How a 'buildings-first' approach can improve energy management

How a 'buildings-first' approach can improve energy management

When you're talking about the energy management software (EMS) market, it's not uncommon to hear words like "confusing" and "nascent" as common observations. But previous attempts to define the EMS market have focused heavily on summarizing various usage scenarios and software features to guide purchasers' decisions. A better approach starts with classifying your buildings and then matching a solution to fit that particular portfolio and maximize return.

Unfortunately, most buyers in the EMS market are not experienced enough to know which usage scenarios apply to them or what functionality they really need to achieve their goals. It's virtually impossible for a director of energy management or facilities, or even a CFO or CIO, to weigh the value of software features for enterprise energy analytics versus an EMS that facilitates building certification, demand response, controls optimization and so on.

The barrage of techno-jargon from the market-research crowd mixed with the ambiguous marketing materials of more than 100 separate EMS companies makes it excruciatingly difficult to choose an EMS based on functionality alone

So to answer the most important question of all (which EMS offering will provide the biggest -- and fastest -- bang for my buck?), you should take a buildings-first approach by considering the following:

How large are my buildings?

The energy management strategy for a building, or portfolio of buildings, depends largely on building size and complexity, which tend to go hand in hand. Energy savings opportunities, on which the EMS is ultimately trying to capitalize, are different if you're considering a 15,000-square-foot retail building, a 500,000-square-foot manufacturing plant or a million-square-foot high-rise office building.

That may seem obvious, but many vendors position their software as if it would work just as well no matter what building it's installed on. While such positioning might look good on a website or PowerPoint deck ("Look at all the verticals we're in!"), a little research often reveals the one or two vertical segments in which an EMS vendor has been most successful. Use that information to filter out EMS offerings that aren't right for your buildings.

How homogenous is my building portfolio?

While similar to the first question, the uniformity of your building portfolio should also guide your evaluation of the EMS market.

An energy manager of a retail or fast-food chain, for example, might have a portfolio of buildings that are fairly homogenous and yet geographically dispersed. But they might be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of locations they have to manage and so prefer an EMS package that's good at organizing lots of sites into meaningful reports and analytics.

Alternatively, a university or corporate campus could have 20 or 50 buildings in one location where each building varies significantly from the rest in terms of size, equipment and usage patterns. In this case, a more customized solution, where the EMS is installed and optimized for each specific building, might be the right fit.

How quickly do I need to see a return on my investment (ROI)?

Considering ROI not only helps you choose the right EMS solution, it is also what ultimately gets your funding approved for the project.

If you want to realize a quick ROI, don't choose a software package that relies heavily on your internal resources or system integrators to implement the EMS and identify energy savings. Instead, look for an EMS offering that's a turnkey solution and pairs the software and professional services to drive fast returns. If you have a longer timetable to achieve returns, then an EMS that's more of an internally driven IT project can make sense and allow you to have more ownership over the finished project.

Either way, weigh your timetable and available resources carefully before choosing your EMS.

What projects have I already completed?

I always think of energy management as a journey on which every company is at a different point. Every time efficiencies are discovered, there is always an opportunity to find more. (I'm sorry to say you will probably never actually hit your theoretical optimal energy usage point.) So before you move forward, take a few minutes to review where you've been.

If you're pondering a highly complicated EMS that will be implemented over the course of several years and you haven't done lighting upgrades yet, you might be getting ahead of yourself. Likewise, if you've done every retrofit project you can think of but don't have any centralized collection of real-time or billing data, then you've probably already missed many energy efficiency opportunities and didn't know how to tell until it was too late.

By asking these questions, you can determine where you are on your energy management journey and plan your next steps. Then choose the EMS that can help carry out your plan, rather than having that plan dictated to you based on what an EMS software package can, or cannot, do.

Hong Kong photo via Shutterstock.