Building Automation: The Sexiest Thing in Energy Efficiency

“Most people can tell you the miles-per-gallon of their car. Soon, more-and-more people will be able to tell you the kBtu-per-square-foot of their building.”

— Stan Price, Executive Director of the Northwest Energy Efficiency Council

Building automation and commissioning are the sexiest thing in energy efficiency. This bold proclamation from Perry England of MacDonald-Miller set the tone for the March 11 CleanTech Alliance Breakfast on energy efficiency, building automation, and commissioning hosted by Perkins Coie.

Stan Price, Executive Director of the Northwest Energy Efficiency Council, moderated a panel of building automation experts that included:

 Perry England

Each panelist provided their perspective on the current state and value of building automation. According to England, buildings have changed. The days of simply listening for hissing to find inefficiencies are gone with today’s technologies. Modern building systems need to be:

  • IT centric: If your system hasn’t evolved in the past 20 years, you have a problem.

  • Unrestricted: You need access to service providers, not just technology vendors.

  • Integrated: Multiple integration paths provide options. Make smart decisions up front and leverage industry standards to ensure scalability and flexibility. If you choose one path and it stops, you have a problem.

  • Open: If you have all of this data but cannot access the underlying database, you’re no smarter than when you started. Open database design is the key to big data analytics.

Energy efficiency boils down to five factors, according to Nieman, including:

  • How efficient is the unit itself?

  • How long does the unit need to run?

  • What are the set points and how warm/cold is the space?

  • How much outside air is needed for heating and cooling?

  • How old is the system and what condition is it in?

Mark Nieman

Building efficiency, in Nieman’s eyes, is all about operational context. Do lights, air conditioning and other systems really need to be turned on at 6:30 p.m. if no one is in the building?

Yirak focused on building commissioning to maintain operational efficiency. Commissioning is important for new buildings AND existing buildings. How else can you ensure your building continues to operate efficiently? In fact, new building codes require commissioning.

Start by looking at the control systems and understanding it. Find the hidden intelligence. Find why things are and are not working efficiently. Has the building’s use changed during renovations and/or tenant turnover? What upgrades have been made?

Most importantly, make sure you have the correct data. The best control, monitoring, and reporting systems are useless if incorrect data is feeding them.

Price then shifted the focus to the future of building operations and energy efficiency. Nieman expressed that there is definitely progress being made in both new and existing buildings. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is pushing progress with its Energy Star program and Portfolio Manager benchmarking system. These programs create a great start for high-performance buildings. But, if you don’t maintain the building’s systems, efficiency tends to drift. Sensors and mechanical systems have a finite lifespan that requires maintenance and eventual replacement. Implementing existing building commissioning processes can bump that efficiency by five percent just by making adjustments.

England added that opportunity exists within each building. We just need to make that invisible opportunity visible. Building automation and commissioning does that. If it’s old, dusty, and rusty, then an opportunity exists.

Making the invisible visible delivers a guaranteed 12 percent savings at least, according to England. There is not a building analytics project that MacDonald-Miller is working on that won’t deliver a 26-month payback. No CFO should hesitate to make that investment to turn their buildings into a revenue generating cash register.

The audience asked if a lot is being done with workforce development to connect building design, operations, and maintenance with commissioning, building automation, and energy efficiency. To Yirak, the answer is giving current workers the highest quality and best vehicle for training possible. Companies need to show workers that there is more out there and that more is possible with their buildings.

Charlie Cunniff, Environmental Business Services Manager at the Seattle Office of Economic Development, shared seven magic words for anyone working with high-performance buildings and advanced controls:

  • Predictive Analytics
  • Fault Detection Diagnostics
  • Continuous Commissioning

Nieman shared that the building automation and commissioning industry is facing a challenge and opportunity as the current workforce transitions. A lot of knowledge and experience is retiring with old mechanics. On the other hand, the younger workforce is typically savvier with data analytics and computerized systems.

Two- and four-year colleges are also ramping up programs, including Nieman’s work with Cascadia College. The state is tailoring programs to train the workforce, and universities are responding with bachelor’s degrees in sustainability and building science. None of that existed before, and the industry is responding to the opportunity. The only issue is the amount of hands-on experience needed – at least 10 years to be able to do everything involved with commissioning, operations and maintenance, and measurement and verification.

England reiterated Washington’s tremendous community college and university systems and the work being done to fill the need. He added the employers also need to commit skin to the game by providing on-the-job training and apprenticeships.

The panel fielded more than hour of questions and comments from the audience. The dialogue was lively and engaging, showing the panel’s tremendous passion for the topic. Price ended by applauding the audience for giving building efficiency its due. Most people can tell you the miles-per-gallon of their car. Soon, more-and-more people will be able to tell you the kBtu-per-square-foot of their building.

Jeff Yirak stands in front of the audience at Perkins Coie