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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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Existing Building Energy Consumption: Current Situations, Trends, Legislature and Solutions (Series Post #4: ASHRAE)

American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) is accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and follows ANSI’s requirements for due process and standards development. ASHRAE has helped to mainstream the integrity of commissioning by setting guidelines and criteria for the commissioning process. ASHRAE has also partnered with the United Nations Environment Program to drive their global effort in reducing the amount of pollutants released into the atmosphere by buildings. ASHRAE has created an international advisory team to assist developing countries in their goals to institute and revamp relevant codes and standards.

In terms of building commissioning and retro-commissioning, ASHRAE developed Guideline 0 – Commissioning Process and Guideline, which details the process, intent, activities and deliverables that should be followed to optimize benefits. This document has incited the development of numerous supporting guidelines and standards for the commissioning process. In addition, ASHRAE also defined best practices and created different levels of energy audits (Preliminary Analysis, Level 1, 2 and 3).  If you are interested in learning more about these guidelines, visit ASHRAE’s website ( In particular, they have posted their Fall 2013 online courses here:–certification/2013-fall-online-courses. On October 9th there is a Commissioning for High Performance Buildings course and on November 4th and 6th there is a Commercial Building Energy Audits course.

As part of the PlaNYC initiative to have a more sustainable New York City, all buildings over 50,000 sf are required to file an Energy Efficiency Report (EER) with the New York City Department of Buildings (NYC DoB). This requirement is known as Local Law 87. The EER consists of an ASHRAE Level II energy audit and retro commissioning study of base building systems. Base building systems include systems or subsystems that use energy or impact energy consumption, including: building envelope, HVAC systems, conveying systems, domestic water systems and electrical/lighting systems. EERs are due to the NYC DoB once every 10 years starting this year. The EER reports are due in a staggered schedule, which is based on the last digit of the building’s tax block number.

Do you have any questions regarding ASHRAE and how they are involved with Local Law 87 legislature? Post them in the comments below. In my next blog, I will provide an overview of the second part of Local Law 87 compliance, retro-commissioning.

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Existing Building Energy Consumption: Current Situations, Trends, Legislature and Solutions (Series Post #2: Energy Audits)

Right now, many building managers do not have access to the information needed to make the most energy efficient capital improvement decisions. Information such as energy saving measures, paybacks and life cycle costs of implementing energy efficient strategies are integral. This barrier has deterred the momentum of energy efficient building systems. The solution to help building managers make energy efficient capital improvement decisions are energy audits. Energy audits can identify where energy is being expended (and/or wasted) and provide methods for improving a building’s performance.

What is an energy audit?

An energy audit is a systematic approach to quantify how building systems are currently performing, how performance can be improved, what benefits will occur if these improvement are implemented and the cost and payback for each improvement. The goal of the audit is to identify ways to reduce energy consumption in the building by giving information to owners so they can make informed business decisions. I recommend applying an ASHRAE Level II energy audit, as it is simple yet comprehensive. Below are all the steps taken to achieve a Level II energy audit:

  • Preliminary Energy-Use Analysis: Includes a general space analysis, utility bill analysis, Energy Utilization Index generation and comparison to similar buildings.
  • Level 1: Walk-through: Includes the investigation of operational practices via interview, space function analysis, rough estimates of energy end-use, identifies low or no cost changes to the facility or O&M procedures, potential capital improvements for further study and provides an initial estimate of potential costs and savings.
  • Level 2: Energy Survey & Analysis: Includes a review of mechanical, electrical and plumbing design and operation, maintenance problems, comparison of key operating parameters to design levels, annual energy end-use breakdown, equipment modifications and practical measures and financial and cost analysis.

Who can perform an energy audit?
Energy audits can be facilitated by owners/facility managers ,however, public utility and independent, private sector companies will provide important third party perspective.
There are many individuals that can perform energy audits, but who is truly qualified? According to NYC, the following five types of certifications are approved to provide PlaNYC Local Law 87: Energy Audit and Retro-commissioning (to be discussed as a future topic):

  • NYSERDA approved FlexTech consultants
  • Certified Energy Manager (CEM)
  • Certified Energy Auditor (CEA)
  • High Performance Building Design Professional (HPBD)
  • Multi-family Building Analyst (MFBA)

Have you had an energy audit done on your building? Share your experiences in the comments below. My next blog will explain the term benchmarking, which can help you to understand how your building operates in comparison to similar buildings and explain why this is important.

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Presidential Promises of Oil Independence Aplenty, Results Remain Elusive

Once again, the U.S. is missing out on an opportunity to solve this country’s current energy woes. President Obama has indicated that he would like for the U.S. to reduce our dependency on foreign oil. In his latest speech on March 30, 2011 at Georgetown University, he described how we will reduce oil imports by a third by 2035. In order for this to happen, the focus will be put on producing more electric cars and trucks that run on natural gas, and developing refineries to process billions of gallons of bio fuels. There was brief mention of using alternative energy to help with reducing our oil dependence, but nowhere was building efficiency mentioned. Research report after research report has indicated that building efficiency could be looked at as the next fuel.

Our current President is no different than the Presidents before him. President Nixon declared his intent to get us off foreign oil after the Arab Embargo; and President Carter looked to get us off foreign oil after the Iran hostage situation. President Bush made the same statements after the first Iraq war too. We have been saying this for decades but not doing anything about it.

I can’t put the blame solely on our President; look at the opposition he has had to deal with over his last two years. He killed Cap and Trade due to public pressure from the Republicans as it would cost too much. He tried to develop more offshore drilling, but the rig Deepwater Horizon had its accident. Lastly, he has been pushing nuclear production but, with the last episode in the earthquake/tsunami tattered nation of Japan, the public is now skittish and wants to close nuclear plants and never reopen them.

We have been doing a lot of talking, especially my favorite Senator from Michigan who feels we need to increase electrical capacity by 40-50% to meet the needs of electricity demand for the next decade. He is shooting for a long range plan. I don’t blame him for shooting. Maybe, Mr. Chairman, you can start on developing programs for energy efficiency in buildings which constitutes for 60% of our total consumption in this nation.

We need to set our political agenda aside and come up with a realistic plan. It is my humble opinion that this plan must start with being energy efficient, which is something we could all be doing now, without waiting for further technologies to be developed and implemented.

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State of the Union Address Recharges the Green Movement

I was enthused by the 2011 State of the Union Address where President Barack Obama challenged the United States to have 80% of America’s energy to come from clean energy sources by 2035. At first I thought to myself, “Finally we are doing something about clean energy and climate change.” However, what I did not hear is what we are going to do with the Clean Air Act right NOW. Climate change is currently happening and we are all experiencing it, especially those who live in the Northeast and have to put up with this year’s seemingly never-ending snow. From listening to the experts’ view on this recent weather pattern, the polar ice caps have melted more than normal this past summer and that has injected colder water into the oceans causing extreme weather patterns. There has been a trend of increased rain and snow storms, as they have become the norm over the past few years.

I think 80% is a great goal (knowing that much of the changing climate is attributed to what we put in the air). However, I am skeptical that we can meet this goal if we don’t have a clear plan of action. In addition, our energy needs are rising and the development of clean fuel technologies is lagging. One way to bridge this gap is for everyone to start being a little bit more energy efficient in our lives. We all need to take responsibility of how we are contributing to this problem. We should all examine how we, as individuals, are using energy in our homes and offices and try to conserve more. We can help bridge this gap. It will take effort on all of our parts to start becoming more energy efficient in our everyday lives. For example, I often see buildings using more electricity than is necessary due to inefficient chilled water production or poor lighting design that can easily be remedied. I am also a realist, as these types of reductions will not get us to the 80% but every little bit can help.

Watching some of the news shows such as those on the FOX network who hold the opinion that “Now is not the time to push for the Clean Air Act” just reaffirms my opinion: most people in this country are more concerned with dollars than with saving our planet. I get it – we are losing the race for global financial supremacy to China and India. Frankly, I’m not as concerned about global supremacy as much as I care about what we are doing to this planet. Does it really matter if the Gross National Product (GNP) of other countries is higher than ours? A majority of what they produce goes to the USA for consumption anyway. I understand the idea that if we don’t stay ahead, they will have a better standard of living than us. But, I am not so sure that this is as important as the air we breathe. What is of greater concern is making sure we can leave a planet behind that our kids and grandkids don’t have to clean up just because we were in a race with China over GNP. Enough of the ranting. I need to go shovel my driveway again.

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Congress Clashes with the EPA for Greater Good?

One of the first initiatives that the newly-elected Republican House Majority is working on is to dismantle what they deem as the “job-killing” Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) regulations set forth by the current Executive branch (E.P.A. Faces First Volley From the House). Fred Upton, the new Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee is looking to slash the EPA budget, causing them to be incapable of enforcing some of the emission standards on greenhouse gases (GHG). His reason? He believes that jobs are being exported to other countries. According to the article, “[Mr. Upton] will use every resource available to protect American workers and our economy by rolling back the job-killing GHG regulations.” Once again, our elected government officials would rather sacrifice the well-being of our society, and future societies, in the name of the almighty dollar. But, the question becomes, “Are we looking at the big picture?”

It is true that the cost to generate a coal-fired plant may not be cost effective if in fact, current and more stringent GHG restrictions are passed. And, it is true that increasing restrictions on GHG emissions will cause coal plants to start to upgrade some of their emission controls causing extra costs, which (at some point) could wipe out coal-producing generator plants completely. However, to get to that point, we would need to have an infrastructure in place that could support new types of energy production and a smart energy grid to handle these new green power technologies. I can also say that the jobs that will be created to support all these measures will come from the USA – they just may not be found in Mr. Upton’s district.

I will admit that the current presidential administration has affected me personally in the areas of increased taxes and health insurance, which I am not happy about. What would make me even more unhappy would be to see the good things that this administration has done (such as making tighter restrictions on what we put in the air) being attacked for no good reason. It just doesn’t make any sense.

The jobs will not go overseas. What will happen is that the types of jobs will shift to more innovative technologies in this country, such as electric cars and solar panels. Jobs will also be created when coal plants choose to retrofit their facilities to provide reduced GHG, which will create tax revenue. It will be years before the effects of the EPA will affect the coal miners jobs. By that time, our economy will have recovered and jobs can be made available domestically, as well as abroad.

Let’s put our efforts on being a smarter country and being more energy efficient. Our focus should be on moving forward instead of savings jobs, just for the sake of saving jobs.

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Who Pays for Pollution?

I recently flew cross-country and sat in a window seat which I typically do not like to do. However, on that day the visibility was tremendous and the pilot indicated that it was clear for hundreds of miles. As we crossed the Rockies, I was treated to views of snow-covered mountains and the pristine parks that surrounded them. As we made our way past Chicago, grief struck me as a result of what I saw. One-half-dozen power plants became visible, all undoubtedly filled with coal as a toxic blue haze discharged from each of them. The thought of the amount of pollutants being released into our atmosphere is disturbing. Even more disturbing is the fact that we are still talking about clean air as a pipe dream and that the “theories” of global warming and acid rain are the creation of environmentalists delusions.

Ironically, on that same flight, I read two stories in the paper. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is requiring a New Mexico coal-fired power plant, with one of the nation’s worst emissions records, to upgrade their emissions controls (Coal Plant Would Get New Controls). A local politician was up in arms over the fact that the utility company had to spend $717 million to make this upgrade. He indicated it would cost close to 1,000 jobs and that the government should not make the plant perform the upgrade. Meanwhile, he ignores the fact that this upgrade would add jobs as the technology and installation would be performed by American citizens. Jobs don’t disappear – they just shift from one politician’s region to another.

In the same newspaper, Governor Christie of New Jersey threatened to pull the State of New Jersey’s portion of funding for the new rail tunnel to New York City for reasons that are, in my opinion, politically fueled and nothing more (Christie Halts Train Tunnel Citing its Cost). The tunnel is said to reduce the congestion of commuters into Manhattan and remove thousands of cars off the road that would have normally driven. Gov. Christie asserts that “the state just cannot afford its share of the project’s rising cost”.  However, halting the tunnel project would also cost the region an estimated 6,000 construction jobs.

I think these two politicians need to talk. One wants to hold onto jobs for the sake of sacrificing our air, while the other wants to eliminate jobs due to political constraints.  Both are willing to sacrifice our environment for political gain. I don’t understand the mentality that some people are willing to put other issues ahead of protecting our environment. I am not naïve; I understand that the economy is not robust. We all need to survive this recession and move on. But, why should we sacrifice the environment in the process?

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