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True or false: It’s easier to teach Pablo Picasso how to paint a house than it is to make a house painter into a Picasso-grade painter/artist.  For the answer, keep reading.

I was sitting in a session at last week’s AESP conference sipping my weak overpriced Starbucks when I almost sprayed a mouthful on the bystanders sitting in front of me.  Not one, but two guys opined that it is easier to teach, for example, a refrigeration expert retrocommissioning than it is to teach a retrocommissioning/energy expert efficient refrigeration.  Allow me to demonstrate with an example, a true story.

A while back we were hired to assist with the design of an ammonia refrigeration system for a new distribution center.  Our charter was energy efficiency and allow the contractor to make it happen.  They had already hired a competent refrigeration expert.  We reviewed his conceptual design which was already very good.  We made a few improvements and completed our report with impacts for the program.  Months pass and the project comes in for a custom efficiency incentive.  I was appalled at what had happened.  The contractor went ahead with what they always do.  Instead of installing four compressors, two small, and two large, sized appropriately for both optimum summer and winter efficiency, they used three compressors that really worked well for neither.  All in favor of doing things the way we’ve always done them, raise your hand.  Needles and camels come to mind when pondering the conversion of these chumps to RCx “experts”.  Good luck with that.

There are only a handful of system-specific EE experts for things like compressed air, refrigeration, and steam in the country.  How do you know Jeff?  Because utilities have money available for energy efficiency upgrades and that will draw customers and system experts out like a hot apple pie draws in black bears at a state park.  Only the most ignorant or stubborn customers would bypass a program’s money to pay for services, unless the program is awful and worth less than the time investment.  We have been told by some providers that indeed they are a waste of time in their opinions.

With all the custom efficiency implementation and evaluation work we have done over many years, I’m sure we know most of them in the markets we serve.  These are not the guys they are talking about.

Why?  Because people focus on their deliverables.

  • Refrigeration experts: cold
  • Compressed air experts: pressure
  • Architects: functional sexy buildings
  • HVAC designers: comfort

Refrigeration, compressed air, and steam guys are focused on selling stuff, almost always.  They are not consultants.  We know this all too well as contractors have approached us by the dozens over the years to help make the business case for their prospective customers.  But soon they find that we are focused on doing the right thing, which may include messy system modifications and controls adjustments with little capital investment – and getting the analyses right.  To my knowledge, none of these has gone anywhere.

As far as architects and engineers are concerned, they cannot afford to pound the streets for energy efficiency studies.  It may take as much time to land a $8,000 energy or RCx study as it does to land a $200,000 design project.  Gee, which way would you prefer?  However, they may use the $8,000 to land the eventual $200,000 design project.  This happens quite a bit and it chaps our butts because the business model includes a cheap shabby study with a solution being something they like to design.  Surprise!  Meanwhile, we price the study based on what we think it should take to give the customer what they need – the best value.

Motives:  Knowing them is absolutely critical.

To others’ potential surprise, commissioning is FAR different than retrocommissioning for energy efficiency.  Commissioning includes ensuring the owner gets what he’s supposed to get, helping to reduce cost by reducing costly change orders and then making sure control systems work as designed.  It does not include design assistance or revising control sequences that “work”.  A Cx agent knowledgeable in energy efficiency may suggest tweaking something that is really, really dumb, like having a large variable air volume system also serve a small equipment room with equipment pumping out lots of heat 24/7/365.A Cx agent that recognizes this is likely the exception and not the rule.  It’s just not what they do.

Retrocommissioning for efficiency is helping to quell problems, typically comfort or equipment maintenance issues but mainly to save energy.  It includes reviewing the control sequences but almost always modifies them because the designer, or installer, somebody, anybody, everybody (?) was not an EE expert.

Is it easier for a Cx to become an RCx or an RCx to become a good Cx?  Good question.

Back to the topic of easier to train a controls, refrigeration, or compressed air guy (not the diamonds in the rough types discussed above).  Yes, you can train them to look for and fix certain things, like painting by numbers.  But as I always say, one can plan for and teach in two semesters of engineering graduate school about half the measures that save energy in HVAC.  The other half?  You can’t imagine what the other crazy half would be.  These would include someone not doing what they should be doing, a design mistake or an ignorant design.  There is no limit to the seven deadly sins plus ignorance and it is impossible to predict the implications from them.  And then again, what is their real motive?

Answering the quiz:  False.  Picasso is dead.  Presumably, the house painter is not.


Midwest Energy, a Kansas cooperative, has what appears to be a great program to finance energy efficiency on the utility bill.  Payments for the upgrades are less than the savings on the energy portion of the bill.  What a concept!  It’s only been around for 30 years but is rare typically because utilities either have a hang-up with key elements or regulators won’t allow key elements.  Topics for another day.

The Chicago Trib published some excellent energy efficiency myths.  Note one of them is the vampire loads of chargers I ranted about a couple weeks ago in Flying Rodents.

Jeff Ihnen

Author Jeff Ihnen

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