Is the Heat On?

Energy is expensive, and while prices fluctuate over the years, the general trend keeps ticking upward. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that the national average cost for commercial customers has gone from 7.64 cents per kilowatt-hour in 1996 to 10.21 in 2009. APPA (Association of Physical Plant Administrators) President and Director of Faculty Services for Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City, Mo., Darrel Meyers, puts a more personal slant on the statistics. “Our electricity costs have gone up 57 percent since 2004,” he says. “We are just not funded at that level.”

Enter automated systems. These allow maintenance personnel to maintain optimum control over the heating and cooling of their buildings. The results drastically affect the balance sheet. “The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has performed studies that indicate that the savings from a fully automated system can be as high as 18 percent over non-automated systems,” says Robert Bajko, AIA, LEED-AP ID+C of Cleveland-based HSB Architects + Engineers. “The importance of HVAC automation cannot be understated. HVAC typically consumes the most energy of any commercial building system, so the ability to maintain optimal control over it carries a direct bottom-line benefit.”

Automation simplifies that control. “When management is charged with overseeing multiple buildings or properties, each one can be controlled from a single, central point. Additionally, different areas of a building can be controlled based on use,” continues Bajko. “This is especially important with schools because of variable room sizes and ever-changing load requirements. Gymnasiums, auditoriums, cafeterias, classrooms… these are spaces of varying size, and areas where occupancy fluctuates throughout a given day.”

In the real world, institutions have a varying number of buildings on line with automated controls. “About two thirds of our stock is fully controlled,” says Rick Pretzman, associate director of Energy and Utilities at Arizona State University. “The rest are a combination of pneumatic controls or situations where we can monitor the pumps and handlers but not the individual rooms.”

Other schools are luckier. “All of our buildings are fully automated and have been since 2002,” boasts Rick Hume, director of Facilities, School District 48 Sea to Sky, in Squamish, British Columbia. Lucky for him. Hume’s district may only have 20 buildings, but they are spread out in a narrow valley 180 miles long and 10 miles wide. “Some of our sites are 50 to 60 miles apart,” he says. “Just driving to all of the facilities would be a burden.”

Julie Neermann, energy manager of Fontana Unified School District, in Fontana, Calif., reports that most of her buildings are automated. “I have colleagues that can’t convince their districts that the payback is real, so they have to manually control each building.” She knows what that is like as her district’s portable classrooms are still manually controlled. “I would love to be able to hook them up to the system, but portables come and go and are probably not worth the investment.”

That initial expenditure is one reason administrators are reluctant to outfit all of their buildings with automated controls. “Owners have to be willing to explore new options,” says Christian Sinai, sustainable design manager of Dull Olson Weeks Architecture, Inc., based in Portland, Ore. “They might feel like there is too much of a learning curve to start. Comfort levels could limit them.”

Some schools upgrade in stages. “Ten years ago, we upgraded lighting,” says Meyer. “Then, we used those savings to add the HVAC controls. Now, we can pinpoint each room accurately and are no longer at the mercy of sensors that fall out of calibration.”

Typical systems can be sophisticated. “Automated HVAC systems provide what’s called ‘optimal start’ and ‘adaptive learning,'” explains Bajko. “Optimal start is what allows equipment to be brought on in an ordered and sequential manner automatically, on a schedule, before a building is reoccupied so that space set points can be realized before occupation. Adaptive learning allows a system to compare space temperature, outside air conditions and equipment capabilities so that the equipment can be turned on at an appropriate time to ensure space set points are achieved before occupation.”

Once this is in place, an automated system lends control and even allows staff to set usage goals. “We have a goal of 1200 kw, and when we get close to that usage, the systems starts systematically warming parts of the building,” reports Meyer. “It starts by bumping up the temperature in the corridors, then the cafeterias then the classrooms, moving from non-essential to essential spaces.”

“The information about temperature control that’s conveyed by automated systems is highly accurate — and it’s customized to specific spaces. From temperature and humidity to ventilation, daylighting and other variables, these systems give management the ability to really drill down and maximize service in areas where service is needed, while minimizing it in areas where it’s not,” reports Bajko. “So for nearly all building types that employ automated systems, schools and college buildings included, maintenance costs can be significantly reduced.”

For all of this to happen the system has to be designed, installed and maintained properly. “Maintenance can be complicated,” warns Sinai, “and as technology changes, maintenance can become more and more difficult.”

Yet most maintenance professionals seem up to the challenge. “Our staff is eager to learn new technology,” reports Pretzman. “And troubleshooting in the field is a skill that is still highly in demand. We need a mix of both.”

Ultimately the end user has to buy into the system. All the state-of-the-art, top-of-the-line controls in the world can’t combat an open window. “Users don’t understand that opening a window really messes up these controls,” says Pretzman, whose school has gone so far as to hire a campus consultant to help change behaviors. “Students seem the most receptive to the message of turning off lights and computers when not in use. They are really invested in saving energy.”

The systems themselves may also help. “Some systems have a light that signals when conditions are right for opening windows,” reports Sinai. “If there is feedback like a green light, occupants are likelier to understand the impact on the system.”

Automated controls might even introduce some to air conditioning for the first time. “HSB’s recent work with Julie Billiart School in suburban Cleveland, Ohio, is a good example of how automated systems can enhance building design and streamline operating costs. As an elementary school for students with specialized learning needs, Julie Billiart has occupied an 80-year-old mansion, and HSB designed a 16,000 square-foot, two-story addition to accompany the renovation of 21,000 square feet of existing space,” explains Bajko.

“The original building was not air conditioned, so we specified an automated system to control HVAC throughout the new and existing spaces. Since air conditioning was a new line item for the client, they were concerned with the potential costs of it. The fact that the system we specified could manipulate environmental conditions in a very granular fashion, coupled with its ease of use, gave them great comfort in knowing that energy costs would be controlled.”

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