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ESI Design Inc. - Graphic design
ESI Design Inc. - Graphic design

Optimizing Building Performance During a Crisis Requires Finding the Right Baseline

Buildings are big, complicated structures. They have hundreds of pieces of equipment that work together in a symphony of heating and cooling, exhausts and intakes, switches and controllers, all firing up and shutting down in an intertwined daily rhythm. Normally, a building can count on the predictable consistency of its occupants to help it be prepared for the day’s events. This is done using software that runs algorithms capable of optimizing the symphonic concert by perfectly predicting what the building will need based on inputs like seasonality, weather forecasts, and usage history.

But what happens to these algorithms when life does not follow its normal pattern? Well, unfortunately, they don’t do well with big changes in building use, and right now, with the coronavirus ravaging most parts of the world and forcing people to stay at home, almost every building is experiencing big changes in usage. “A typical office building might have 100 pieces of equipment, and they are all expecting a certain amount of thermal load,” said Logan Soya, Founder and CEO of Aquicore. This expected thermal load is how building software predicts its control sequence, but when the thermal load changes, it can cause unexpected responses. 

“We have seen buildings that increased their output rather than reducing it due to the vacancy. It ended up costing an additional $50,000 per month where the management should have been making that much in energy savings,” Soya said. “When benchmarking and evaluating buildings, it’s important the adjustments you make to your HVAC will not only preserve the value of your building by protecting the systems but also minimize the exposure of essential staff who may be in office. Making changes to operation schedules and shortening operating day is absolutely appropriate and should result in a 30 to 40 percent reduction in utility consumption. Much more than that and you may run the risk of hurting your asset in the long run.”

These extraordinary times need special oversight for buildings and even require manual adjustments to be made to sequences that are usually automated. Checking in on building equipment is made even more difficult when buildings are in areas that are hard hit by the virus since property managers often have to do their work remotely rather than expose themselves by being on-site. Management teams that hadn’t invested in software to help them monitor and run their buildings are feeling it now. Any data that is not accessible to management teams working remotely has created a problem that has likely caused repeated pain over the course of the last few weeks. 

One of the things making it difficult for buildings to adjust is that they work off of a baseline. Baselines provide a historical average, which becomes the start for any changes that the building might make. For a new baseline to emerge from the data, it requires time to build up a new historical average. When things change as fast and completely as they did with COVID-19 shutting down the world, it makes a statistically accurate baseline almost impossible to pin down. The problem is compounded when building management teams haven’t been proactively analyzing and benchmarking, and therefore, they can’t reliably trust the data. But even if it isn’t perfect, Soya says it is important just to pick a baseline. “Whether it is the first week of March or the last week of February there is going to be a ton of variance,” he said. “But even with this, you will understand quickly who the leaders and laggards are in building management teams.”

During a crisis, accurate information shared in a timely manner is essential. Soya’s team at Aquicore has been busy publishing their data and sharing the best practices they’ve been observing. They have been sending regular reports to their clients to help them understand how they are performing compared to others. For the general public, they have created resources on new Energy Star guidance and ways to alter building operations in response to COVID-19 are designed to help building managers whose current routines are so far removed from their baseline. They have also been generating reports

None of us have ever gone through something like this virus, and neither have our buildings. This means most historical data has to be set aside as it is not relevant to our current reality. For buildings that means it is hard to get enough data points to establish a baseline. But, even though we are all going through this for the first time, we are all doing so together. While history might not help us populate building energy use models, others in the same situation can. That is why Soya says that Aquicore created their new baseline reporting initiative. By publicizing the performance of all of the buildings in the area, building teams should be able to learn from their peers. “This is the time for community building,” Soya said. “We know we have a pool of thousands of engineers using our software that would love to connect with each other. It is more important than ever to build a community and create best practices when old rules don’t apply.”

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