Navigant Research Blog

Commissioning: Re-, Retro- , Ongoing or Continuous, They All Pay Off

— December 17, 2010

Possibly one of the most underappreciated ways to achieve improved efficiency in buildings is not a technology, a system or a gadget. Commissioning and its variants (re-commissioning, retro-commissioning, ongoing commissioning and continuous commissioning) are among the best ways to ensure that building systems are operating as efficiently and effectively as they can be. To put it another way, commissioning can help assure building owners that they’re getting the best return from the tens of millions of dollars of capital they’ve invested in their buildings’ systems.

In its Guideline 0, The Commissioning Process, the American Society of Heating Refrigeration Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) defines commissioning as “a quality-oriented process for achieving, verifying, and documenting that the performance of facilities, systems, and assemblies meets defined objectives and criteria.” The most commonly commissioned systems are HVAC and refrigeration systems and controls, lighting controls, domestic hot water and renewable energy.

The National Institute of Building Sciences provides a great summary of commissioning’s benefits and processes here. It summarizes the benefits as follows: “Commissioning assists in the delivery of a project that provides a safe and healthful facility, optimizes energy use, reduces operating costs, ensures adequate O&M staff orientation and training, and improves installed building systems documentation.”

Though the commissioning function has been around for a long time, and probably not even originally called commissioning, the USGBC’s LEED rating system has greatly increased its visibility and demand for these kinds of services. The New Construction, Commercial Interiors and Core & Shell LEED rating systems all include “Fundamental Commissioning” as a Prerequisite, meaning it is required for any project seeking LEED certification. There are also additional points available for “Enhanced Commissioning,” getting the commissioning agent involved in the process earlier and re-visiting some of the issues once the project is complete. Commissioning plays an even larger role in the Existing Buildings:Operations & Maintenance system. EBOM also includes points for “Ongoing Commissioning,” with the intent of making “periodic adjustments and reviews of building operating systems and procedures essential for optimal energy efficiency and service provision.”

Commissioning in an existing building is “re-commissioning” if the building systems had previously been commissioned when construction was completed, or “retro-commissioning” if the building had never been commissioned before. Re-commissioning is known to provide significant benefits as operating conditions and practices could have changed quite a bit over time. Often, this is simply due to changeover in operating staff, though it also could be that staff has taken it upon itself to make adjustments, for expediency or otherwise, that aren’t in the best interests of optimal overall operation.

Why doesn’t everyone commission and retro-commission and then re-commission again? The number one reason would be cost. There are estimates that commissioning can add from 0.5% to 1.5% to the total cost of a new construction project. It’s easy to see how there would be reluctance to paying so much to a consultant for apparently just confirming that the other contractors and sub-contractors did what they’re supposed to do. This is an over-simplification of the commissioning agent’s role, however. It is often the commissioning agent who makes sure early on that the various contractors and their activities are properly coordinated in the first place. In case you’re not familiar with the classic tree swing construction program drawings, illustrating the potential value of a commissioning agent, check them out here.

Moreover, there are important studies showing that commissioning pays off in real dollars. The major 2009 study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory titled “Building Commissioning: A Golden Opportunity for Reducing Energy Costs and Greenhouse-gas Emissions” provides some great evidence. The data was from 643 buildings representing 99 million square feet of floor space. Here are some of the findings.

And don’t miss LBL’s Hall of Shame photographs showing some amazing energy-wasting situations.

Commenting on the LBL study, ASHRAE President William A. Harrison pointed out that the reduction in energy use due to commissioning was “not so much the result of changes in hardware and systems as it was the result of improvements in software and expert knowledge.”

As if the paybacks aren’t attractive enough, retro-commissioning is often financially supported by energy efficiency programs run by utilities or state agencies. In New York, for example, NYSERDA provides cost-shared assistance for retro-commissioning investigations. In Illinois, ComEd’s Smart Ideas for Your Business program provides free retro-commissioning analysis to eligible businesses.

A relatively newer practice within the field is known as automated or monitoring-based or data-based commissioning. Texas A&M’s Energy Systems Lab has trademarked another even more commonly used term, “Continuous Commissioning.” The key difference from retro-commissioning, which is done at certain point in time, is that Continuous Commissioning is based on the ongoing collection and then analysis of energy data. This data is usually supplied by an existing building-automation system (BAS) or building energy management system (BEMS), though it’s possible to used dedicated meters and sensors. The systems are monitored and compared to desired performance levels on a continuous basis. Out of bounds readings are quickly flagged and investigated.

The LBL study projects that the energy-savings potential of retro-commissioning in the existing non-residential buildings in the U.S. is as much as $30 billion per year by 2030. In addition it estimates that this work could provide approximately 24,000 jobs in a $4 billion per year industry. This potential hasn’t gone unnoticed. Membership in the Building Commissioning Association is up from 500 in 2005 to 2,000 today. BCA also reports that interest in their certification program is up by 30%.

Savings opportunity. Business opportunity. The potential is out there and it’s big.


The Next Political Battle on the Energy Front?

— December 8, 2010

What is the next big political battle on the energy front? Cap and trade? A carbon tax? No and no. It’s looking like it could be a move to repeal the phase-out of incandescent light bulbs that was included in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA). That’s right, the “ban” of the good old light bulb has been called a socialist scheme and a plot by eco-Nazis. There are claims that the justifications are based on junk science. Similar legislation in Europe has set off panic buying and hoarding of incandescent bulbs.

The newly appointed Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Representative Fred Upton (R-MI), has pledged to reexamine the incandescent phase-out that he originally co-sponsored for incorporation into EISA.

As with many issues, facts and rational argument are getting mixed in with misinformation and hyperbole until nobody is able to come to a reasoned conclusion and everyone ends up retreating to their emotion-based default positions on one extreme end of the political spectrum or the other.

I have a background in energy efficiency and am familiar with the arguments in favor of the incandescent phase-out, so I sought out a credible, rational presentation of information supporting the other side of the issue. I found a recent article on the Heritage Foundation web site written by a Research Associate who “articulates the benefits of free market environmentalism.”

The article, titled “Government’s Light Bulb Ban is Just Plain Destructive,” makes the case that while creative destruction (such as compact discs supplanting audio cassette tapes) is a healthy phenomenon when the result of market forces, a government-led change of technology on the order of favoring CFLs over incandescent bulbs qualifies as “economic ignorance.” One example of an unintended consequence is the loss of American jobs (numbering just a couple of hundred – not to minimize the impact on those families, though) from closure of the last light bulb plants in the U.S. Having the government “pick winners and losers” is problematic, but the fact is that governments do this all the time in one fashion or another.

The article also argues for the importance of consumer choice. However, it’s a well-established economic principle that the free market is not in everyone’s best interest when individuals are not subject to external costs. I believe that this is an example of the tragedy of the commons. Unlike a preference for cassette tapes, the continued use of incandescent lights does impose costs on the rest of society. The pollution created from burning fossil fuels to generate electricity is very real. So is the cost that utilities (or rather, their customers) will need to pay to construct additional generating capacity. It’s far less expensive to save a kilowatt than build the capacity to provide one.

Unfortunately, the article also includes oft-repeated arguments that I know to be inaccurate or misleading. Yes, CFL’s contain mercury, but “high levels” of mercury? High as compared to what? Analysis has shown that there’s less mercury in a CFL than would be released into the atmosphere by burning the coal to make the extra electricity that the incandescent bulbs use over the lifetime of the CFL. Yes, CFLs may not work as well at colder temperatures, but this isn’t a major factor within the normal household or office temperature range. And saying that at colder temperatures “they emit less heat, forcing Americans to use their heaters more and negating some of the energy savings” is, giving the author the benefit of the doubt, mixing up some barely related facts. This convoluted argument also doesn’t take into account the need to deal with the excess heat generated by incandescent lights during the summer months, working air conditioning systems harder. (Well, he was quoting an article written in Manitoba.)

So, my search goes on for that reasoned argument in favor of keeping around those 60, 75 and 100 watt bulbs. Until then, I will keep writing about the energy saving benefits of CFLs while pointing out that their color temperature and color rendering ability continue to improve and the amount of mercury they contain continues to decrease. We all can also look forward to the ongoing improvements in LED lamps and luminaires while watching the prices for these products decline rapidly.

By the way, at the COP-16 conference in Cancun last week, the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) released the results of its study to assess the impact from switching from incandescent lighting to compact fluorescent light bulbs in 100 countries. This was part of UNEP’s en.lighten initiative. The country lighting assessments are available here. The total potential savings was estimated at 2% of global electricity consumption, worth $47 billion off annual energy bills and enabling the avoidance of $113 billion in capital required to build power plants. The annual U.S. savings of $9 billion would equate to about $40 per person per year in reduced energy costs.


Barriers to Achieving Energy Efficiency

— December 1, 2010

There are estimates that at least half of the electricity the world consumes for lighting could be saved through wider implementation of existing, well-established lighting technologies. While the percentage that could be saved with other types of available and proven energy efficiency technologies might not be as high as half, it’s safe to assume that current technologies are capable of providing tremendous energy savings. This would include use of products such as variable speed drives and high efficiency motors (see my recent blog posting on motors), building automation systems, and low-tech approaches such as insulating and weather-sealing homes.

The reasons why all of this low-hanging fruit remains unharvested are many. Here are the ones that appear to get the most attention:

• Initial cost – Despite the longer term savings, the need to outlay money up front is often a serious hurdle to overcome.

• Capital not available – All entities have some limits on the availability of capital. In recent economic conditions, borrowing funds has often been difficult. Even when internal or borrowed funds could be available, other projects may have higher priority.

• Strict ROI thresholds – Many organizations have very strict ROI or payback requirements. Just because a project has a positive net present value doesn’t mean it will be funded.

Just look at some of the programs in place to overcome these financial barriers:

• Tax credits and utility rebate programs – Absolutely help the need for faster ROIs. Most utility sponsored programs strongly favor approaches with clear paybacks, such as lighting retrofits. It’s no coincidence that 80% or more of utility rebates are going toward basic lighting upgrades.

• Government grant programs to localities for energy efficiency upgrades or residential weatherizing.

• Government spending, especially at the Federal level, to upgrade the efficiency of buildings owned by or used by the government.

• New financing models – Address the capital constraints by recognizing that there is real benefit over time. PACE bonds, expansion of the ESCO model of performance contracting (still difficult in the private sector – see Jevan Fox’s recent blog entry), shared savings contracts, vendor financing.

However, there are a number of other barriers to achieving the energy efficiency available with today’s technology. For example:

• Decision makers lack information regarding available alternatives– Energy efficiency is not the primary responsibility of most business managers, or even facility managers. They need to rely on information provided by others in their organizations (who also don’t necessarily have complete information) or by suppliers who only have certain solutions to sell.

• Perceived risk – Even if a solution has existed for a long time, if it hasn’t been implemented in the exact same conditions there is often perceived risk that it won’t work. Decision makers may also find themselves weighing risk (sometimes to their personal status) against potential benefits that may accrue to others.

• Split incentive problem – Leases are often written so that tenants pay for utilities, so property owners don’t have incentive to invest in energy efficiency improvements.

• Shortage of qualified implementers – Some systems, such as lighting controls, must be carefully designed and then properly installed and commissioned in order to achieve savings. In many cases, there are simply not enough of the right skills available to take advantage of existing solutions. This problem is exacerbated by the frequent lack of standardized installation and start-up processes.

• Disruption of normal activity during retrofits – Organizations cannot afford major disruptions of ongoing business activities that might be required by major system retrofits.

• Inefficient distribution channels – Existing distribution channels were often designed to support products that were introduced long ago and make it difficult for other solutions to find their way to end users on a large scale.

• Codes and regulations geared toward old paradigms – Building codes have been developed over a long time to take into account well-understood best practices. It is often a difficult and lengthy process to bring about changes in codes to allow for alternate approaches. This could be due to either perceived or actual problems that need to be studied. (The prohibition of waterless urinals in many jurisdictions is an example of this challenge.) Also, even when codes are updated, enforcement may be lax due to limited code official knowledge, or nonexistent because of policy choices made.

• Facility developers and owners with short investment horizons – Developers may not see the benefit of implementing more efficient, though more expensive approaches that will increase the price of the property when they go to sell it. Also, many owners of commercial property have not planned to keep the property long enough to benefit from the long-term payback of an investment in energy efficiency. (One reason for requiring short payback periods.)

• Lack of data on performance of energy efficiency technologies – This is due to multiple technologies being implemented at once making it difficult to determine which savings are due to each, to lack of sufficient sub-metering or other measurement capabilities, or to too much variability in the environment to separate the effects of improvements from other changes in inputs, outputs or processes.

• Energy efficiency legislation – Many utility rebate programs are driven by state or PUC rules that emphasize verifiable savings and don’t allow for investment in “market transformation” programs that may address some of the other barriers.

• Behavior changes required – “Well, we’ve always done it this way…”
Quite an imposing list of barriers hindering the adoption of energy efficiency products and systems, isn’t it? I’m sure others could be added.

Now, there is tremendous investment going into improving technology. Not that these investments are bad or misguided, but are the non-financial barriers described above are being addressed? In some cases, incremental advances to existing technologies may make installation simpler. Wireless lighting controls are one possible example (though some will say a wireless system is more complex and difficult to implement). Compare this, though, to the drive for higher lumen per watt performance in LEDs. What impact will that really have on adoption in the near to intermediate term?

I think it’s safe to say that the lion’s share of outside investment in energy efficiency is going toward either developing new technologies or buying down the cost of implementing existing ones. While the other barriers are not being ignored, are they getting sufficient attention?

I was recently speaking with Charles Hunt, an engineering professor at UC Davis and affiliated with the California Lighting Technology Center. He’s also Director of the Lighting Research Center at IREC (Catalonia Institute for Energy Research) in Spain. The initiative he’s involved in that interested me most, however, was one that is funded by the European Union to find ways to get existing efficient lighting technologies more widely adopted in Europe. Not advancing technology, not necessarily buying down the cost.

Here are some other examples of efforts to address the barriers that are not directly related to funding:

Private foundation grants to support the development and adoption of increasingly stringent energy codes. Related efforts provide for code official training and push for more consistent enforcement.

• Government, utility and foundation grant support of training programs, such as Building Operator Certification, to improve people’s abilities to implement energy saving technologies and obtain benefit from them on an ongoing basis.

• The U.S. Department of Energy’s Gateway and CALiPER programs that are providing laboratory and real world data on performance of LED lighting products. Cree’s LED City® program was set up to share experience among cities trying out LED lighting. It has now joined with the DOE’s Municipal Solid-State Street Lighting Consortium to continue and expand this effort.

• There are a range of nonprofits working on the policy front and supporting market transformation programs. The primary objective of all of these organizations is to promote energy efficiency as the cleanest and least expensive energy resource by supporting a variety of initiatives that address the wide range of barriers to energy efficiency implementation. The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) and the Alliance to Save Energy (ASE) are leaders in this regard. There are also a set of regional nonprofits doing great work on state-level policies and programs. Prior to joining Pike Research, I worked for the Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (MEEA). There is also the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (NEEA), the Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships (NEEP), the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance (SEEA), and the Southwest Energy Efficiency Partnership (SWEEP). Outside the U.S., is the Canadian Energy Efficiency Alliance, and organizations such as the China-U.S. Energy Efficiency Alliance are being formed. (Check out your local alliance and see how you can get involved!)

• Industries and associations are taking steps, too. The Illuminating Engineering Society, with the help of the Lighting Controls Association, is producing a design guide that will provide practical guidance on how to commission lighting and control systems. This is pretty basic information, but putting it together clearly and in one place should have great value.

• The Behavior Energy and Climate Change conference took place last month in Sacramento. It was described as, “a conference focused on understanding the behavior and decision-making of individuals and organization and on using that knowledge to accelerate our transition to an energy-efficient and low-carbon future.” If I wasn’t spending the week at Greenbuild here in Chicago, it would have been interesting to see what other kinds of solutions could help accelerate the transition.

In summary – There are lots of barriers to implementing existing, proven energy efficiency measures and these reach into almost every element of the business decision-making process. Lots of money is being put toward the financial barriers, but that isn’t sufficient. More concerted attention is required to address the somewhat “soft,” but very real impediments to achieving the potential that energy efficiency can bring.


Greenbuild 2010 – I Give it an “A-minus”

— November 22, 2010

Greenbuild 2010, the biggest green building industry event of the year, has now come and gone. As the folks up in Toronto gear up for Greenbuild 2011, I thought I’d share a couple of thoughts on the week.

Overall, it was a very good event. Though my primary focus was on spending lots of time on the Expo floor, the education sessions I attended were interesting and informative. There were a huge number of these sessions covering a wide range of topics. Most of them were focused on a particular issue or case study, so I expect that most people were able to come away with either directly actionable information, or at least some specific items on which they wanted to follow up. Some of the sessions even worked out ways to break away from the standard “presenter, presenter, presenter, three questions from the audience, thanks for coming” format or otherwise keep the energy level high.

While it was sometimes a challenge to find the correct room in the vast expanse of McCormick Place West (where you can’t get from one side of the first floor to the other without going up to the third floor first) there were plenty of t-shirted staff around to provide directions. There were even more recycling monitors helping people navigate the no-trash-left-behind recycling system set up for the event. I liked the badge scanning system for its promise of providing me with documentation of the sessions I attended in order to get my GBCI training credits. We’ll see what the report actually contains when it arrives in a few weeks. I know that there were a few “sold out” sessions and I expect that the scanning system also helped keep the related mayhem manageable.

The Expo was big, but not overwhelming. With a bit of extra effort, I managed to walk by every booth during the course of two days, stopping at many along the way to learn more about the company and establish contacts for the future. Most of the exhibitors, even ones way in the back, seemed pleased with the amount and quality of the traffic coming by and the conversations they were able to have. One company did complain that they couldn’t get as much booth space as they wanted, and I expect that others faced a similar problem. Will next year’s Expo have more floor space available, or will the USGBC’s interest in selling out the space it does reserve lead it to keeping square footage a limited and sought-after commodity? Of course, there were some folks looking lonelier than the Maytag repair man. You’ve seen their type before. Maybe they’ll be able to convince the boss that Greenbuild just isn’t for them and their space will be freed up for others next year.

So, why only an A-minus? Well, there were some problems hearing the speakers clearly in a few of the larger sessions, such as the plenaries of the International Forum. Also, while the International Forum was ok, most of the topics covered didn’t seem quite right for my interests. I would have preferred to have heard more, for example, about how an individual issue is either similar or different in different parts of the world. What I got was a session on architecture in Latin America that had more architecture content than green building information, and a great update on green building certifications in China, but only China. I heard a couple of good comments regarding the Affordable Housing and Green Jobs Summits, but nothing about the Residential Summit. The provided cold lunch buffets were just ok.

I guess I could also question how well certain of the exhibitors in the Expo really fit into the green building theme, but I have to admit that my overall view of green building is skewed toward systems, technologies and services.

This brings me to one of the characteristics of Greenbuild that if not unique in the conference and convention world, at least does give the event much of its character. Attendees ranged from policy makers to architects, from engineers to interior designers, from people with expertise in building the superstructure of a skyscraper to those providing the finishes for the furniture and fixtures that eventually go inside. Not only did I find that I had no interest in connecting with a huge number of the exhibitors, but I have a feeling that the majority of attendees would be able to divide the exhibits into four or five major categories and be quite comfortable walking by booths in all but one or two of those. (Except, of course, for the many companies offering a chance to win an iPad for stopping by.)

What were your likes and dislikes? Did you attend one of the Summits? What did you think about the variety of exhibitors? And, did anyone actually see an award presented at the Awards Ceremony Thursday night at the Merchandise Mart?

Until next year in Toronto…


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