clear indication that these buildings have an energy champion of some kind. They know their buildings. They’ve been tracking their energy use on some regular basis and comparing it to themselves.” Using the Energy Star energy performance rating tool was just a natural extension of what they were already doing, says Hicks.
Intangibles Are Important
Speaking with facility staff managing Energy Star buildings turned up another factor that’s important to energy performance. “They were excited about what they’d done,” says Hicks. “They were just waiting for someone to call them.”
Excitement may be an intangible, but it can exert a powerful influence. “The risk is that we get caught up putting out today’s fire and forget that our mission is to reduce energy use and energy cost,” says Cooke. “I think it’s the same with any technology. If you’re going to get the most out of it, you’ve got to be in love with it and be passionate about it.”
Needless to say, excitement and passion aren’t enough. At Toyota, a technician at each site is responsible for day-to-day operations; a small central staff keeps an eye out for any signs that energy performance at a site may be slipping. What’s more, Cooke is part of a top-level energy team that gets quarterly reports from the field; a new metering system will allow the team and others in the organization to get current energy performance information. “We’re trying to increase the visibility of energy to ourselves and our senior management,” he says.
There’s another factor that could explain why buildings with less sophisticated technology deliver better energy performance than buildings with more advanced systems, says Gary Graham, vice president of Energy Advisory Services for Jones Lang LaSalle. That factor is commissioning. The staff in buildings with more advanced technologies might simply assume that the systems are working properly. "Commissioning is something that’s often overlooked," says Graham.
Graham has a laundry list of potential problems that could sabotage energy performance: Are set points for temperature and static pressure on VAV systems correct? Are economizers operating properly? Is overlap in the sequencing of valves and dampers producing some overlap with heating and cooling? Are systems turning on and off when they’re supposed to?
It’s not just new buildings that benefit from commissioning; recommissioning of existing systems is also important to energy-efficient operations. “We look at it as a continuous process,” says Graham. The first step is to make sure building systems function the way they’re supposed to; after that, it’s a matter of monitoring energy use to see if systems performance is slipping. “In parallel, you’re performing preventive maintenance,” says Graham.
As big a contribution as training, effective operations and recommissioning can make, there is little evidence that they are being used much more widely. Only a very small percentage of new buildings are ever commissioned in the first place, and the number recommissioned is even tinier.
What’s more, until building owners can see firsthand the performance losses due to a lack of attention to management and operations, Mulak sees no upswing in companies’ willingness to invest in training; in fact, just the opposite is true. The recession is one factor. “The budgets for operations and maintenance are generally cut first,” he says. The need to respond to new security concerns following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 has only added to the pressure on training budgets. In the best cases, training budgets are flat, says Mulak; more often, they’ve been cut.
That’s penny-wise and pound-foolish, Mulak believes. “If you’re willing to spend money on sophisticated building systems, why not spend a just a little more and train the people first?” he says. “Without training, all you get is a tool nobody knows how to use.”
Energy Star Label: The Real Value
Through Energy Star, it is possible to benchmark a buildings’ energy performance, and the top performers can receive a bonus — national recognition.
To benchmark a building, a facility executive enters information about a facility’s energy consumption online at www.energystar.gov. The building will be ranked against comparable buildings and assigned an energy score of 1 to 100. It is now possible to benchmark office buildings, K-12 schools, supermarkets and grocery stores, hospitals and hotels/motels.
Buildings that score 75 or higher can earn the Energy Star label. To be eligible for the label, a building must also meet industry standards for indoor environmental quality.
But it’s the benchmarking across the building portfolio that provides the real value, say those involved with the program. “Benchmarking indicates to organizations how they measure up to their peers,” says Jean Lupinacci, director of the commercial and industrial market under Energy Star. That’s especially important when an organization is doing significantly worse than its competitors. “It is likely a top level business decision-maker will want to know when they perform four times worse than their competitors,” notes Lupinacci. “That knowledge can translate into action and funnel investments into the best opportunity for savings.”