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.