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Targeting Incentives – The Retired Farmer in the Mechanical Room with a Crescent Wrench

By April 11, 2016November 7th, 2021Energy Rant

As we transition out of the dollars-like-dog-biscuits for widgets era[1] into an integrated, connected, behavior and knowledge based era (EE Wave 2), we must reconsider incentives. We must reconsider what incentives are, and who gets them. I am only able to get started on this topic with a specific true story, but first…

Sacred Cow #9: EE Programs are not Welfare Programs[2]

The status quo dictates that incentives must go to customers paying the electric or natural gas bills. In other words, like a welfare program, dollars must flow from the masses within a population to a smaller group of individuals within the population. As alluded to a couple weeks ago, to incentivize others, namely the utility, is a sin. But other than that post, we must think broader and aim incentives wherever the barriers exist.

What I am about to tell you is absolutely true and none of it is uncommon, although having it all happen for one facility, is uh, just a little short of amazing.

Story #1, Retired Farmer in the Mechanical Room with a Crescent Wrench

This heading comes from the old board game Clue – a whodunit game featuring who, where, and the murder weapon of choice. In this case, the who was the facility manager for a 50,000 square foot new library in a rural community. We refer to facility managers for such facilities as retired farmers because that was often (enough) the case. And since my origins are in farming, I am free to make fun of my own as I like.

Birth (New Construction)

This facility was built in the 2003-2004 time frame. It included some modest energy efficient features and equipment, but it was one of those that I’ve ranted about many times – it was too complex and prone to waste. The customer was awarded an incentive for efficient design features that were designed into the facility. The estimated savings versus code basics totaled 116,000 kWh and 1,133 therms.

School (M&V)

Within a year, as a quality control / quality assurance task for the program, we found, to no surprise, the building was wasting energy, largely enabled by the complex belt-and-suspenders design. This was a great opportunity for retro-commissioning. A retro-commissioning program didn’t exist yet, but we could use the project as a pilot and case study, along with several others that mostly featured new buildings.

Work (Retro-Commissioning)

The retro-commissioning effort identified 227,000 kWh and 2,900 therms of savings potential. Note, the retro-commissioning savings available were twice the original savings for new construction because it was operated and controlled so poorly. These were not timeclock adjustments.

We take full responsibility for our retro-commissioning projects, but in doing so we must have control over every step of the process. Doing the study and throwing it over the wall to a controls contractor will result in half the savings at best.

Part of that control is writing control sequences to explain how the control system shall respond to various (all) conditions. Precisely how to code the system is the controls contractor’s job.

At project closeout, we test the system, kind of like a clinical exam for medical or physical therapist students. In this case, the student is the controls contractor.

This work occurred in 2010.


Then we wait and watch the savings accumulate; except in this case they didn’t. What happened? The retired farmer in the mechanical room with the crescent wrench killed it. One thing you can do with technology is trace who did what, and his digital fingerprints were all over this.

So we sent the controls contractor back in to fix it. The retired farmer undid it again. Be that way. We gave up.

Years Later

Years later one of our other guys completed an energy audit at this facility. He reports there isn’t much available, but there are some lighting opportunities.

What happened? The retired farmer with the crescent wrench retired and the building was under efficient control as we intended. The controls contractor serving this customer was good. The building was using almost exactly the energy we projected, and they were getting their ~200,000 kWh savings.

Months Later

A few months after completing the aforementioned audit, the utility’s all-world account manager for this customer calls. The customer is complaining about high energy bills. What the heck?

The customer decided to replace the control system, which was performing admirably and minimizing energy waste.

We sent our retro-commissioning controls sequences that were written years earlier to the controls contractor. What went wrong this time? The sequences this time omitted start/stop and setbacks at night. Good grief. You can’t make this stuff up!

In Summary

  • Building was constructed to achieve admirable savings versus the energy code
  • Control sequences were wasteful resulting in 30% savings opportunity
  • Retro-commissioning
  • Control sequences fixed
  • Control sequences sabotaged
  • Control sequences fixed
  • Control sequences sabotaged
  • Surrender
  • Saboteur retires
  • Control sequences fixed
  • Building performs as it should have 10 years earlier
  • Customer replaces perfectly fine control system
  • Night setback sequences are forgotten
  • Customer complains of high bills
  • Night setback issue resolved
  • Birds chirping in a meadow

To be continued…

[1] Refer to legendary posts, Biscuit Discipline, and Behavior Programs, Woof!

[2] I should have started counting the sacred cows a while back, but it feels like we’re about up to number nine, so let’s go with that.

[3] Birth School Work Death is a song by the 1990s group the Godfathers.

Jeff Ihnen

Author Jeff Ihnen

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