Month: June, 2016
In the US, buildings account for about 40% of the primary energy use. Now, a lot is being done to cut that number down and companies like ours exist to do just that. Sustainable building practices are on the rise with recently developed standards like LEED, Enterprise Green Communities, and Passive House. Cities are mandating stricter energy usage reporting to collect better data that they can then use to inform green policy and legislation. So I’d say we’re headed in the right direction but there’s one thing that always sticks out in my mind when thinking about efficiency in the long term, the one variable that is arguably the most important and the most difficult to control: people.
In any kind of building, though particularly in multifamily properties, the people using the building ultimately decide whether or not it’s going to be efficient. New equipment and cutting edge technology are only going to get you so far if the people inside the building don’t adopt them. As simple as that may sound, we’ve often found it to be a barrier to long-term savings and performance. In some ways it makes sense since energy efficient behavior can be in direct conflict with comfort and productivity. Letting the AC blast for hours on a sweltering summer day just feels right sometimes. But as studies have shown, this part of the energy efficiency equation is crucial to its successful results. Let’s take a look at some of the behavioral studies that explore this topic.
The US Department of Energy conducted a study in 2014 to assess the behavior of federal employees, operations and maintenance staff, and visiting public in federal buildings and their impact on building energy performance. The study employed strategies from peer-reviewed literature that are shown to drive behavioral change and aligned them with specific sustainability goals. Key strategies used to promote behavioral changes included education regarding emerging technologies, offering rewards, and securing commitments. The study concluded that the groups’ behavior significantly impacted the results of proposed energy efficiency initiatives. These results were not surprising to me, nor would I expect them to be surprising to anyone, but the fact of the matter remains that the behavioral component of energy efficiency initiatives, while crucial, is the most difficult to control and often most easily overlooked.
Behavioral Cooperation in Action
So what happens when you get everyone who works or lives in a given building on board with energy efficiency? According to a study published by the US Environmental Protection Agency in 2013, occupants contribute to 30% of a building’s energy consumption. These findings inspired Allegheny County’s Sustainability Office team to collaborate with an energy management services provider, to implement a program to improve employee behavior towards energy efficiency within the organization. The county’s participant group consisted of 6,000 employees, making it a significant opportunity to observe energy conservation as affected by behavioral change. The program was based on four key steps:
- understanding individuals’ behavior and establishing a baseline
- raising awareness and communicating the impact of energy conservation
- creating a sustainable behavioral program
- revisiting existing programs and improving upon their practices.
This effort proved to be a huge success at the organization. In just a few months, the county saw significant improvements in three key behaviors: turning off lights, turning off computers when not in use, and switching to a community printer, which in turn led to measurable energy savings. See Figure 1 below for more detailed findings.
In Allegheny County, energy consumption went down thanks to a concerted effort to change attitudes and behaviors, but I wondered whether or not we were starting with a low bar since the US is known for being a global energy hog. Would the same be true in other, more energy savvy parts of the world?
Several similar studies have also been conducted in countries where the general awareness of and responsibility towards energy efficiency is observed to be higher than the global average.
The 2013 paper by the European Environment Agency that analyzed the behavioral impact on consumption patterns also published findings on the impact of behavior on energy efficiency. It showcases that an interface between policymaking and human behavior is key to achieving sustained reductions in energy consumption. As noted in the paper, for several energy efficiency measures implemented in Europe, the success has depended crucially on individuals to understand the information they receive and to act upon it. One of the prime examples highlighted in the study combines direct and indirect feedback methods such as deploying smart meters, installing in unit energy consumption displays, providing detailed bill analysis and historic consumption comparisons. These strategies have been most successful in changing individual behavior to achieve energy savings. And it makes perfect sense.
You can install the most efficient, cutting edge technology on the market but if you don’t get your people to adopt it, it’s just not going to be effective. Take faucet aerators, for example. These innocuous fixtures are tremendous energy savers, but all someone has to do to impede on those savings is unscrew it from their faucet. Explain to the resident how they work and allow them to be a part of the selection process and you’ll see your long-term savings.
These are just few examples in the long list of studies and observations that highlight the importance of individual behavior in this context. It would not be farfetched to say that the success of emerging technologies and improved practices hinges on its users as much as the product’s viability and cost implications.
By no means can behavior alone achieve our goal of operating a more efficient building, providing a more comfortable residence, or living in a more energy efficient world, but it is crucial to our success in any one of those endeavors.
Wolfe, A.K., Malone, E.L., Heerwagen, J., & Dion, J. 2014. Behavioral Change and Building Performance: Strategies for Significant, Persistent, and Measurable Institutional Change. Report prepared for the U.S. Department of Energy under Contract DE-AC05-76RL01830. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, WA.
Zachery Ambrose, Ashley Jones, Sally Russell 2014. Energy Saving Behavior Change for the 21st Century. ACEEE Summer Study on Energy Efficiency in Buildings.
Rachel Young, Sara Hayes, Meegan Kelly, Shruti Vaidyanathan, Sameer Kwatra, Rachel Cluett, and Garrett Herndon 2014. International Energy Efficiency Scorecard. American Council for Energy Efficiency and Economy.
It seems like every week a press release comes out about a new energy analytics platform – usually topped off with a breathless headline and peppered with buzzwords. “The Only Energy Management Solution You’ll Need.”
It seems like “energy management” has become a catchall for hardware and software companies to sell their products. Search on Google and you’ll find building management systems, controls software, electrical switchgear, and almost anything else you can think of that vaguely relates to energy. Building controls in particular seem to dominate the conversation, though little is said about how to use them.
But where have we really come since digital building controls and graphical interfaces were introduced in the 1980s? Take a look at any energy analytics platform that just took its Series B. It will be cloud-hosted – an admitted improvement – and it will have robust support for making an endless number of dashboards. But its core capabilities will be the same as they’ve been for thirty years: alerting, trending, reporting, and sometimes benchmarking.
Make no mistake, these can be invaluable, even essential tools, but the fact of the matter is that none of them on their own will effectively manage energy in your buildings. We see it all the time. A building operator may see a trend in the system – a pressure slowly increasing, or a sudden temperature change, for example. Sophisticated enough software might call this to their attention automatically, yet effective action is not always taken. Why?
There are many potential reasons. Fear stemming from organizational mistrust can breed a culture of silence where intervention is only made in the most dire circumstances. We commonly hear, “I don’t touch that” because of the potential repercussions, perceived or actual. Signs of a problem may also be subtle. Few real estate organizations can afford to place a highly trained engineer in every building, and it’s rare that a process exists to connect operators with the technical resources they would need to solve problems. Information on how problems were detected and solved is siloed across organizations. Experience and history are constantly re-learned instead of being disseminated across the organization. And the staff who operate the building are rarely incentivized to maximize its efficiency – policies and performance indicators don’t exist at the organizational level.
As a concrete example, we had a client whose chiller failed before a major event, resulting in an emergency service call. Because of its age and concern about reliability during multiple startups, it was decided to keep the unit running 24/7 for the rest of the season. All that added up to hefty repair, operating, and energy costs that were entirely unnecessary.
Avoiding a problem like that takes more than software. If staff were properly trained, better preventative maintenance would have taken place over the years. If good recordkeeping practices were implemented, and most importantly, if someone was responsible for trending and analyzing records on the chiller, they would have seen the chiller progressively losing vacuum over the course of the summer. They could have moved the issue up the chain of command to someone who had the authority to allocate capital to the problem. Action would have been taken proactively.
Management – of any kind – requires the integration of people, process, and technology. Just as you wouldn’t replace your COO with a business analytics platform, we believe you shouldn’t stop at buying an energy analytics platform. You’ll get valuable data, to be sure, but you need someone who understands it, is empowered to act on it, and has a process to effect change.
Otherwise it’s just another box in the boiler room, sitting on your control panel – next to the last box someone told you would solve all of your problems.
When was the last time your organization reviewed its maintenance policies? Operations and maintenance (O&M) can be easily overlooked when formulating an energy management strategy for your portfolio. O&M may not be as sexy as a lighting retrofit, but it is the first line of defense against energy and water waste. Effective O&M systems are critical to any successful energy management program but, to many, these are foreign terms. Before we go any further, let’s talk about them – separately.
Operations includes all of the processes needed for an organization to deliver its product. For a business – that means hiring employees, paying them, charging and collecting fees, etc. For a multifamily property – the same processes apply. There are additional concerns, though. The heat needs to work. The water needs to run. Lights need to turn on. Each activity contributes to the property delivering its “product” – safe, comfortable homes.
What is maintenance? Maintenance includes the physical side of operations: making repairs, painting, turning the heat on, turning if off, and replacing filters. Maintenance activities are necessary for keeping the physical components of a property – the roof, the windows, the boiler, the toilets etc. – functioning effectively and efficiently. Each building component requires maintenance to help provide a safe, comfortable home for residents.
Why is O&M Important?
Both facets of O&M are equally important to providing desirable homes. Why is my apartment 80°F in January? Because the boiler is not operating as originally intended. Why do I smell my neighbor’s dinner every night? Because the roof fans were not maintained – and need new belts. These problems are the result of relatively minor oversights from building staff. Systematic O&M processes helps prevent these oversights from slipping through the cracks and compounding each other over time. An effective O&M strategy helps ensure inspections happen when, and how, they should.
Operations & Maintenance are the front lines of energy efficiency. Small changes in operations or maintenance can have significant effects on building performance. Changing a chilled water supply setpoint by 1°F can increase a chiller’s energy usage by 2%.
O&M is not just about eliminating waste. It’s also about providing value. O&M is key to keeping residents comfortable, one of the most important goals at any property. Uncomfortable residents move out, increasing turnover and expenses on the management side. What makes tenants uncomfortable? Does the heating system sound like a drum solo every time it comes on? This is just one minor issue that often affects residents, and management, in a major way. In this scenario, it’s the result of steam traps. Failed steam traps can force steam into the return piping, leading to that nasty banging you hear every time the heat comes on, and plenty of energy waste too! That’s the kind of problem that can be avoided by routine testing and replacement, a standard practice in a sound, strategic O&M plan.
What can you do about it?
Just as small changes in O&M practices can lead to waste – the opposite is also true. Operational changes can also result in significant energy savings. Something as small as changing HVAC setpoints can significantly affect heating and/or cooling energy usage for the better. Regularly scheduled coil cleanings can keep HVAC units running at high efficiency. The key to unlocking these savings is developing an ongoing O&M strategy. Over the last few years Bright Power has helped many organizations do just that. We’ve created new inspection checklists and maintenance schedules to help both property managers and maintenance staff define “effective” operations and maintenance.
It is critical that an organization define which maintenance procedures must be followed at a property. Equally important is how often they should be completed. A clearly defined scope listing maintenance staff responsibilities creates a benchmark against which performance can be evaluated. It can also act as a resource for new hires –showing which inspections and/or repairs need to happen, when they need to happen, and most importantly how to do them. The last part there is the most important. It’s not enough to define which tasks need to be completed – there must be a reference for how to complete each one.
Operations and maintenance are both critical to running an effective property. O&M can also be an effective tool in an energy management strategy. An effective O&M strategy for a portfolio will identify and reduce energy waste, and also keep residents comfortable. When was the last time your organization reviewed its O&M policies? It’s never too late to start.