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Energy Management System – Not Another Litter Box

In recent weeks, I have been spending considerable time examining energy management system projects for energy efficiency program evaluation on the east coast.  My conclusion is this: blown opportunity abounds.

The program documentation for one particular project drips with evidence that the project is a free rider, which means the project would have happened anyway in absence of the program.  How do I reach this conclusion?  First, the calculation methodology could work if the user knew what they were doing, but it is clear they either don’t know what they are doing or don’t care to get it right – sell the project, throw some information at the utility in return for cash.  Second, it is a dual fuel (gas and electric savings) project. It appears the project was sold on the merits of electric savings, and the gas savings were pasted on like duct tape holding a tail light in place – again, hand waiving for cash.  Lastly, the return on investment with a simple payback period of about 10 years isn’t nearly good enough for a commercial office building.

The larger issue is the building HVAC design and the seemingly blown opportunity with this energy management system.  This reminds me of the question, “So what keeps you motivated and going all these years in energy efficiency, Jeff?”  Part of the answer is there is an infinite volume of stuff to learn in this business.  In this case, one never ceases to see weird HVAC system designs, regardless of how many hundreds of buildings have been examined.

The aforementioned facility appears to have been built in the 1980s based on its architectural features.  Stick with me through the next couple sentences.  The documentation is poor and inconclusive and leaves me guessing, but it has the fingerprints of a variable air volume system with packaged terminal air conditioners on the perimeter.  For most people who don’t know what this means – think central ducted and cooling system in a home with an electric space heater and window air conditioner in each room, to boot – but this is more like an apartment with the central heating and cooling system AND separate heating and cooling capability in each housing unit; or in this case, office.  Central systems battling it out with crappy motel-like equipment.  You know – human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together; mass hysteria.

The first blown opportunity is construction of this mess.  The design of the HVAC system in this building is the polar opposite of what we posited in last year’s American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, aka ACEEE, Summer Study for buildings.  It is overly complex, duplicative, and primed for heating and cooling systems fighting one another.  In this case, the heating is delivered by super costly electric resistance heat, and  the central heating system (fuel source = natural gas) provides only about 20% of the heating BTU’s.  The rest is from electric toaster coils.  Meanwhile, central areas of the building probably need cooling all the time, and so, the central system provides it, likely to the perimeter areas as well.

The second blown opportunity is concurrent with the installation of the energy management system.  This customer installed an energy management system at a cost of maybe a couple dollars per square foot.  There is no mention of controlling stuff to minimize or eliminate rampant simultaneous heating and cooling, and I’ll bet my house that this is occurring excessively.  This sort of blown opportunity is unfortunately more the norm than the exception.

Articles are published far and wide talking about the energy efficiency potential in buildings, but the industry is too ignorant, and I say this with affection, to capitalize on the real opportunities.  The uninformed observer would think these sorts of energy management systems would be milking the last drops from the turnip when that is not the case at all.

Our industry needs to transform to what I call knowledge based programs for large commercial and industrial sectors.  Recruiting an army of “trade allies” (I hate that term) to do the heavy lifting, unsupervised, is not nearly enough.  Program implementers need to do far more than herd cats.

Leveraging projects with knowledge includes things like design, specification, scope of work review, and optimization of the design and control sequencing prior to implementation; followed by functional performance testing of measures once implemented.

This leveraging maximizes benefits for everyone involved.

  • Customer saves more energy; gets higher ROI
  • Happy customer = good business for cat
  • More impacts for program
  • No free riders

What’s not to like?

Jeff Ihnen

Author Jeff Ihnen

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