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March 24, 2016

Building operators add energy management to their repertoire

  • Savings can come from simple steps like turning off equipment at night.
    Northwest Water & Energy Education Institute


    The building operator job description used to be limited to keeping occupants comfortable, and maintaining equipment and operating systems. Managing energy use was not one of the responsibilities.

    That’s changing, and Building Operator Certification instructor Duane Lewellen is seeing the change firsthand.

    “What we’re finding is that facility operators are becoming more and more involved or responsible for managing the energy consumption of the building — a role that they typically haven’t played in the past,” he said.

    That expanding role means the ability to conduct a Level 1 energy audit, or a basic energy usage scoping, a skill that building operators can use to bolster their resumes.

    Unsure where to begin? Building operators can download a Level 1 audit checklist from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) or take a Building Operator Certification course to learn about energy scoping. Lewellen said there are three critical components to a basic energy audit: document existing conditions, benchmark the building, and make improvements.

    Document existing conditions

    Photo courtesy of NWEEI [enlarge]
    A simple energy audit can improve efficiency.

    Lewellen recommends building operators conduct an energy audit about once every five years.

    The first step is to gather data on the existing conditions and energy usage of the building. This may include the square footage, occupancy, equipment schedules and lighting systems. Lewellen recommends operators work with their local utility companies to gather utility data. If available, interval data showing daily energy usage is helpful. Some utilities can also loan out tools such as infrared cameras, which can identify sources of heat loss.

    By working with interval data from a local utility, Lewellen discovered a building he was auditing was not shutting down on the holidays, even though employees were not in the building. This led to a simple scheduling adjustment that generated instant savings.

    In addition to a daytime energy audit, Lewellen is an advocate of the “midnight audit.” This involves an operator walking through a building when it is unoccupied to observe opportunities to save energy when no one is in the building.

    “You’d be amazed at the energy-using equipment that is operating when no one is there,” Lewellen said.

    Benchmark the building

    After determining the existing conditions of a building’s energy usage, it is important to compare the building’s efficiency to the efficiency of similar buildings.

    Energy Star offers online resources that can guide building operators in determining energy scores to benchmark their buildings. The scores range from 1 to 100. A score of 50 would mean that a building is average, with about half of its operations more efficient than those of similar buildings and half of its operations less efficient than those of similar buildings.

    “A low Energy Star score demonstrates plenty of opportunities to invest in improvements to a building’s efficiency,” Lewellen said, “while a high score demonstrates opportunities to invest in maintenance and fine-tuning.”

    In preparation for the third step, operators can research what operators of similar buildings have done to improve their buildings’ efficiency.

    Make improvements

    Once a building is analyzed and benchmarked, it is time to create a five-year improvement plan and to begin implementing it. Lewellen shares three types of opportunities to include in Level 1 energy improvements:

    • Operations and maintenance: These improvements entail repairing broken equipment and optimizing equipment operations.

    • Low-cost and no-cost investments: These are the typical types of improvements an operator will make after a Level 1 audit. They include cost-efficient solutions such as installing lighting motion sensors.

    • Capital improvements: These are more expensive investments such as replacing all the windows in a building. They are most common for buildings that receive a low Energy Star score, and they may not be necessary for every energy improvement plan.

    According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 30 percent of the energy in buildings is used inefficiently or unnecessarily. With this in mind, it is essential that today’s building operators learn how to conduct basic energy audits using the steps above.

    To learn more about conducting basic energy assessments, building operators can participate in training programs, join associations and access online checklists and guides. Lewellen recommends operators conduct their own Level 1 audits and consider outside help for more complex Level 2 and Level 3 audits.

    “As the role of the building operator continues to evolve,” Lewellen said, “the need for operators to be trained to conduct basic energy audits will continue to grow.”

    Erik Westerholm is a project specialist with the Northwest Water & Energy Education Institute at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon.

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