Services & Maintenance: Energy Improvements

By Matan Marom, CEM
Published in the March 2011 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

The opportunities for easy, obvious, and often low cost energy efficiency projects, otherwise referred to as “low hanging fruit,” are seeing a decline in the building industry. During facility site visits, energy service professionals are often finding that the low hanging fruit has simply been picked clean. With this growing trend, facility managers (fms) may need to turn to more complicated, resource intensive projects that require a higher level of customization in order to meet energy and sustainability goals.

Combining energy monitoring equipment capabilities with the knowledge of trained maintenance personnel enables facility managers to track the performance of an energy project and be made aware if complications arise. (Chart: Schneider Electric)
Combining energy monitoring equipment capabilities with the knowledge of trained maintenance personnel enables facility managers to track the performance of an energy project and be made aware if complications arise. (Chart: Schneider Electric)

Comparing the success of these more specialized projects in the long term with the success of low hanging fruit projects reveals that the savings from the specialized projects tend to degrade over time. Yesterday’s approach to energy efficiency projects no longer applies.

Unlike more straightforward projects, such as lighting retrofits and equipment upgrades, the more complex projects are usually characterized by a need to sustain energy savings proactively. And in order to ensure the long-term sustainability of energy savings, fms need to recognize there is a behavioral component to consider. For this reason, fms implementing complex energy projects should carefully manage this behavioral element and guide stakeholders as they adopt the changes that come about as the result of a project.

Energy Savings Through Recommissioning Or Retrocommissioning

By Terry J. Gillick

When facility professionals think of commissioning a building’s systems, they may typically think of full life cycle commissioning—a process that begins at the design phase and continues through the life of the construction project. They know this systematic process assures that a building performs according to the design intent and the owner’s operational requirements, which generates significant energy savings when the facility continues to be operated and maintained as intended.

Less frequently considered is the value of recommissioning (for a facility that was previously commissioned but needs to be retuned or recertified), or retrocommissioning (for a facility that has never been commissioned). Yet these processes have the potential to generate energy savings of five to 15%—perhaps as much as 20%, depending on the type and size of facility.

Fms most commonly initiate recommissioning or retrocommissioning for one of several reasons: when planning an upgrade to the central plant, electrical service, and/or building automation system (BAS); when planning modifications to an ancillary system (such as the fire alarm system), which is tied into the BAS; when specific capacity or reliability issues are identified; or when there is a change of mission that requires a higher level of reliability.

The process of recommissioning examines mechanical and electrical loads and their origins and determines if the facility is configured and operated in the most efficient manner. It also ensures that building automation and control systems are properly adjusted, all automatic features are enabled, and operators are running the facility according to design.

Through this process, mechanical and electrical systems are retuned or fine tuned to gain the greatest possible efficiencies. In a facility with large loads (e.g., a central plant of 1500 tons or larger), it is possible to save 15% to 20% on annual energy and or associated fuel costs.

In addition to the common drivers mentioned above, there are two others specific to recommissioning. These are: validating performance and aiding in maintaining LEED certification.

Many fms who have performed full life cycle commissioning see the value of recommissioning within the first year of occupancy to validate performance (especially in mission critical facilities). Recommissioning is typically performed between eight and 12 months to assess equipment before warranties expire. The process includes an operational review to discuss current operational procedures, identify any issues in operation, and recommend changes as necessary.

For facilities that are not on a flat electrical utility rate, recommissioning also includes a review of the utility rate structure and identifies opportunities to adjust demand to take advantage of off-peak rates.

In addition, the process establishes operational benchmarks going forward. To maintain the energy savings and other gains associated with full life cycle commissioning, fms may initiate recommissioning annually or semiannually.

Fms of LEED certified facilities can also benefit from recommissioning. In particular, for buildings to earn and retain a LEED Enhanced Commissioning credit, recommissioning must be performed within the first year of occupancy.

Retrocommissioning: Never Too Late
Even if a facility has never been commissioned, it is almost never too late to gain the benefits of retrocommissioning. While it is not possible to change the original design of the mechanical and electrical systems, the process can yield significant energy savings, depending on the facility. A simple life cycle cost calculation will help to determine the return on investment for commissioning costs and the potential economic gains based on the projected useful life of the facility.

The ideal timing for retrocommissioning is associated with one of the drivers noted earlier: when planning an upgrade to the central plant, electrical service and/or BAS; when making modifications to an ancillary system; or when there is a change of mission that requires a higher level of reliability.

Like recommissioning, retrocommissioning can be used at any time to assess capacity or reliability issues. Similarly, retrocommissioning can be used as a basis for fine tuning systems, optimizing overall operational efficiency, optimizing demand against rate structure, and establishing benchmarks for future operation.

The process is virtually the same as that for recommissioning, with likely additions based on the challenge of documentation. Original documents (plans, specifications, as-built drawings, and sequence of operations) are often unavailable or inaccurate. Typically, the facility is also lacking in established, documented operating criteria and procedures. Yet, the information contained in those documents is key. As a result, some of the audit work becomes “forensic,” requiring additional time and expense. However, at completion, the process will generate valuable documentation of current systems and operations. Fms can reduce the expense associated with the process of recommissioning or retrocommissioning by finding, maintaining, and updating as-built documentation.

A Leading Challenge
Recommissioning and retrocommissioning are typically performed in an occupied facility, although retrocommissioning might be performed when a building changes ownership but prior to occupancy.

Therefore, the biggest challenge is performing a commissioning process without disrupting normal operations. This challenge is heightened in a mission critical facility, where every step in the process poses a risk to the load. This raises the level of coordination required to perform either process, and the process must be scheduled outside of restricted periods. In addition, fms and all other involved parties must commit to the time away from their normal schedules. On the other hand, a fully occupied building provides the best picture of performance under normal load conditions.

Gillick (, a senior vice president at Primary Integration Solutions in Charlotte, NC, has over 30 years of MEP design and commissioning experience, working in government, mission critical, healthcare, and pharmaceutical facilities. He is knowledgeable in the engineering and specification of sophisticated building automation, UPS, emergency power, defensive filtration, telecommunications, security systems, and precision cooling.

This idea is nothing new. In fact, it is the entire basis of recommissioning—an approach where building systems that are initially commissioned after new construction or renovation is completed are re-examined to ensure they are working as designed. This is because, over time, responses to minor hot/cold complaints, arbitrary adjustments by maintenance staff, poor communication of operating procedures, and failure of BAS components accumulate until the building needs to undergo a formal recommissioning to bring all systems and set points back to efficient and reliable operation.

This process is often continued throughout the life of the building by recommissioning on a periodic basis. Meanwhile, retrocommissioning refers to the instance when this process is performed on a building that has never been commissioned. [For more on this topic, see sidebar at right.]

Although commissioning is a generally accepted concept in the performance of whole building systems, it is rarely considered for individual efficiency projects. Moreover, the behavioral management which could avoid this natural drift in both instances is often not stressed throughout the implementation process.

Fms can consider the case of an organization that used a coal fired boiler to provide steam for its plant operations. To save energy, an oxygen sensor and trim controller was installed so the boiler could use the minimum amount of air for efficient combustion. After several years, this oxygen sensor failed, and the trim control of the boiler ceased to function. Operators were immediately made aware of this failure, because coal fired boilers without adequate oxygen supply have the side effect of billowing dark black smoke from their stacks.

In response, operators turned up the excess air of the boiler far beyond the point where black smoke stopped exhausting, and the boiler then ran in an extremely wasteful manner for several years. It was not until a site team from an energy services company identified this issue, calculated the excess air losses, and formed a business case for repairing the oxygen trim control system—a retro-commissioning of sorts. The failure of this sequence of events was not the malfunction of the trim control system, but rather it was the failure of plant personnel in their response to the issue when it first occurred.

The lesson from this example is not that maintenance personnel are lazy or irresponsible. It is simply that their behavior was not adequately managed at the outset of the project. In addition, they were not effectively guided towards sincere buy-in to the value of the project and the need to maintain it over time. Achieving this end is commonly perceived as a nebulous and doomed task. However, with the following key simple behavioral management changes, the likelihood that a complex energy project will sustain benefits over time can be greatly improved.

Install an appropriate metering and monitoring scheme. Measurement and verification (M&V) is the act of installing metering equipment and tracking energy use to verify the impact of an efficiency project that has been implemented. M&V is commonly applied to projects that are funded through their future energy savings (such as within a performance contract). However, M&V is equally important for individual efficiency projects, because it is likely the only way—outside of the rare instance of receiving a “smoke signal” from a boiler—to warn operators of a problem.

Modern metering equipment is extremely advanced and affordable, and current offerings commonly include options for web based monitoring. By installing appropriate metering equipment and instituting a monitoring scheme, it becomes easy for fms to track the performance of an efficiency project and to receive a red flag from systems in the event that unforeseen complications arise.

Include upper level involvement, and develop a strategy for efficiency. Traditionally, the job of upper level management in an organization is to increase profitability. However, energy and sustainability are increasingly becoming actionable concerns for those occupying the C-suite. Therefore, it is important for fms to include the highest levels of management possible during the design, planning, and implementation stages of a project.

By involving those at the higher levels of their organizations, fms not only raise awareness of the benefits of specific projects, but they also help to form energy initiatives and develop a strategy. More importantly, this strategy is communicated throughout the organization in real terms as opposed to abstract ones. When energy and sustainability projects are promoted throughout an organization, they gain more credence and add to stakeholder pride.

Harbor individual buy-in by promoting autonomy.
As previously mentioned, equipment operators and controllers are rarely apathetic towards maintaining energy efficiency. Rather, their incentive structure is in contradiction to it. In a building environment, for instance, occupant comfort is more important than energy efficiency. Similarly, in a manufacturing setting, production is king.

However, an organization’s “product” and its sustainability do not have to be mutually exclusive. Moreover, assigning importance and incentives for sustainability commonly drives positive change in the status quo. It helps form a philosophy that yields a more comfortable building and a more efficient production chain in the long run. This is because sustainable thinking builds a culture that minimizes all forms of waste and increases a sense of personal responsibility. Because of this, fms should give sincere effort to building individual value and pride for all project stakeholders. In the larger sense, an organization should strive to form a meritocracy in which good ideas are rewarded and trump the organization’s hierarchy.

By being cognizant of the behavioral aspects of energy project implementation, fms can drive their organizations’ investments in efficiency towards success and sustain benefits in the long run. In addition to the measurable savings gained from a project, an organization will enjoy the peripheral benefits of a sustainability culture and a proactive workforce.

Marom is a senior application engineer at Schneider Electric. He has experience within the energy and sustainability industry and provides consulting, project, and business development services for clients across various sectors. Prior to joining Schneider Electric, Marom spent five years with the Department of Energy’s Industrial Assessment Center (IAC) at Syracuse University, where he earned his master’s degree in Engineering Management. During his time at the IAC, he provided energy audits to a wide variety of clients across the industrial segment. Currently, he is an MBA candidate at North Carolina State University.