Climate Corps 2010: Understanding the Value of Building 'Tune-Ups'

EDF Climate Corps

Climate Corps 2010: Understanding the Value of Building 'Tune-Ups'

In a successful business, there is a constant dichotomy between business growth and emissions reduction.  As an EDF Climate Corps fellow, I have come to realize that my host company, REI, struggles with this every day.  With each new store opening comes an energy usage of about 400,000 kWh per year.  The company’s carbon goal for 2011 is to maintain its 2010 emissions levels, despite new store openings and growth projections of 8-10 percent.

How do you decrease energy use while growing as a company?

To assist in achieving these energy goals, my charge for the summer, as an EDF Climate Corps fellow, is to identify as many potential energy efficiency projects for REI as possible.  I will analyze the projects and recommend those with the most financial and environmental potential. Some of the projects on the list include:

  • Control sensors on the conveyor belts in the distribution center
  • Lighting projects
  • A compressor audit and repairs
  • Decreased temperature levels in the data center

But perhaps one of the best potentials for a quick win is retrocommissioning.

Every car needs a periodic tune-up to ensure it is operating properly.  Similarly, retrocommissioning is a tune-up for a building.  According to a report by Evan Mills at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, “commissioning is arguably the single-most cost-effective strategy for reducing energy, costs and greenhouse gas emissions in buildings today.”  Even though commissioning is not as exciting as solar installations or electric car charging stations, typical commissioning projects can achieve 16 percent in energy savings with payback periods of less than two years.

The objective of the retrocommissioning process is to find the sweet spot where all the building’s systems are working in harmony. It ensures that a building is performing as effectively as it was designed to, despite the natural wear and tear that happens over years of use.

According to the California Commissioning Guide for Existing Buildings, there are four common retrocommissioning findings, listed as follows:

  1. Variable speed drives no longer modulate appropriately
  2. Controls are circumvented or set up improperly
  3. Equipment runs more than necessary or runs inefficiently because of improper sequences of operating
  4. Controls were never tuned or require retuning to provide appropriate response time or to avoid "hunting"

Despite these typical findings, each building is unique in its potential for savings, so it is impossible to pinpoint what will be suggested for an individual location.  Different buildings prove to have different opportunities for energy savings.

Luckily, the numbers look promising.  Great savings and short payback periods are the obvious wins.  Other potential benefits include:

  • Risk mitigation surrounding future liability
  • Decreased repair and replacement cost
  • Increased comfort for building occupants
  • Better indoor air quality
  • Decreased cost of labor due to increased employee productivity

So what’s the hold up?

The retrocommissioning process is as simple as procuring an audit and then implementing the suggestions from a check list, but its name doesn’t intuitively relay its purpose.  Because of this, and the nature of a custom audit which will uncover problems specific to an individual building, it is far too confusing for many companies.

Additionally, if a business is looking for energy efficiency projects through a local utility, they might overlook the retrocommissioning incentives as these rebates are sometimes presented separately from other rebate programs.  For example, you wouldn’t adjust the HVAC settings through the commissioning process and also receive a rebate for a new HVAC purchase through a different program through the same utility.

Finally, facilities managers have many other competing commitments, and a relatively intangible project like retrocommissioning may fall to the wayside because of this.

All in all, retrocommissioning is a holistic approach to energy efficiency that has been proven successful.  So the next time your car’s ‘check engine’ light comes on, think about when you last commissioned your building!  If there was a major change in use of space or if it has been over five years since you checked your building, it might be time for a tune-up.  Check with your local utility to see what kind of rebates they offer.  Retrocommissioning could be a highly effective, low cost way to achieve your energy goals.

Sarah Will is a 2010 EDF Climate Corps fellow at REI and a member of Net Impact. She is an MBA candidate at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute. More coverage of the Climate Corps program is available at GreenBiz.com/edfclimatecorps. This content is cross-posted on the Environmental Defense Fund Innovation Exchange Blog.