Category: energy management
Energy and water benchmarking is a simple concept that can mean very different things to different people. For some, the phrase conjures a burdensome and impractical requirement – especially the collection of resident utility data where providers don’t make it easy. For others, benchmarking seems like an almost magical catalyst that can unleash a future of high performance, low-carbon buildings. The reality includes both. But whatever your perspective, it’s safe to say that in the last decade benchmarking has gone from “cutting edge” to a mainstream practice of the multifamily real estate world. Still, we’re just getting started.
Launching EnergyScoreCards platform in 2009, Bright Power has been a leader in multifamily benchmarking for some time, continuing to work with visionary real estate companies, publish research and share best practices ever since. In this post, I draw on that experience to shed light on this rapidly evolving real estate practice and answer common questions.
Who is Benchmarking?
By summer 2017, 18 cities and one state now require multifamily buildings over a certain size to benchmark, and sometimes publicly disclose energy and often water consumption (Source: http://www.buildingrating.org). That’s big, and between California’s requirement taking effect next year, the expansion of the NYC law to include buildings 25k – 50k SF and HUD’s new benchmarking rule in development, the number of properties benchmarking annually is set to increase dramatically in the next year. To give a sense of scale, in terms of square footage and CO2 emissions, covered multifamily buildings in NYC alone represent 1.5 Billion square feet and 7.5 million megatons emitted annually CO2. In Chicago it’s 260 million square feet, emitting 1.9 million megatons of CO2, Seattle has 100 million square feet of benchmarking multifamily buildings, Boston 66 million, Philly 5.4 million square feet – and the list goes on.
These numbers, understate the total multifamily properties that benchmark their energy and water consumption, since many do it voluntarily – including the 112 of the 345 partner organizations (that is portfolios, not buildings) that have signed up for the Better Buildings Challenge, or a number of 250 members of the Global ESG Benchmark for Real Estate (GRESB), an investor-led sustainability reporting framework, which includes some of the country’s largest multifamily owners and managers. In other cases, lenders like Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac or housing agencies like NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (NYCHPD) or the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA) require that borrowers, or at least those accessing green programs, benchmark their energy consumption, adding to the number of participating owners.
While benchmarking policies undoubtedly include some owners who have been reluctant and may do as little as possible to avoid a fine, the success of voluntary programs shows that leading multifamily owners are now doing it on their own accord; they’ve reached the conclusion that benchmarking provides real business benefits and is necessary to proactively manage their properties and stay competitive.
How Does It Work and Where Do I Start?
Utility bill-based benchmarking rarely requires any new hardware to be installed to collect consumption data, but that doesn’t mean it’s simple. While even just getting owner-paid data for a large portfolio can require collecting at least 12 months of historical data for hundreds or thousands of utility accounts, the real elephant in the room for multifamily properties is tenant data, which is needed in one form or another to assess whole building consumption and spending, usually required for compliance with local laws. Some utilities have made it easier by providing aggregate whole building data and integrating with ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager, meaning owners may comply with the laws without having to manually type in utility data, or pay a service provider to retrieve and transfer it.
For other utilities, however, getting tenant data requires the laborious process of getting individual authorizations from residents and then collecting data from the utility, often extrapolating a whole building estimate from a (hopefully) representative sample. Even when working with utilities that integrate with Portfolio Manager and provide whole building data, a building owner still must set up the connection to Portfolio Manager (which often involves some amount of troubleshooting), and collect and enter property information (including square footage, units, bedrooms, information on commercial spaces, etc.). Fortunately, the EPA posts a searchable list of the utilities that offer automatic data integration, HUD has created a helpful benchmarking toolkit, and many cities with benchmarking requirements also provide a benchmarking hotline or other resources to help with compliance.
While some building owners have the time and interest to take on benchmarking DIY, most prefer to seek assistance from specialized software or service providers to collect, curate, clean and analyze the data. The good news is there are now several options for getting help, including:
- Signing up for a multifamily benchmarking service such as Bright Power’s EnergyScoreCards service (which for full disclosure I helped create and oversee) or WegoWise.
- Utilizing a bill aggregator or bill-pay service to transfer data to Portfolio Manager such as Ecova, AUM, NWP, Conservice; or others.
- Using a more broadly-focused sustainability reporting services like Goby or Measurabl, which may include integration with Portfolio Manager.
If you need to or want to benchmark and you don’t want to go it alone, there are many companies now ready to assist, some of which have now been running for years, gaining in experience and capability, offering better service and value. Given a range of different offerings, getting an apples-to-apples comparison between providers is critical.
What Can I Do With Benchmarking Data?
Too many conversations about benchmarking begin and end with talking about data. Insight and action are the goals – not just data collection. No one ever saved a kWh or made a building better just by staring at numbers on a screen – no matter how quickly they arrived there or how engagingly they were presented. Translating data into insight and action can be done in dozens of ways, from peer comparisons to identifying candidates for building upgrades, to watching trends and tracking progress toward goals, to measuring the impact of specific energy and water saving projects. Unfortunately, benchmarking laws, and even some benchmarking data services, seem to trust that once building owners collect the data, getting value from it will just happen automatically.
At Bright Power, we’ve seen that while a few owners are adept at translating data into action, most need help from an expert. There are a dizzying number of possible ways to slice and dice and crunch utility data, so performing the right analysis to answer your questions, and then knowing what to do with the answers is difficult. Even simply comparing energy usage between two properties to see which is more efficient is not a simple task: Given differences in geographies, building and equipment types, ages, different metering configurations and other factors, a reasonable expectation for consumption varies from property to property. Buildings are complicated and a meaningful peer comparison is a complex and evolving field (see our recent blogs and whitepaper on the EnergyScoreCards grading model). Providing analysis and insights from data is really the driver of success for real estate companies.
Insight and action are the goals – not just data collection. No one ever saved a kWh or made a building better just by staring at numbers on a screen.
There are no one-size-fits-all answers on how to use energy and water data, but one long-term Bright Power client may spark ideas for how to use benchmarking in your own portfolio. This client, a large portfolio spanning 23 states, began benchmarking several years ago as the key to satisfy GRESB reporting requirements and show their investors they take sustainability seriously. In the last few years, our Energy Analyst and Account Management teams used property spending and consumption data from EnergyScoreCards to identify the sites with the greatest potential for energy and water savings, and target those that could benefit from specific technologies like lighting upgrades or combined heat and power.
We then overlaid project feasibility and savings potential with eligibility for utility and state incentive programs across the country, and identified sites that could receive the largest subsidies for new equipment or more detailed energy audits. Using this strategic, data-driven approach, our engineering and installation teams completed 19 energy audits and over 30 installation projects ranging from common area LED lighting retrofits, to comprehensive whole-building energy and water upgrades, to combined heat and power (CHP) installations. Where work has already been completed, we are tracking month-to-month consumption to ensure expected savings materialize, and the owner can rest assured that we are ready to troubleshoot if things don’t go as planned.
In 2007, Bright Power collected data the old-fashioned way and performed a lot of our analysis using spreadsheets. There were no benchmarking disclosure laws and no national multifamily score from ENERGY STAR. There were bill processing companies but few if any who had meaningful analytics for multifamily. Multifamily benchmarking has come a long way in the last 10 years. If current trends continue, we can count on benchmarking to grow as a practice among real estate owners, and the process continuing to get easier, as more utilities provide whole building data and more service providers hone their methods for capturing, storing and analyzing the data. More owners will also successfully follow their own version of the process described above, moving beyond data collection to use the information to drive significant portfolio-wide projects to save energy and water, cut operating costs, improve resident comfort, access millions of dollars in incentives and improve the value and longevity of their properties.
The next big frontier in multifamily energy and water data may dive deeper into the data, looking at interval or “real-time” information that tracks consumption on a daily, hourly, or even 15-minute basis, allowing owners to more quickly catch problems and enabling a much deeper level of analysis than possible from monthly utility bills.
Many companies are working on devices and platforms to capture and analyze this type of data, although most remain rather expensive for the typical multifamily building. This more granular data may already make sense for applications like catching leaks, monitoring large HVAC systems, or participating in demand response programs with onsite generation technologies like CHP and batteries. Sometimes, this data is already available from new utility smart meters; in others, it will require installation of new hardware, but the costs appear to keep coming down and capabilities expanding. Really, if you’re interested in understanding how multifamily buildings use energy and water – things are just getting interesting.
Thanks to Apollo Engineering for featuring Jon’s article in their Summer 2017 Watts Hot Newsletter.
In an effort to save energy, reduce maintenance costs, and leverage investments in existing building management system, more and more facility managers are beginning to research and deploy fault detection and diagnostics (FDD) software platforms in their facilities.
The 411 on FDD
FDD platforms consist of three major components: a way of acquiring data, a set of algorithms for processing it, and a means of displaying the results. If that sounds similar to a building automation system, don’t be surprised: Most FDD systems are designed as add-ons to an existing building management system, though some standalone platforms do exist. The difference is that, while modern BAS collect and store vast volumes of data, creating actionable results from that data is a time-consuming and difficult task. As anyone who has spent hours poring over building trend charts trying to figure out why they always get a particular alarm at 2 a.m. can tell you, this is a task worth automating. But to really save time and money, FDD systems must accurately identify real problems and provide an easily digestible idea of how to resolve it, if not an outright diagnosis. Getting it right is no easy task.
As with many cutting-edge software products, not everyone means the same thing when they talk about FDD. Generalizations are difficult, as even a single vendor’s FDD product is often infinitely configurable. No two software platforms are identical. At worst, FDD software may be nothing more than a fancy way to create alarms and trend plots, albeit with much more functionality than is built into most BAS.
Trending features can include plotting multiple time series of overlapped data, which may help determine the causes and effects of a problem by plotting one BAS point as a function of another, or plotting a mathematical expression based on multiple BMS points. True FDD systems attempt to detect and diagnose equipment failures by applying a sophisticated rule-base — what a computer scientist would call an “expert system.” Such a rule-base contains both general knowledge (“there should be little to no flow in a chilled water loop if the chilled water pump is off”) and knowledge specific to the facility in which it is deployed (“the chilled water loop delta T should never be greater than 12 degrees F or less than 4 degrees F”). From this embodied knowledge the system can make sophisticated deductions. Some FDD platforms come with this rule-base predefined and uneditable. Others allow users to modify or add to it, though often with a steep learning curve.
When the right steps are taken, FDD can be a huge success, speeding the diagnosis of subtle problems that might otherwise have taken months or years to discover. As FDD becomes a more regular add-on or feature of BAS, and as the costs of hardware and data storage continue to decrease, FDD may see wider and deeper deployment. Operator training and trust, and the ability of FDD software to provide targeted information with explanatory context, will continue to determine the success or failure of future FDD systems.
See full article here.
Steam heating systems can be tricky. These ancient systems are deceptively simple and notoriously difficult to regulate. Most owners and managers allocate maintenance budget to the boilers themselves. However, when it comes to the pipes and radiators – the steam distribution system that heats the spaces that your residents actually care about – building maintenance staff are often left to their own devices.
In New York City, you can pretty much tell which buildings have steam heat in the winter without ever going inside — it’s common to see windows wide open in the dead of winter, a consequence of imbalanced steam systems. All that heat flying out of the windows represents dollars flying out of the owners’ pockets.
But, without a comprehensive strategy for making a steam heating system perform its job well – i.e. provide even heating across all occupied spaces in your buildings – you aren’t just negatively impacting your bottom line by paying too much in energy costs, you’re also risking your topline.
Let’s take a look at some of the side effects of a neglected steam heating system.
Anyone who’s lived in a building with steam heat knows there are some unique quirks. One Brooklyn resident I spoke with said that her newborn son is not a fan of their building’s steam heating system. The sputtering and clanking are known to wake people up, and that includes babies. Contrary to popular belief, those noises are not signs that the system is working well: it’s a tip that something is off. But more importantly, it’s a nuisance to residents. Strike one.
Maybe residents are having a tough time getting a hold of their landlord or super, or maybe they think they just know best since the problems are in their homes. Whatever the reason, people often want to take matters into their own hands when it comes to fixing problems caused by their steam heating system.
Case in point: a master-metered San Francisco apartment complex we’re working with is undergoing a major steam heating system retrofit, spurred by exorbitant electricity costs. When their steam heating system wasn’t warming up their apartments like it should, residents decided to buy electric space heaters, sending electricity costs through the roof. Strike two.
Enough is Enough
My own experience with steam heat wasn’t a pleasant one. After roughly 3 years of shoddy heating in my Brooklyn apartment, a frigid winter finally froze our pipes and had me saying enough is enough. Yes, there were other factors that made me want to leave my apartment, but reliable heat was chief among them. I went through all of these phases with my steam system. The noises were annoying, but I got used to them. When I got space heaters I was concerned that they were unsafe and I was not pleased with my electricity bills. But when I had no heat coming into my apartment and an unconcerned landlord, I knew it was time to go. Strike three.
Finding the Right Balance
By no means are we condemning steam heating systems. When maintained properly and routinely, these simple systems effectively deliver heat to all kinds of buildings. However, routine maintenance is key, and often undervalued. Poorly maintained steam systems cost more in energy bills and in emergency repairs, but, perhaps more importantly, they negatively impact your customers, i.e.your residents. If the system is a little wonky, most residents will just deal with it. But when steam heating issues pile up, it can push some residents over the edge, causing them to move, and putting a dent in your topline revenue.
For more information, Building Energy Exchange recently released a great white paper called Better Steam Heat. And, of course, we have many experts in steam heating systems at Bright Power – feel free to send us an email at email@example.com or give us a call at 212.803.5868.
Real estate owners and managers are often spooked by energy and water investment projects for a variety of reasons. Maybe they’re haunted by unsuccessful past projects or maybe the results are just ghosting them. Whatever the reason may be, success lies in the approach. Below are some of our top tricks that will help you reap the treats of an intelligence-driven approach to energy and water management.
Don’t be Caught by Surprise
There’s nothing like an unsuspected scream or menacing shadow to scare the bejeezus out of you. However, scary situations are often avoidable with careful planning and awareness of your surroundings. For example, locking into a fixed-rate energy procurement contract is a proactive way to manage the cost of energy supply against volatile (and sometimes terrifying) market prices. This is a particularly useful strategy to consider in a mild autumn, when prices are stable. If you’d like to learn more about this winter’s energy market predictions, check out our blog on the subject here.
Survey the Whole Scene (or don’t just grab the first pumpkin that you see)
When you hit the pumpkin patch, you need to survey your options before landing on the perfectly shaped, sized, and inspirational gourd. That’s how we recommend implementing energy projects too, especially across a large portfolio. For example, take government and utility financial incentives: the SoCalRen program is an amazing opportunity to upgrade properties in Southern California at very low cost, but which properties should you choose? By evaluating your entire portfolio, you can assess where your investment dollars will have the biggest impact and show the highest returns.
Don’t be on the Losing End of Dramatic Irony
If only you could explain to the horror movie lead that answering the door is a poor choice because you know what is lurking on the other side. Alas, they can’t see the whole picture. Buildings are complicated environments with sprawling, interrelated systems and you want someone who can think holistically across all of them in order to effectively manage energy and water. Just because there is a heating problem doesn’t mean that the solution is in the boiler room. In fact, sometimes the source of the problem isn’t related to the equipment at all. In multifamily buildings, residents are as important a factor as any to consider when diagnosing any problem. This is why we recommend whole-building audits and continuous energy management services. Having our engineers go inside a building, speak with residents, and examine all of the systems’ functionality is crucial in diagnosing the root of an issue and presenting an informed solution. Providing continuous expertise and energy management lets us help you anticipate problems and recommend how to avoid them. Otherwise you’re liable to be frightened purely because you’re operating with incomplete information.
Don’t Jump to (Scary) Conclusions
As any parent can attest, some of the scariest things are the things that we don’t understand. And the only way to combat that is to probe a bit deeper and to figure out what is actually going on. It’s like in the Wizard of Oz when they finally peek behind the curtain…or those big, spooky Halloween displays that make your five-year-old scream and cry until you show him that it is just a toy (with an on-off switch), not a real skeleton coming to life.
For example, one of our clients always found water on the floor of their boiler room. Noticing that it appeared to be leaking from the bottom of their water-tube steam boiler, they called the manufacturer’s representative to come out, drain, and inspect the boiler. When he opened it up and saw corrosion on the tubes, the rep said “it’s all gotta go.” Our client was looking at frightening repair costs, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Before rushing into anything, we helped our client select a nondestructive testing (NDT) company and supervised a more thorough ultrasonic testing of the boiler tubes. When the results came back, they were surprising. The corrosion had looked bad, but there was actually minimal loss of tube wall thickness. When we leak-tested the boiler, there were just two pinhole leaks and a leaking joint. The root cause was likely that this boiler had run much more than the standby boiler, and therefore experienced many more heat up and cooldown cycles. The rep replaced the two leaking tubes, we fixed the control logic so that the lead boiler would rotate weekly, and together we filled, started, and tested the boiler – just in time for heating season.
There is so much to gain from strategic energy and water management. From avoided capital costs to utility bill savings and resident retention, the list of benefits is hard to pass up. But in order to get the treats, it’s important to bear in mind these tricks.
EnergyScoreCards, Bright Power’s premiere utility bill analytics software, is releasing an upgrade to its proprietary grading algorithm in October 2016. With this upgrade comes improved accuracy, refined regional analysis, and a focus on the potential for saving energy and water at every building. We’re excited to release this upgrade and give our clients an even deeper, more sophisticated understanding of energy performance past, present and projected. In this blog, we’ll take a deep dive into our new grading methodology and explore the nuances of multifamily building energy analysis.
Why do we grade buildings?
Making intelligent decisions about how to manage energy and water at the portfolio level requires distinguishing between the good, the bad, and the liability in terms of efficiency. If a property owner has two buildings on the same block with very different energy usage, does that mean that the one using less energy is performing closer to its potential? Is it even worth looking into energy saving measures in the ‘better’ performer? What if the buildings are very different ages or have different types of tenants? Or what if one building is in NYC and the other is in Los Angeles?
EnergyScoreCards grades help answer these types of questions and allow you to understand how efficiently your buildings are performing, and where best to focus your efforts and resources within a portfolio to maximize savings. We do this by comparing energy and water consumption metrics for your properties to those of similar buildings in our database of over 20,000 multifamily buildings.
As anyone who knows multifamily buildings can tell you, defining what “similar buildings” means is easier said than done. Multifamily buildings vary in terms of their location, size, age, construction, system types, amenities provided, the size and configuration of apartments, and many other physical and operational factors. On top of that, a variety of metering and payment structures means that in some cases we have access to whole building data, and in others only the portion of consumption paid for by owners. All of these factors and more must be taken into account in order to develop a meaningful and accurate grading methodology.
As our database grows, we are better able to understand the energy and water needs of all different kinds of multifamily buildings across the country. We also continually update our software to incorporate the most state-of-the-art tools available to provide value for our customers. As such, we have recently updated our EnergyScoreCards grading algorithm and it’s our most substantial change to the grading system yet. Our new model is able to better define the concept of a ‘similar’ building and uses new statistical tools to figure out which characteristics are the most important when it comes to grading. With the new model in effect, grades will be ‘fairer’ and will better indicate potential savings by being based on things that owners can actually change.
The EnergyScoreCards Dataset
Our database includes over 20,000 buildings with 800,000 units grouped into more than 6,000 properties, each with over 30 data fields such as total square feet, building age and resident demographics. By analyzing all of this data, we can figure out which building characteristics have the biggest impact on energy needs, and use these to calculate building grades.
To get an idea of the geographic span of our dataset, here’s a map of the U.S. with bubbles representing properties grouped by location.
Why this matters to you
This recent upgrade to EnergyScoreCards is part of Bright Power’s ongoing efforts to continually improve our data analysis and software to give building owners all of the information and guidance they need to better manage energy and water at their buildings. With improved peer comparison, our grades allow for:
- More targeted audits
- Better distribution of resources across a portfolio
- Continued confidence in our ability to understand your building’s needs
Stay tuned for more improvements, we’ve got so much more on the way!
For more on how we’re better defining building peer groups, read on below:
Which building characteristics affect energy use?
One of the main features of EnergyScoreCards is the building energy grades, which allow property owners to understand how their properties compare to other buildings in terms of energy and water use. But determining a fair way to compare properties to similar buildings can be challenging. Our goal is to figure out what information is relevant to building energy use and how we can use this to group buildings with their peers.
There are many factors which contribute to a building’s energy use. Many of these are permanent factors, such as the age of the building or its size, and many are things that a building owner or manager can change, such as the specific heating, cooling and distribution equipment in the building. Our new algorithm does a better job of normalizing for the permanent features of a building, so that the grade is only based on the things that an owner can change – the fixable factors. So now you can know if the huge electric bill at your 30-story building is because it’s not performing efficiently or if it’s in line with other tall buildings with lots of elevators.
Our new algorithm also breaks up our dataset into more geographic regions that have similar climates and energy use patterns. You can see the new regions in the map below.
But how can we tell which building characteristics are important for determining how much energy a building should use? Fortunately, our new grading model can help answer this question, and ranks building characteristics on how much they impact a building’s energy and water use.
Once we understand what affects energy use, we can look at what types of buildings use more or less energy based on the most predictive characteristics. The graphs below show the Energy Use Index (EUI – kBTU/sqft/yr) vs different building characteristics, for all NYC buildings with owner-paid heat and hot-water. No discernable trends are apparent for any of these characteristics on their own…
…but when we look at the EUI compared to multiple characteristics at once we can find ‘pockets’ of parameter space that stand out. In the graph below, each circle represents a group of buildings binned by average apartment size and the age of the building. The size of the circle represents the number of properties in the bin and the color represents the median EUI of the bin. From this, we can see that old buildings with small average apartment size have the most intense energy use. While buildings with small average apartment size built around the 1960s also have relatively high EUIs, these constitute a relatively small number of properties (as shown by the circle size), and so it’s difficult to tell if this is a strong trend. On average though, energy use becomes more efficient with increasing apartment size for buildings of any age, which makes sense as you have fewer residents occupying the same space.
Similarly, the graph below shows how EUI varies with total building area and the average apartment size, and we see a trend of small buildings with small average apartment size using energy the least efficiently.
These graphs allow us to identify types of buildings that require more or less energy per square foot, even when operating efficiently. We can explore this trend further by looking at the distribution of EUIs for two ‘types’ of buildings:
- Old, small buildings with small apartments
- New, large buildings with large apartments
While there is some overlap in the distributions, there is definitely a tendency for old, small buildings with small apartments to use more energy per sqft. In our model, we want to grade these buildings fairly, so they’ll only be getting C’s and D’s if their use is inefficient compared to buildings like them, and not compared to all buildings.
How do we use this information to grade your buildings?
In order to fairly compare buildings to their peers, we calculate each building’s predicted EUI based on its permanent characteristics using our entire database of buildings. This predicted EUI can be thought of as its peer building’s use. To calculate this predicted EUI, we use a Machine Learning algorithm called a Random Forest Regressor. This algorithm is effective at fitting both numerical characteristics (such as building square feet) and categorical characteristics (such as the type of fuel used for end-uses), and it’s also not as susceptible to overfitting as other types of models (something data scientists always worry about). A Random Forest Regressor is constructed of many decision trees, each of which determines the energy use of a building by traversing through the tree based on all of its characteristics. The final predicted EUI is then calculated from the average predicted value from all of the 200 trees in a given model. Since our grading algorithm uses around 60 models total, that means we’re calculating the predicted EUI for buildings in our database using 12,000 different Decision Trees!
A portion of an example decision tree is shown below.
Example Decision Tree
To determine the predicted EUI for a given property, traverse the tree from left to right. At each node, take the top or bottom branch, depending on whether the statement in the node is true or false. For example, for a property with the following characteristics:
- Average apartment size = 1300 sqft
- Total size = 800,000 sqft
- Number of Units = 250
- Year built = 1950
You would traverse the tree, by answering: TRUE, TRUE, TRUE, FALSE
We then calculate the grades based on how much a building’s actual EUI compares to the predicted EUI, so the grades represent how much a building’s energy use differs from a typical peer building based on changeable factors.
With our improved peer comparison, you can think of your building’s energy grade as its potential for savings. A ‘D’ really just means you could be saving a lot of money! You wouldn’t expect your aging apartment building in Minnesota to ever have the same energy consumption per area as a new garden development in California, but with the right focused effort, it can still get an ‘A’.
To download the pdf version of this article, click here.
As leaves change and summer temperatures begin to wane, you can get away with putting off unpacking your winter coat, but for building owners and operators, now is the time to start transitioning buildings from cooling to heating season. With new September leases settling in, it’s more important than ever to make this transition smooth and successful. But what exactly should your site staff be doing to prepare? To ease the transition, our engineers are here to help. Below is a checklist outlining the most important measures to take as we head into the next season.
Cooling System Shut Down
- If laying up equipment for the winter (summer boilers, chillers, etc.) decide on a dry or wet lay-up. For a wet lay-up, make sure the water is treated properly to prevent corrosion during the off-season.
- Drain cooling towers and check for water in low spots. If they run year-round, check operation of the basin heaters and tower bypass valve.
- If shutting down circulating pumps (such as chilled water) that have variable speed drives, consider running pumps at minimum speed. In some systems – particularly ones with old pipes, many terminal units, and clog-prone terminal unit control valves – this can prevent the strainer plugging and valve clogging that would have occurred when the pumps were restarted.
- Seasonal changeover – many systems require manual valve position changes as part of a seasonal switchover. Failing to make these changes properly can result in poor operation or even equipment damage. Does your staff have an up-to-date accurate valve chart? Is there a written procedure and checklist for switchover?
- For any equipment that operates with glycol, check the glycol concentration. Check that glycol feeder supplies are full and feeder equipment is functional.
Heating System Prep
- If boilers have been shut down, have your service contractor fill and start them. If they were running over the summer, they should be cleaned and re-tuned for winter operation at higher firing rates.
- If your boiler is dual-fuel, make sure the oil tank is full at the beginning of the season, so that you have enough oil for a few days of operation during a cold streak.
- Are controls operating in automatic mode at the beginning of the season? Are the setpoints correct? (Do you have documentation of what the correct setpoints are?)
- Check the operation of all heat-trace systems. These are often neglected and abandoned.
- After starting up systems, check that all indicating devices are working. Replace dirty sight-glasses, blown out pressure gauges, and the like.
- If hot water or steam pipes have not had flow during the summer, blow down suction strainers and boiler/s more frequently for the first week or two of operation.
- Check functionality of all outdoor air dampers and freezestats on air handler. Freezestats can be checked with cheap freeze spray. If the stat can’t shut the fan down and outdoor air dampers can’t close, you risk coil freezing and expensive coil damage, not to mention water damage when the iced-up coil thaws.
- Check all piping exposed to freezing temperatures for “dead legs” – sections of piping that have been isolated or bypassed and have no flow in them. These are a freezing risk.
- Check drain lines from any condensing combustion equipment, especially if it drains outside. Combustion condensate lines will stay open in moderately cold weather and then freeze and shut boilers down when temperatures are at their coldest. In freezing weather, building staff should be checking this every day.
These are just a few of the most crucial steps to take before it gets cold to ensure heating systems perform optimally when they’re needed most. We encourage building owners to talk with their site staff to ensure these steps are being taken and incorporate them into standard procedures and written documentation for seasonal changeover. Consistent and reliable operations and maintenance is the backbone of healthy buildings, happy staff and residents and minimal headaches.
The value of energy management is often measured in its impact on expenses – how much money are you spending on gas and electric supply, what is the price of your boiler replacement, how much will a solar installation save you in the long run? But for multifamily real estate owners, the value of energy management reaches well beyond the expense side of your P&L into topline revenue.
Keeping occupancy and rents high is one of your core business objectives. But all it takes is one energy-related snafu to send residents running. Energy management – the least talked about most important secret to tenant retention.
Below are some of the most common energy-related frustrations that can cause a good resident to utter those feared four words – “It’s time to move”. Don’t worry, we’ve also included tips for avoiding these sticky situations.
While most residents choose an apartment based upon the base rent, they can get shocked (and steamed) when they start receiving their energy and water bills. Residents may not fully appreciate energy-efficient appliances on the day they move in, but the real cost of inefficient ones shows up in their utility bills, and reduces the chance that they will renew their leases.
Ratio Utility Billing Systems (“RUBS”), may seem like an attractive option for owners who wish to bill residents for utility usage without the costs of submetering. However, when residents are paying a small percentage of the whole property’s usage, their individual actions have a nominal impact on how much they pay. This means that it is incumbent upon you as the owner to implement energy and water efficiency improvements property-wide, or face the ire of residents when renewal time comes around.
Pro Tip: Install energy efficient appliances, clearly communicate billing procedures with residents, consider energy procurement options to increase control and stability over utility prices.
Even renters want to feel like they own their spaces. A big part of that is having their apartments at temperatures that are comfortable for them. But that is often not the case. The building systems that directly impact resident comfort – heating, cooling, ventilation – are often dependent upon ownership’s energy management strategy. There’s not much a resident can do when the apartment feels tropical in December because of an imbalanced steam system. So they open the windows, for awhile. Some people accept and deal with the energy blunders, but many don’t.
Pro Tip: Schedule an energy audit, followed by retrocommissioning, to make sure systems are properly balanced and functioning optimally. This involves a lot more than just tuning the boiler or changing an air conditioner filter – the whole system needs to be checked and tuned to ensure that it can deliver consistent comfort.
For many people, that nice hot shower in the morning really sets the tone for the day… unless of course the hot water never comes on, the temperature swings wildly between hot and cold, or the pressure makes it feel more like a sprinkle than a shower. For the resident, the worst part is that there’s nothing they can do. As an owner or operator, you have the power to bring in an expert to solve what can be a thorny problem with a number of different possible causes. But you should do it before it’s too late and your tenants are already out the door for the last time.
Pro Tip: There are a lot of things that go into delivering a nice hot shower, including the boiler itself, the recirculation pump, the tempering valve, the showerhead, the water booster pump and the pipe condition and configuration. You’ll need an expert to analyze the system, diagnose the problem and propose a solution.
It’s tough to trace any one move-out to an energy or water management problem but when it comes to multifamily, it’s clear that comfort is paramount and energy and water are directly related to some of the most notorious comfort issues. The good news is that these are solvable problems if you bring in an expert who knows what to look for. Just by acknowledging them you’ll show your residents that their comfort and quality of life is important to you. Let the renewals begin!
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.
People we work with often ask us why this energy management stuff really has to be so hard. Can’t it just be automated, kind of like Turbo Tax? We totally understand. A user friendly app that ties up energy management in a neat little bow would be ideal, but can it be done? We say no. Why?
Let’s break it down.
Real estate owners and managers need a tool that is built to scale. Automatically managing energy in a single family home might be a realistic software venture, although it’s still usually just Mom or Dad yelling at the kids to turn off the lights, imploring them to take shorter showers, and turning down the thermostat at night. However, energy management across an entire real estate portfolio is a different ball game. While there are plenty of tools out there that can handle the large volume of data and provide valuable insights (hello, EnergyScoreCards) they can’t actually do the dirty work.
Energy management for a real estate portfolio, like all nuanced fields, has a threshold at which an expert is necessary. Throw in an HSA and a mortgage to your tax return and you’ll be screaming for an accountant. In energy management, there are so many moving parts that a software-only solution is not only unrealistic, it’s undesirable. Technology can and should play an important role, but ultimately a person, an expert, needs to be calling the shots.
Buildings are complex, living, breathing ecosystems. (That dampness in the air could be because the ventilation system isn’t working, but it could also be that the air conditioners are oversized. Fluctuating hot water temperature could be caused by a boiler problem, a mixing valve problem, or crossover flow between hot and cold water.) Not to mention that buildings house people, and people are very tricky, unpredictable variables. (That skyrocketing water bill might be a leaky toilet, but could also be a crazy tenant who leaves the water running for white noise. The gas spike could be a problem with the boiler, but it could also be a tenant who has started using their oven as a supplemental heater.) We’ve seen it all.
With all these nuances, there is no energy management software for real estate portfolios that can do it all on its own. Technology will continue to drive this field forward, but expert humans are going to play an important role for a long time to come. Besides, you wouldn’t scrap the accountant and use Turbo Tax for your business, would you?