Don’t Go It Alone When Retrofitting

July 16, 2015 By Jim Meacham

Jim Meacham

Today, building owners embarking on an energy upgrade have more data and more choice than ever before. Digital data from power meters, HVAC systems, lighting systems and other building equipment are waiting to be tapped. In addition, there are additional data streams available from the growing number of sensors and cameras that now routinely capture time-stamped observations of the physical world. Meanwhile, the number of platforms that claim to be open, scalable, secure and equipped with the full stack of hardware and software needed to turn these data streams into actionable information are proliferating, too.

The dilemma in this time of rapid advancement is that building owners can neither vet every new technology solution themselves, nor can they risk the consequences of choosing a vendor that doesn’t meet their needs. Building owners need is a neutral, unbiased adviser with deep knowledge of the market who can help guide high-level discussions about retrofit goals, budget and prioritization.

Substantial market advantages can be gained by being open to innovative technologies that improve occupant comfort, extend the life of assets and provide operational business intelligence. But building systems are complex animals, and successful retrofit projects are built on a deep understanding of the existing infrastructure, uses and O&M expertise. Here are a few scenarios building owners may face that contain red flags:

  • Pitch from a new software solution vendor which promise “plug-and-play” savings.
  • A proposal to begin your program by installing hardware to sub-meter everything.
  • A product manufacturer or rep who offers no up-front costs, everything financed.

These types of proposals typically fail to customize a solution that takes into account the size, purpose and location of your building; on the makes, models and ages of the equipment and control automation systems already in place; and on your short- and long-terms goals. On the surface, these scenarios offer an easy path to energy savings and often have flashy dashboards. However, solutions that are born this way are often quickly defeated by operating staff and occupants over time, or fail to deliver value because they are not tied to your business.

For these reasons, building owners need a system-savvy advocate on their side that can help build solutions from the ground up and follow the process through implementation, tuning and maintenance. Here’s a short-list of the ways an expert building commissioning and energy audit firm can help with this process:

  1. Capturing Life-Cycle Costs/Benefits: Energy performance experts have the advantage of full-time immersion in this business and exposure to all of the latest technologies. This means we know the questions to ask on site surveys, and we know the latest technology options to address current gaps. There is an in-industry practice of taking the collective knowledge of the consulting team and packaging it into decision-support tools known as energy performance life-cycle calculators. They help us get at the value returned over the lifetime of any given energy conservation measure and the associated first costs. Such tools tend to incorporate the breadth of experience gained working with portfolio holders that have been early adopters and beta testers of solutions from all the familiar names in building controls, as well as from IT companies and new SaaS startups.
  2. Retrofit Planning: Should you spend your entire budget on a new sub-metering program? Or invest in an upgrade to lighting that reaps savings through automatic dimming and occupancy control? Or should you opt for an Internet-of-Things-era system with lots of sensors and a wireless network for better fault detection and diagnostics on HVAC equipment? The right solution and the right prioritization depends upon what you already have in place. You may not need to outfit the whole building with physical meters. What does your electrical panel meter already look like? It’s quite possible that you can get the same amount of actionable information with existing data streams and only a few new physical meters in targeted spaces. An advisor with deep experience in building commissioning and energy audit can help you choose among these options.
  3. Addressing Data Platform Questions: Maybe your project team just wants to take the first step of liberating data from existing closed-loop systems. There are many ways to get this step wrong. Don’t replace a building automation system just to get connectivity. Often you can get access to data and do integration work without a full automation system retrofit. Most importantly, any step taken that involves the acquisition and archiving of data should support a strategy of openness to allow future application development and tight security to prevent hacking. If you get the data platform right at the outset, you will be set up for future phases such as advanced analytics, public reporting, participation in demand response programs, setting up a microgrid, etc.
  4. Writing the RFP: When you have a master retrofit plan and a data strategy, the next step is a fair and open public bid process initiated with a request for proposal (RFP) document. Again, don’t be swayed by solution providers and give them too much control over the RFP wording. Another common pitfall for building owners who try to go it alone is that they miss some details. For example, in the case that an RFP calls for all rooftop units to be replaced, it would be a mistake to order these without factory-supplied BACnet-enabled communications cards. This omission will be costly later when you inevitably want to connect and communicate via BACnet and you have to order a service person to come out to swap the cards. You’ll save in the end by having a professional work with you on the RFP.
  5. Normalizing Bids: When the bids come in, you need to normalize the results. For example, if you’re considering an analytics solution, do you go with the ESCO for a lease-type plan, outsourcing all the steps involved in monitoring, interpreting and reacting to the data? Or do you buy a SaaS solution and commit to hiring or developing the data skills in-house? How do you line up all the factors contributing to the total cost of ownership of each approach? The financial numbers will be specific to your particular building, staff, existing resources and future plans. A professional who has helped other building owners through the comparison process can help.
  6. Taking Workflow Into Account: Another important consideration in the retrofit plan is your communications strategy. There is a significant human component involved in keeping a newly retrofit building operating as intended. Every stakeholder group is different — those responsible for energy, sustainability and finance have different information needs compared to your building operations staff and the average occupant. Upgraded buildings can talk back to us when instrumented with sensors. And they can be remotely monitored with cloud-hosted fault detection and diagnostic (FDD) software for continuous connected-building commissioning (CBCx). But it takes forethought to anticipate the communication needs of each type of building information consumer. An expert consultant can put together a notifications strategy that gets the right messages in relatable vocabulary to the right users, from dashboard verbiage, to online help texts, to push alerts, etc.
  7. Post-Occupancy Support: An energy performance advisor can also help you train operators and occupants on the specifics of your newly retrofit building, carrying you through that first critical year of occupancy. Particularly important during this timeframe is ensuring that all warranty issues are captured within the warranty period, ensuring owners don’t have to pay twice to get the performance they need. Retraining throughout the first year for building operators and managers ensures the investments in new tools, technologies and workflows last.

Jim Meacham is a principal and co-founder of Altura Associates, a professional services firm based in Irvine, California, focused on energy and environmental performance. The company works with clients to set and achieve aggressive goals for reductions in energy and water consumption and waste generation. Altura services projects throughout the United States and internationally.

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