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Understanding a Building’s Energy Use

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New buildings have come a long way from primarily reducing energy use by replacing light bulbs. These new buildings are designed with energy conservation in mind, built with energy-conscious and energy-saving materials, and managed with software that is able to precisely calculate how to optimize its energy use.

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This piece is the first in a new series that was created in conjunction with The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to help educate the real estate community about the positive impacts of Real Time Energy Management.

But what about the existing buildings? Existing buildings make up the majority of the stock in our busy cities and must be retrofitted for these upgrades that were, at the time of their construction, unavailable. These old buildings require careful monitoring and insightful management to have a chance at meeting the growing energy-related requirements of cities. However, with the right investment, even the most antiquated building can become good energy citizens. 

The property industry is able to manage buildings to these expectations because of recent advancements in technology, both hardware and software. While previously expensive and large in size, hardware sensors can now be affixed to any piece of equipment and are inexpensive, often only costing a few dollars each and some are even equipped with a decade of battery life. Software integration has advanced rapidly thanks to open API practices between various manufacturers and companies. The software itself has become much more sophisticated, able to use machine learning techniques to bring clarity to the complicated inner workings of even the largest buildings. All buildings are different and the people that run them require a variety of data and reports; the vendors offering those services have answered in kind.

When it comes to energy use and management, the most comprehensive plans deliver the best results. A Real Time Energy Management (RTEM) system continuously collects live data, integrating and storing it in an easily accessible place. This data is capable of improving how energy is managed and consumed. Because RTEM systems are the hub for all data coming from sensors, meters, and other equipment, they reveal how a building is performing in real time. 

The most comprehensive plans not only incorporate a building management system (BMS), but also integrate real-time data from additional sources like sensors, third party technology, and even people. Building management systems are often costly to install and maintain (ranging from $2.50-$7.00 sqft) and are often limited to large systems like HVAC and lighting. BMS collects data but does not analyze it beyond optimization for setpoints, equipment schedules, and system configuration. This leaves large blind spots in buildings where sensors and more can fill in the gaps, proving that building automation does not equate to building intelligence.

BMS is the crucial and foundational element of energy management as the computer-based control system monitors and collects data from both electrical and mechanical systems. According to the US Energy Information Administration, the majority of the total energy consumed by commercial buildings comes from electricity and natural gas. The major users of energy are lighting, refrigeration, ventilation, cooling, and computers followed by additional office equipment and other devices.

However, BMS cannot be the only tool used for managing energy with RTEM goals. Through sensors available today, building operators are able to fill in the gaps and monitor and modify their building systems to meet energy goals. Even buildings and tenant spaces without full BMS can benefit from RTEM.

One way recent technology has increased user knowledge is through in-depth dashboards that go beyond kilowatt data. These dashboards monitor and measure electrical energy consumption down to an individual device level. This granular and online data analytics provides the information needed to manage assets efficiently and cost-effectively through detecting equipment malfunction and eliminating energy waste.

Data is the first step in a successful RTEM strategy. The second is the ability to see and analyze it via clear dashboards and data analysis tools. The integration of data into a “single pane of glass” is critical for building operators that want to see what the current status of buildings is and where to find opportunities to improve energy efficiency and reduce energy use.

Communication practices have amplified the understanding of building operations. API integration between BMS and newer technologies and Cat5 data cabling and coax networks that bring together voice, video and data at record speeds have introduced new real time capabilities. Due to these and other easily adaptable and low cost technologies, buildings have fewer challenges implementing upgrades.

Additionally, occupancy sensors have brought in a new era of shared spaces. These sensors have a powerful influence on electrical use: the obvious power saving procedure is if people are in the room, lights on; if people are not in the room, lights off. But beyond lighting, occupancy sensors can feed into the HVAC system to reduce heat if the room is empty or turn up the AC if more people are in the room than usual. 

Sensors that send data and alert systems in real-time are a reliable and necessary element for buildings that want to operate off RTEM. Many types of sensors focus on indoor air quality (IAQ) elements like temperature, humidity, air pressure, carbon monoxide, and more that will ensure occupant safety but also modify HVAC systems schedules so that buildings are kept within an acceptable operational range. Modifying settings to stay within a range allows buildings to hover and eliminates mass-energy exertion to recuperate to the preferred areas. By keeping these IAQ elements within the preferred range, buildings do not have to catch up every morning or start of the week to prepare for reoccupation.

Beyond occupancy and air sensors, other sensors can alert to equipment misoperation through vibration. By picking up small changes in regular machine operation, this data could allude to equipment working harder than it should or working off-hours. Without this data and because systems interact with one another, fault detection and isolation are challenging without monitoring the whole building to identify when and where a fault occurred.

Finally, people are an important data source for RTEM building operations. While less consistent than a thermometer or smart sensor, app engagement rates reveal that people enjoy being active participants in their environment. In recent years, numerous apps and work order platforms have entered the market with a focus on connected people to buildings and allowing instant remediation of discomfort, which can have positive effects on energy usage.

For building operators interested in RTEM within New York State, there is a state incentive program that will subsidize deployments and upgrades.

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, known as NYSERDA, promotes energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy sources. With a focus on developing a less polluting, more reliable, and more affordable energy system, NYSERDA works to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, accelerate economic growth, and reduce consumer energy bills. NYSERDA partners with stakeholders throughout New York to transform New York’s economy through advancing energy innovation, technology, and investment.

NYSERDA offers cost-share incentives to support RTEM projects that serve consumers in commercial, industrial, and multifamily sectors. Its Advanced Efficiency Solutions team evaluates and qualifies vendors to ensure high quality RTEM projects, and analyzes RTEM market data to publish case studies and best practices.

Prospective customers can learn more about RTEM benefits and how to get started here. The list of NYSERDA-Qualified RTEM vendors can be found here. All of NYSERDA’s informational materials can be found in the RTEM Resource Center. Vendors interested in qualification should apply today

For questions and help, email [email protected]

Conserving buildings’ energy is not as simple as changing a light bulb. However, through technology advances and the increased access to inexpensive and small hardware, the right combination of sensors and platforms can bring insight and immediate remediation so lofty building energy goals become within reach.

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