FM Frequency: We Have The Power

By Jeff Crane, P.E., LEED® AP
Published in the September 2004 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

As election season heats up, we should expect no shortage of discussion on the topics of energy, conservation, and this country’s dependence on foreign oil. But no matter which political philosophy, candidate, or party we individually endorse in November, this profession should be united in agreement that minimizing our buildings’ appetites for utilities is a worthy goal.

With constant evolution in building technology, there are always opportunities for improving the efficiency of our facilities. Most vendors are eager to explain how their products will satisfy that goal with an economic justification. But what steps should we take to understand how we’re doing and consider projects that deserve our companies’ capital investments (as well as our own personal energies)?

Whether we are responsible for one or one hundred facilities, the first step is acquiring an understanding of utility consumption on a macro level. Even if we don’t have utility monitoring equipment or a 24/7 maintenance staff taking electricity, gas, water, and sewer readings every 15 minutes, we probably have access to monthly invoices.

By recording and charting monthly data from utility bills on a simple spreadsheet, we can develop a high level view of our load profile(s) over a 12 or 24-month period (longer is better). We can then compare the performance of our buildings relative to industry benchmarks for similar facilities and to each other (if we have several). Peaks and valleys in utilities consumption that align with weather fluctuations, adjustments in occupancy, or changes in the use of facilities should be expected.

High level data also allows us to compare actual consumption to current rate tariffs and confirm appropriate rate plans are in effect. Since utility rate plans are often established during construction or development of a building, it’s important to confirm that performance assumptions and projections are accurate.

If we have multiple buildings and find inconsistencies in utility consumption, we should think about what might be causing differences in performance. For example, we would expect a facility with a large data center and a three shift call center operating 24/7/365 to require more KWH per square foot than a facility (in the same town with the same electric rates) that operates from only 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ENERGY STAR program includes a portfolio manager and is a great resource for comparing facilities to each other and to industry benchmarks.

If we are disappointed in the results obtained from the high level benchmarking analysis, the next step would be to talk with maintenance staff and/or critical suppliers to determine what might be causing substandard performance on a particular building. Inefficient or improperly operating HVAC and lighting systems are common sources of power drain in many buildings.

If we don’t feel personally qualified to assess the condition or operation of these systems, a local mechanical or electrical engineer can be engaged to provide assistance on an hourly basis. Some companies offer contingency fee or “savings sharing” based contracts that might also include capital funding. But very careful consideration must be given to the economics of such an arrangement, and there must be mutual agreement regarding how “savings” calculations are made after projects are completed. State and federal energy regulatory agencies, fellow facilities managers, and BOMA, IFMA, AFE, or ASHRAE members and organizations can be good sources for professional contacts and references in these considerations.

As we gain a more intimate understanding of our buildings, we will need detailed information on our utilities consumption. A monthly bill only provides a snapshot of this data, and if we are going to seek and document improvements, it’s important first to understand a building’s typical load profile and learn what time of day, week, and month peak utility demands are experienced. Utility providers can offer suggestions for monitoring options and might even provide this as an additional service. There are also third party companies offering monitoring equipment, software, and Web based solutions.

With a detailed load profile generated over a set period of time, a more proactive look at the building operation can be taken. It might even be possible to consider different rate plans offered by utility providers. Armed with detailed utility data, improper equipment operation can be diagnosed and inexpensively adjusted while investments in new HVAC or lighting equipment can be considered with solid economic justifications based on current utility rates and accurate savings projections.

Beyond the initial benchmarking, adjustment, and capital investment benefits, detailed utility monitoring can be a valuable diagnostic tool in the continuing maintenance of a building. Equipment malfunction, operational problems, or efficiency losses can be identified more quickly with good operating data.

It’s important to remember that “facilities costs” are only second to staffing costs (salaries and benefits) for most companies. And as we know, utilities (particularly electricity) represent one of the largest costs of running a facility.

Every dollar we can reduce from utilities expenses can make a positive contribution to the bottom line. So in addition to being responsible corporate citizens by minimizing the environmental footprint of our operations, we’re also doing the right thing for our business while adding to our career toolbox.

I’m Jeff Crane, and I approve this message.

Crane is a mechanical engineer and regional property manager with Childress Klein Properties, a leading real estate developer and property management services provider in the Southeast.