What I’ve Learned from 20 Years of Providing Building Commissioning Services

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My firm is celebrating its 20 year anniversary. When I started Horizon Engineering Associates, LLP (HEA) in 1995, I could clearly see that building commissioning was needed and had a future as a trusted construction process. It interested me because not only did it provide a building that is delivered exactly the way the owner wanted – it also provided a building that used energy efficiently, provided a healthier environment for end users and a clear pathway for timely and effective maintenance. Over the past 20 years, the biggest change is technology and sustainable development; as buildings need to change to address social needs. In the mid to late 90s, there wasn’t the high number of “people per square foot” in each building, computers were much larger and used a lot more power, building controls and management systems were just starting to incorporate the internet and wireless technology was still being developed. HEA likes to stay informed of the technological advances and sustainable products available so that we can properly commission new buildings and also provide up-to-date solutions for retro-fits. Today, we see an increased focus on retro-commissioning, as our current stock of buildings are aging and were not built to meet modern energy codes. For the future, I see increased activity with professional organizations creating and updating guidelines (incorporating energy efficiency processes) and increased legislature developed to allow States and Cities to be able to keep tabs and regulate building energy use.

Here’s a quick list of 20 things I’ve learned over the past 20 years:

  1. Systems are becoming more complex and the time frames to deliver a project have not changed. Having commissioning on a project helps to ensure timely turnover, as systems will perform better.
  2. Energy in some parts of US is getting cheaper. This, however, will not last and with the aging electrical grid and increased emissions, will drive the cost of electricity up. Making commissioning a viable solution to reduce energy.
  1. Once an independent third party commissions a building, attorneys typically stay away as everything will be working in accordance with the owner’s project requirements.
  1. Commissioning bridges the gap between design and construction and from construction to operations
  1. Commissioning is only as good as owner involvement and owner support.
  1. I have never seen a contractor call out his own deficiencies. That’s why third parties are a must!
  1. Nobody shows up to work and says “let me see how I can mess up on this project today”. Everyone is well intentioned a tries to perform to the best of their ability. Its just everyone has their own expectations on a project.
  2. Involve the commissioning provider as soon as possible. Its cheaper to fix things on paper then it does in the field
  3. Start viewing efficiency as a the fifth fuel.
  4. Hire a firm you trust. Make sure they are certified by the BCA.
  5. The value of the service pales in comparison to the cost of the service.
  6. Make sure the firm you hire is staying up-to-date on systems and technology they need to know about the systems in your building then you do.
  7. Teamwork is path to success on every project. There is not one project that I have ever seen that one person single-handedly built the entire project.
  8. Customized testing procedures are a must as every project has its own variations.
  9. It is the responsibility of the Cx provider to ensure operational understanding and provide that understanding to the end user.
  10. Third party commissioning agent provides the objectivity needed to successfully complete the project.
  11. Commissioning helps to drive the construction schedule by making sure the items that are needed for TCO actually work.
  12. USGBC and the LEED rating system have raised the bar in sustainable building design 20 years ago. Now it is time we raised the bar in providing more sophisticated buildings and materials for the world.
  13. Getting the O&M staff involved in the Cx process helps with overall success, they need to know what’s behind the walls and above the ceiling.
  14. Keep learning and keep striving to stay ahead of the curve in this ever changing innovative design process.

We are extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to provide these services to countless buildings over the past 20 years. Here’s to our bright future and thank you for your support.

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Our Best Chance at Combating Carbon Pollution

U.S. Greenhouse Gas Pollution Chart

The Clean Power Plan proposal currently stands as our best chance at combating carbon pollution. The plan understands that the reduction of emissions can be curtailed by power reduction and energy efficiency. The overall goal of the plan is attain a 30% reduction in power plant carbon emissions by 2030. By listening to feedback on the proposal, the plan is collaborative and flexible in nature. The plan will help to generate more power from the cleanest sources and use that energy more efficiently by increasing energy efficiency.

Now, let’s focus on the energy efficiency portion. According to the United States Green Building Council, buildings account for 36% of total energy use and 65% of electricity consumption in the United States. I firmly believe energy efficiency in buildings is one of the major keys to fighting emissions. There are many great things happening in the US that the Clean Power Plan will help to propel. Take, for example, The City Energy Project, led by Laurie Kerr of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Launched in January, 10 U.S. cities are to reduce their emissions by increasing efficiency at large buildings. At HEA, we believe that people deserve to live and work in buildings that are comfortable, healthy and energy efficient. We support the Clean Power Plan, which will provide cleaner air, safer facilities, job opportunities and a better, more stable, world.

What do you think of the Clean Power Plan? Share your thoughts with me in the comments below.

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A Closer Look at Energy Conservation Measures – Window Replacement

As promised, here are more highlights from a recent energy audit and retro-commissioning assessment project. The energy conservation measure (ECM) I’d like to highlight this time is upgrading a facility’s windows.

The majority of the existing windows in our case study are single pane with wood frames in fair to poor condition. With window replacement there is an opportunity for thermal efficiency improvement with the installation of windows with better insulating properties. Typically, energy savings from window replacement are a result of reduced infiltration from gaps and cracks around window frames and glazing and from reduced heat transfer during the heating and cooling season. For a conservative savings estimate associated with this measure, the calculations below are only based on improvements to the windows’ thermal properties.

Overall, we calculated a savings of approximately $5,857/year (based on improvements to the windows’ thermal properties) with a simple payback of nearly 200 years! What can be recommended with these stats? Window replacement was considered, but the economic payback did not justify implementation as an ECM. Therefore, we suggest that when window replacement is required, high performance windows should be used. Replacement windows should have insulated frames (with thermal breaks), two or more layers of glazing with an inert gas “air” gap between and solar heat gain coefficient appropriate for the window orientation and desired level of solar heat gain.

Although not all ECMs end with a recommendation for implementation, this facility can now plan appropriately for the future. When putting together their budgetary needs, they can now reference this study to plan more accurately and most efficiently.

What are some lessons learned from your building energy studies? Have you recently replaced your windows? How did you choose the best fit? Share your thoughts and questions in the comments below.

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A Closer Look at Energy Conservation Measures – Occupancy Sensors to Control Lights

Continuing with my blog series, I present to you a case study in which we provided energy audit and retro-commissioning services. The next couple of posts will be highlighting an energy conservation measure (ECM) that we identified and our subsequent recommendations. The first ECM is Installing Occupancy Sensors to Control Lights.

Our team surveyed lighting and lighting controls throughout the facility. Existing lighting controls throughout the building were manually operated light switches. This method of control allows for lighting operation that does not always align with occupancy hours. These additional hours of unoccupied operation results in wasted energy.

A lighting survey was also conducted and we were able to identify the exact areas where lighting illumination hours could be reduced by utilizing occupancy sensors. Our recommendation was to install vacancy sensors that automatically turn off lighting fixtures in these spaces after a designated period of inactivity. In addition, tying back to our implementation blog post earlier, we recommended that owner’s pre-acceptance orientation take place to communicate operational sequences and maintenance requirements to the facility staff.

Overall, we calculated a savings of 41,198 kWh of annual energy savings, which amounts to $7,168 with a simple payback of 7.4 years.

Do you have sensors installed in your facility? Have you experienced a decrease in your energy bill? Share your experiences and/or questions below.

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Top Tips and Pitfalls of Implementing Energy Conservation Measures (ECMs)

Now that we have developed an energy audit and/or retro-commissioning report, it is time to implement some of our findings. Which energy conservation measure (ECM) to implement has a lot to do with your facility’s priorities and needs. Typically, the ECM that makes the most sense to implement is the one with the greatest return on investment. When investigating implementation, one must keep in mind that some ECMs may be linked. For example, if an ECM involves upgrading your current BMS system, it may initially seem unappealing because of the long return on investment. However, you may want to consider this ECM if it is tied to another ECM, such as adding a reset control or an air side economizer. Both of these are better served if the BMS is upgraded first.

An example of a pitfall, however, includes upgrading current motors to energy efficient motors. I am always a proponent of saving energy, but this particular investment may not make sense based on your facility’s current utility rate and the run time of your motors. A real-life example of this is in a primary school we recently worked. It was identified that the existing HVAC motors were not premium efficiency motors. However, after investigation and pricing, the payback was calculated to be 180 years! This ECM was therefore not recommended, however, if the motors should fail and require replacement, it was recommended to replace them with premium efficiency motors. The most logical thing to do is to work on your low cost/no cost measures. This includes items such as schedules, thermostat recalibrations, sensor recalibrations, etc.

The key to implementing ECMs is to have a plan and document what your intentions are with your report. Identify which measures you are going to implement going forward, who is going to do the work and how you are going to check that the implementation measures were installed correctly and are working. Once we have a plan, it is crucial to share it with ownership so they understand what you are doing with the report and their recommendations

Whether you are planning to use in-house labor or contract labor, a clear scope of work is imperative to making your implementations successful. Clearly define the level of expectations, desired results and most importantly who plans to be in charge of and manage the implementation program.

Scheduling your work to minimize disruptions to your tenants and end users is also important. Having regular job check-in meetings are vital to keeping the project on track with either formal or tool box sessions.

Over the next couple of months, I will be discussing details regarding a dozen or so commonly found ECMs and the pros and cons of implementing them. Stay tuned! As always, if you have any questions, leave a comment below.

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Existing Building Energy Consumption: Current Situations, Trends, Legislature and Solutions (Series Post #8: Real World Application, Case Study)

After all this talk about how great energy audits and retro-commissioning is, let’s take a look at a case study which shows the power of these tools in action. We worked on a historic 555,000 sf museum, originally built in 1897. After an energy audit and retro-commissioning study, the facility will save approximately $520,000 in annual energy savings with a simple payback of a little over 2 years.

Major energy conservation measures (ECMs) that were found in the energy auditing process include: retrofitting gallery light fixtures from incandescent and halogen to CFL/LED lamps, upgrading the old pneumatic controls to direct digital controls (DDC) for AHUs and implementing several control strategy upgrades, such as gallery VFD speed optimization, economizer controls and demand control ventilation.

Through the retro-commissioning process, HEA determined several key retro-commissioning measures (RCMs). A selection of issues found include: non-functioning hand-off-auto switches, inactive BMS points, improperly wired supply and return fans, leaking cooling and heating coils, faulty smoke detectors and AHU steam valve leaks. Testing, adjusting and balancing (TAB) for all air and water systems, setting up an AHU BMS scheduling program and the partial free cooling in the chilled water system were key low to no cost RCMs that were identified.

Major operations and maintenance measures (OMMs) include a steam trap survey, boiler tune-up and cleaning and AHU temperature and humidity sensor calibration.

These results prove that proper energy audits and retro-commissioning services can help significantly reduce energy usage in existing buildings. In some cases, repairing or replacing equipment may not be the best fiscal decision based on ROI. The key is to implement the ECMs that make sense for your facility; both operationally and fiscally. Make sure your provider has the proper understanding to prioritize and recommend the best path for the future of your facility.

Thank you for reading my series about existing building energy consumption. Please feel free to ask me any questions and/or leave a comment below.


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Existing Building Energy Consumption: Current Situations, Trends, Legislature and Solutions (Series Post #7: PlaNYC Local Law 84 and 87)

Energy use in NYC buildings contributes to 74% of citywide GHG emissions through the use of heating fuel, natural gas, electricity and steam. Energy expenses are up to $15 billion per year; therefore, NYC needed to act. NYC responded to this problem with the development of PlaNYC. In particular I’d like to focus on Local Law 84: Benchmarking (LL84) and Local Law 87: Energy Audits & Retro-commissioning (LL87).

“Released in 2007, PlaNYC was an unprecedented effort undertaken by Mayor Bloomberg to prepare the city for one million more residents, strengthen our economy, combat climate change, and enhance the quality of life for all New Yorkers. The Plan brought together over 25 City agencies to work toward the vision of a greener, greater New York. Since then, we have made significant progress towards our long-term goals.”

LL84 began in 2009 and requires owners of large buildings to annually measure and report their energy consumption through the previously mentioned benchmarking practice. In July, they upgraded the online energy star reporting tool (www.energystar.gov/portfoliomanager). They also recently released their second year benchmarking scores (read the report here: http://www.nyc.gov/html/gbee/html/plan/ll84_scores.shtml).

The first energy efficiency reports for LL87 are due at the end of this year. Due dates are based on a building’s tax block id #. Those ending in 3 are required to comply in 2013, those ending in 4 are required to comply in 2014 and so on and so forth. LL87 requires that all buildings 50,000 sf or larger undergo not only an energy audit but also retro-commissioning.
LL87 requires the following base building energy systems to be investigated:
•    Heating, ventilation and air conditioning
•    Electrical and light
•    Domestic hot water
•    Building envelope
•    Conveying systems

The approved certified engineers that can help one comply with LL87 include:
•    Certified Commissioning Professional (CCP)
•    Certified Building Commissioning Professional (CBCP)
•    Commissioning Process Management Professional (CPMP)
•    Accredited Commissioning Process Authority Professional (ACPAP)

Horizon Engineering Associates, LLP (HEA) has conducted nearly 70 energy audits and retro-commissioning projects for LL87 compliance. The facilities have ranged from museums to hospitals. Just to put into perspective how effective energy audits and retro-commissioning has been, when we surveyed 9 buildings, HEA was able to identify over 70 energy conservation measures that, when implemented, will save over $3.36 million in energy costs annually.

Has your building complied with LL84 and LL87? Are you aware of early compliance? Is your city implementing similar laws to NYC’s PlaNYC? Share your experiences in the comments below!

My next post will highlight an energy audit and retro-commissioning case study and comment on my experience with retro-commissioning.

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