Smart Computer Use Hikes Energy Efficiency

computer energy manage

The facility manager’s job, of course, is to improve energy efficiency. In most cases, this involves HVAC and other elements relating directly to the operation of the building. But the specific activities going on within the building are vital as well — and the potential source of great gains in efficiency.

The advent of the Internet of Things and big data analytics enhances the ability to more tightly control energy use by computing devices in the facility. This new potential can more fully be exploited if the facilities manager has a more prominent management role. While how this plays out in single tenant and multi-tenant scenarios differs, the bottom line is the same: Riding herd over computing devices can lead to great efficiency gains.

Numbers from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) suggest that the density of these devices is shifting over the long term. This week, the EIA, working with data collected during the most recent Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS), said that the number of computers in educational buildings in the United States is growing significantly. Education buildings, the release says, have almost twice as many computers per million square feet as commercial buildings. The only commercial building category that educational buildings trail is office buildings.

The research from the EIA was released in April and June of last year. Analysis of that raw data was released this week, according to Danni Mayclin, a survey statistician for the EIA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Energy. The trend lines generated by the long-term research almost certainly are accelerating. A graphic shows that in education, the number of PCs per million square feet rose from 1,377 in 1999 to 2,020 in 2003 and 2,353 in 2012. The number in office buildings per million square feet was barely ahead three years ago, when it stood at 2,500.

Clearly, the use of computers in schools – at every level – is growing. “I think that what is interesting is that there are so many different users and they may be using devices in a variety of different ways,” Mayclin said. “Our survey did not talk every teacher and ask, ‘How many hours is this computer being used’ or ‘Are there, multiple students using this computer?’ There is just variety of things going on. If somebody trying to reduce overall energy doesn’t have a good understanding of how the computers are used or the needs of users it will be difficult to make changes.”

The numbers generated by EIA are intriguing but, incomplete. The EIA was just counting boxes: It didn’t account for smartphones, laptops or other mobile devices. So, it is complete as a measure of the amount of computing going on in commercial buildings or schools. It also, of course, is out of date.

The numbers do, however, raise a vital point of which all facilities managers should be aware: Computers consume prodigious amounts of energy. It is important to keep on top of buildings’ computing infrastructure.

ChannelPro, a site based in the United Kingdom, yesterday posted a long story that compares three Intel microprocessors, which are codenamed Haswell, Broadwell and Skylake. The bottom line is that energy consumption is one of many issues that distinguish the chipsets. Likewise, in September, a study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that gaming computers typically use 1,400 kWh annually, which is 10 times more than a gaming console and six times more than a standard PC. Finally, switching from hard drives to stationary solid state drives (HDD to SDD) eliminates the need for motors to spin the disk and fans to cool that motor. This leads to great efficiencies.

Of course, corporate computer buying decisions will be made for reasons other than energy efficiency and the style of drives used by the device. Likewise, gaming computers aren’t common in offices (though similarly high-powered machines may be used in some demanding use cases). The bottom line, though, is the general recognition that what is inside a computer has a tremendous impact on energy consumption.

The benefits of increasingly efficient designs may be stretched out a bit because economic conditions are causing many businesses to stretch the recycle period a year or two beyond where they were before the economic difficulties of the past decade.

Perhaps the greatest impact that insight into computer use can have is if facility managers are empowered to influence corporate policies. For instance, computers can be programmed to turn off the monitor if the machine sits idle for a certain period of time. Reducing this time by even a few seconds – multiplied by the number of times this happens daily and the number of computers in the facility — will save considerable energy over the course of a year. Likewise, automatically shutting down machines when the employee to whom it is assigned leaves for the day is a money saver.

The key is that facilities managers need a seat at the table. If it is given to them, myriad small adjustments and tweaks will up saving organizations a great deal of money.


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