Here’s a startling fact. Many buildings are still empty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but they’re using almost as much energy as they were when they were full.
Recent data shows that air, water, and electronics — all things on which buildings are designed to use on a regular basis — don’t really decrease when there are no occupants. Research from Hatch Data, which provides energy monitoring services for commercial real estate, shows that since the pandemic started over a year ago, countless offices, schools and other facilities remained closed. However, electricity use by the fall had climbed back up to 90% of what it was before the lockdowns and office closures, and it has stayed there.
Commercial buildings are the fourth-leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions globally, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That fact, combined with the continuing spread of the virus, has called for greater action to make buildings more energy efficient. And the payoff isn’t just regulated to the health of employees or a building owner’s bottom line. According to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), improving the efficiency of buildings has the potential to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by nearly 20%.
Now, many building owners and operators are looking to smart building systems to help with their energy conservation measures. There are many smart systems to keep occupants safe while reducing carbon emissions. Here are four of the most common areas to look at to conduct your energy audit.
An estimated 40% of a building’s energy costs are attributed to light usage, so this is a natural place to start. Shifting to energy-efficient LEDs is an easy step to reap financial and environmental benefits. LEDs can reduce energy costs by as much as 90% in industrial installations and office buildings, according to the global research group Gartner, and can be programmed with smart controls. There are a variety of smart sensors, including motion or occupancy sensors, that switch off lights in areas and rooms where people have left, reducing lighting electrical loads.
Daylight sensors are another way to save energy. These controls measure the brightness of the room and adjust by automatically dimming or shutting off lights according to the amount of available natural light. Integrating that with motorized window shades that are linked to the lighting controls system can further optimize light levels and reduce energy.
HVAC systems account for 39% of the energy used in commercial buildings in the U.S., but there are many energy saving solutions available.
Wireless thermostats are a painless energy saving solution that turn off the heating if nobody is present. This can save up to 10% of total heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) costs. There are also smart HVAC approaches, like demand-controlled ventilation, that adjust airflow based on occupancy and indoor air quality, rather than conventional open-loop systems where outside air is introduced and conditioned at a fixed rate based on the maximum design. Demand controlled systems cut down on over-ventilating a building and consume less energy. These systems can also store data and compare it to historical data to identify potential abnormalities.
More than half of all American offices use rooftop HVAC packages, says the ACEEE. If these are fitted with smart control, wireless carbon dioxide sensors and variable speed drives (VSDs) – to allow variable fan speeds – then HVAC costs have the potential be cut by between 20% and 40%.
Sometimes energy efficiency measures can have adverse effects on indoor environments, especially when they center around reducing outdoor air ventilation. However, COVID has shown the need for greater air quality controls and measures. But what are the optimal levels that protect the building, equipment and its occupants all at the same time?
For example, certain humidity levels can enable viruses to survive longer and even grow in number, making it harder to control their spread. Studies show that the sweet spot in relative humidity should be kept between 40-60% to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and reduce the spread of cold and flu viruses by up to 70%. Humidity sensors help to maintain relative humidity levels by adding or removing moisture from the air.
Similarly, CO2 sensors give a snapshot of a building’s occupancy level and can help maintain optimum CO2 levels by opening vents and running fans to bring in fresh air. CO2 demand-controlled ventilation (DCV) sensors can be coupled with sensors that detect a building’s occupancy and adjust ventilation accordingly. To monitor the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOC) in indoor spaces – borne from hand sanitizers and cleaning agents – air quality sensors are able to measure levels and alert occupants or building managers of the need to take action when a potentially hazardous reading is recorded. Compared with lighting, this type of system is more expensive to install, however it can make the most sense in a building retrofit.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, 30 - 50% of U.S. commercial building electricity consumption can be attributed to plug loads. Integrating advanced smart plug load controls with an existing building automation system can significantly reduce building energy usage by automatically reducing unnecessary outlet energy during downtimes. These controls work on equipment such as computers, monitors, printers, projectors and TVs that consume energy even when they’re not in use. Easy to install, smart plugs communicate with a controller, such as a timer or occupancy switch. Also, usage data can be sent to sub-meters so property managers can bill tenants on the electricity they actually use.
Smart building technology centers on access to accurate, real-time energy consumption data. By knowing how and when energy is used in your facility is the first step in make it more efficient. Today, an energy audit and action plan must be built on a system that not only integrates all the controls and sensors, but also provides actionable data from information the sensors collect. Proper software and a platform that controls everything will help make the most of that system.
If you’re considering retrofitting a space or planning for new construction, the ACEEE notes that timing couldn't be better as occupancy rates in buildings remain low. And with Elevated Environments, a digital platform that supports all these components – from data analysis and collection – all on one dashboard, saving energy and money is easier now than ever.