Dan Rafter 2018-01-10 12:23:52
Exterior and interior lighting, HVAC systems, and refrigeration equipment can all gobble plenty of energy, whether in a commercial building, hospital, warehouse, or distribution center. The owners and managers of these buildings recognize this. And today, a growing number of them are more proactive than ever when it comes to taking steps to reduce these costs, costs that can eat into their bottom lines. That is good news for the makers of energy meters and energy monitoring systems, who say that demand for this technology is steadily rising as building owners and facility managers look for more creative ways to reduce their buildings’ energy consumption. Best of all, those building managers and owners who do invest in energy meters aren’t just using these meters to track consumption. They are increasingly using the data they generate to make key changes in how they operate their buildings. John Browne, applications engineer in the Longmont, CO, office of Continental Control Systems, sees this himself. He says that building owners and managers today are far more interested in reducing the amount of energy that their buildings consume than were their peers decades ago. In fact, Browne says that this growing desire to reduce energy consumption is what has put Continental Control Systems on the map. “This trend has been growing for many, many years,” says Browne. “The goal today for building owners is to better understand not just how much energy their buildings are using, but where that energy is being used. Energy metering can play a big role in this effort.” Browne says that a growing number of Continental Control Systems’ clients, especially big-box ones, are focusing not just on metering their entire energy consumption, but on tracking how much energy each portion of their store consumes. Looking for More Information Browne points to Walmart. Often, Walmart stores will start out by metering entire buildings. Over time, though, store officials often desire more detailed information about the building’s energy consumption. So they’ll use energy meters to determine how much energy their HVAC systems are using, how much they are consuming because of refrigeration, and how much energy their lighting systems are using each month. This gives store officials a far better idea of which systems are running efficiently and which are not. These officials can then use this data to make changes in how they operate, changes that could reduce the amount of energy they consume each month and provide a boost to their bottom line finances. “There is that old saying, ‘What can’t be measured can’t be managed,’” says Browne. “That has been true for years.” Metering individual systems within buildings is just one way that clients today are using energy metering to reduce their bills. Browne says that other clients rely on networked meters connected to building automation systems to kick in demand-response strategies that help buildings avoid costly demand charges imposed by utilities. Browne says that some clients place meters on their utility service entrances that generate alarm messages that alert building managers to possible problems with the public grid. He pointed, too, to a school district in Utah that uses energy meters to monitor the public power grid to help it determine if it should close schools in bad weather. If the district expects frequent outages, for instance, it could proactively cancel school for that day. Of course, not every building owner or manager has yet to embrace energy metering. And those who have installed meters might not yet be using them to their fullest capabilities. But Browne says that this is gradually changing. “The technology behind energy metering is fantastic,” he says. “It works great. But you have to install it. You have to use that technology. Not everyone is doing that yet.” When building owners do tap into the power of energy metering, it can help them make key decisions designed to either boost their buildings’ profits or reduce their operating costs. Browne points again to Walmart as an example. The company recently took a long look at whether skylights were a positive or a negative for their stores. Browne says that through energy metering, Walmart found that stores with skylights enjoyed a greater amount of natural lighting, meaning that they didn’t need to spend quite as much on artificial lighting on sunny days. At the same time, the skylights also made shopping in the stores a more pleasant experience for customers, Browne says. So not only did Walmart stores with skylights save money on lighting, they saw increased sales from happier customers. Armed with this information, Walmart might now decide to install more skylights in more of its stores. “It’s about what you can do once you have the information that comes from energy metering,” says Browne. “Metering is a great place to start to learn more about your building. But what’s most important is what you do with that information.” Energy metering can save building owners money, too, when it comes to scheduling when lights, HVAC systems, and other gobblers of power actually turn on and off. A building owner, for instance, might discover that the property’s energy use takes a big jump at 2 in the morning, Browne says. Why is that? That building might have its lights on a timer clock, and maybe the timer clock is set incorrectly so that the lights turn on at 2 a.m. Maybe the building is also heating and cooling at this time when no one is in it. “Inefficient scheduling of systems can result in a big jump in energy consumption,” says Browne. “That happens more often than you’d think. With metering, though, it’s possible to track that down and make changes.” Ed Pantzar, marketing manager with eGauge Systems LLC in Boulder, CO, says that demand for his company’s standalone energy meters has been on the rise, too. eGauge’s meters allow customers to measure the energy data throughout their facilities. The meter also stores energy data so that customers can study long-term usage trends. Customers can access, too, their own Web portal that acts as an interface for the user and the energy data that eGauge’s meters collect for them. Taken together, the system gives users a tool to fully understand how much energy they are consuming and when their energy fluctuates in unusual patterns, Pantzar says. Pantzar says that changes being made by utilities across the country are making it more likely for building owners and managers to invest in some type of energy metering system. Without these systems in place, it is often too difficult for owners and managers to determine if they are being overcharged for the energy they are consuming. “It is definitely becoming more and more difficult for commercial building owners to understand their electricity costs,” says Pantzar. “Utilities are always coming up with different ways to change their billing structures to maximize their profits. In other cases, utilities are making changes to make the public grid more efficient. With the inception of demand charges, it has become more complicated for buildings to understand their energy profiles. That’s where a higher-end metering product helps. It can help those building owners better understand how they are getting charged by their utility company.” There are different levels, of course, in how customers can use energy metering to reduce the amount of power their facilities are consuming. Pantzar says the most basic level—which is also an important one—is for users to measure their energy use, study that data, and then make changes that might lower the amount of energy being used each month. “They can see the energy being used by various parts of the building and they can then make improvements based on that information,” he says. Those changes might be simple, such as adding energy-efficient lightbulbs or removing some bulbs from a building. Or maybe the energy meters might uncover inefficient HVAC units that building managers can then replace, providing immediate relief from spiraling energy costs. “That is the first way people go. They measure and analyze themselves so that they can find inefficiencies,” says Pantzar. “They’ll go through the building looking for places where improvements can be made.” Others might take the extra step of integrating the raw data from energy meters into a building automation system. They can then set up rules within that automation system so that energy efficiency occurs automatically. Of course, not all end-users have the ability or technology to do this. “Some simply don’t have access to tools like a building automation system,” says Pantzar. “The smaller commercial buildings don’t necessarily have a system they can integrate with. For them, the best solution is to do the grunt work, measure their energy usage, and make the improvements on their own.” As energy becomes more costly, more building and company owners will invest in building automation systems, Pantzar says. Then, the payback for tying energy metering and building automation systems together will be a quicker one, as energy costs become a bigger financial burden for owners. But until that day comes, there will still be many end-users who won’t be able to justify the costs of setting up a building automation system, even if that system does reduce energy consumption. The upfront costs will simply be too high. “It’s not cost-effective for them to get something that works automatically like that,” says Pantzar. With all the benefits that come with energy metering, what is keeping even more customers from investing in it? Why aren’t we seeing even more owners and building managers embracing this technology? Pantzar says that one of the most common objections he hears from potential clients is that they don’t see direct results on their energy bills after purchasing and installing meters. In other words, their energy bills don’t suddenly drop after they install energy meters. But Pantzar says that meters help building owners to monitor their equipment and facilities and make sure that they are performing optimally over time. It’s unlikely in, say, 5 years —with all the improvements in energy efficiency that those years bring—that specific buildings won’t begin using more or less energy. As Pantzar says, buildings don’t remain static. Owners, after all, add and remove equipment from buildings. That can change the amount of energy these facilities consume. Energy meters can tell owners whether their buildings and lighting, HVAC, and refrigeration systems are becoming less efficient over time. That alone can justify the costs of purchasing an energy metering system. “In the long term, it is good to have that tool by your side,” says Pantzar. “Think about those projects or systems you installed four years ago. With energy metering, you have a tool that hasn’t forgotten about them. It can make sure you are still saving money.” Energy Management on the Rise Ryan Fetgatter has been a long-time proponent of the benefits of energy metering. That’s no surprise; he’s a partner with Santa Ynez, CA-based EZ Meter Technologies, a company that manufactures submeters for energy billing and energy management programs. He knows, then, just how much money and energy buildings and facilities can save when their owners and managers rely on metering to understand their consumption trends and then make changes. Fetgatter says the biggest growth in demand for his meters is coming from clients who are interested in using the devices to help manage the amount of energy their buildings gobble each year. To Fetgatter, that’s a good sign: it’s proof that owners and managers are ready to focus on efficiency and boosting it in their buildings. Fetgatter points to the difference metering can have on the HVAC systems that consume so much energy in buildings. “HVAC units tend to be the most wasteful when it comes to energy consumption,” says Fetgatter. “By managing and monitoring these units, you can tell how much energy HVAC systems are actually using. If you actually monitor the consumption, you might find that you don’t need to have these units running as often as you are running them. What if you keep them running for two hours and then shut them off for an hour? You can lower the consumption by a third by doing that. Or even better, you can turn them off completely at night and turn them back on early in the morning.” Energy monitoring can also provide building owners and maintenance faculty clues as to when the large motors powering much of their facility’s systems might be nearing a fail. As Fetgatter says, large motors that run a lot tend to generate a baseline figure when it comes to energy usage. But when these large motors are about to fail, they’ll fall outside that baseline range. “That is your cue to send in a technician to look at it,” says Fetgatter. “By doing this, you are practicing preventive maintenance. By being proactive, you are preventing a failure that could happen when you need that equipment the most. These things can be running perfectly fine as far as you know until they suddenly break. By monitoring your equipment, you can see when they are going to fail and you can take steps to stop it. There is no work stoppage, no loss of productivity, and no big shutdowns.” Building managers often have their building’s HVAC systems and electric systems on a maintenance schedule already. That’s a good step. But equipment doesn’t always break down according to a set maintenance schedule. That’s why monitoring it and calling for tune-ups or maintenance when the equipment is actually showing signs of failure is a better choice for building managers. Fetgatter says that building owners and managers are becoming more proactive in this type of preventive maintenance. Not being proactive could cost them renewals. Fetgatter used a New York City skyscraper as an example. Say 5,000 people work in that high-rise building. What if the HVAC system goes out on a hot day, and the office workers in the building are sweating and uncomfortable? What if several of them decide to leave early for the day because of this? This cuts into the profitability of the entire building, something that makes tenants angry. It’s also something that tenants might not forget when it’s time to renew their leases. And that’s just one example. “We’ve worked with people who have key equipment that they absolutely need online at all times,” says Fetgatter. “If that machine can’t run, they’re dead in the water. By monitoring, they can make sure that the machines are running when they need to be.” No Longer a Luxury James Taufner, solution leader in the healthcare segment for Schneider Electric, says that as more building managers and owners grasp the reality that energy costs have a major impact on their bottom-line building costs, energy monitoring is becoming more important. “The energy monitoring for commercial buildings has moved from a luxury item to an essential item,” says Taufner. The big shift in thinking? Today, energy meters are expected to be connected to building systems. Meters are expected to serve as part of a larger system that provides information that owners and facility managers can use to make energy decisions, Taufner says. “A building or hospital might have had networked meters in the past,” says Taufner. “But the information they generated went to an energy manager who did the energy reporting. That manager worked in a bubble. Now the information is meant to be shared across an entire organization to help each level of that organization make decisions based on that information.” This is a key shift for owners and managers who want to reduce their energy bills by as large a percentage as possible. That’s because today’s energy meters don’t just tell managers how much energy has been used. They also tell them whether the energy consumed is normal or too high. If the meters say that the building, or a particular section of the building, is consuming too much energy, facility managers can then search for changes that could lower this consumption. “We’ve all heard the buzz about the Internet of Things. Well, the hype surrounding that is real,” says Taufner. “Meters are meant to be communication devices. They are meant to provide that information through networks and to share it through systems. The different stakeholders could be in finance, say. They might look at utility bill verification and allocating energy costs. Your energy manager might look at the information for measurement and verification of energy conservation measures. People in operations are looking at the real-time power and power quality so that they can understand the current state and any vulnerabilities they might have.” At the same time, subject matter experts throughout a company—internal or external—could analyze the data collected by energy meters to identify opportunities for energy savings, Taufner says. “They can identify patterns or ways to reduce the energy spend,” he says. “They can look at event data and figure out how to avoid any unplanned outages or equipment failures in the future.” These are all higher-level ways of using energy meters. And the good news? Taufner says that the trend continues to move in this direction. Owners and managers are increasingly embracing the multiple ways in which energy monitoring can help make a building less expensive, more efficient, and more comfortable. “Once the meters are connected to building systems, and that’s happening more often, we have more people who want to use the information they generate,” says Taufner. “The information becomes better utilized. Decision-makers can use the meters to help understand the conditions that affect their facilities.” As an example, Taufner points to Florida. There, customers are concerned with natural disasters and how they can manage across an enterprise and understand the needs of their facilities during, say, a hurricane. During hurricanes Irma and Harvey, hospitals increasingly relied on energy monitoring to monitor the availability of utilities and the status of their generators. “Typically, these systems are used for energy purposes,” says Taufner. “But the same system is also being used for awareness and disaster management during times of crisis. If the information is shared, that same system can serve both purposes.” DE Dan Rafter is a technical writer and frequent contributor.
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