Building tune-ups offer quick payback to save energy cash

The Renewable Energy Alaska Project restarted its monthly Clean Energy Forum Sept. 11 after a summer hiatus with a look at ways to improve energy efficiency and save money in commercial buildings.

Ezra Gutschow, a mechanical engineer for Coffman Engineers Inc., began the discussion at the Anchorage Museum with a presentation that detailed Coffman’s approach to energy improvements in the workplace.

“We view it as, you have to pay for energy one way or the other. So, you can either pay for energy waste in an inefficient building or you can invest in (efficiency) now and recoup some of those losses,” Gutschow said.

He performs building commissionings and retro-commissionings for Coffman. Gutschow said a commissioning assures all heating, ventilation and air conditioning, or HVAC, and lighting system elements in a new building are working in unison to maximize their effectiveness. He likened a retro commissioning to a vehicle tune-up — getting everything back to peak working condition after some time on the road.

The need for such building inspections stems from the number of cooks in the kitchen, so to speak, that are involved in getting a new building up and running. Gutschow noted that often six to eight electrical, plumbing and HVAC technicians can work on specific parts of a building. The commissioner acts as a kind of after-the-fact energy efficiency insurance policy.

Gutschow said a building’s operational systems should be inspected every five years. A typical large-building commissioning, initial or retro, runs about $40,000 but can be well worth the investment, he said.

A recent retro-commissioning Coffman performed on a 90,000 square-foot office building in Midtown Anchorage found air handlers, or blowers that provide ventilation, were running constantly, as opposed to just the 10 to 12 hours when the building is occupied. Simply adjusting the run-time of the fans cut the building’s overall energy bill by $41,000 per year in heat and electrical savings.

Much of the work is done by simply hooking a laptop to a building’s computerized control system, Gutschow said.

“Commissionings are applicable to not just government or commercial projects, but (to) educational, military and medical especially,” he said.

Coffman has commissioned military facilities all over Alaska and worked on a number of buildings in the Anchorage School District, he said.

A 2009 study from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory of 560 retro-commissionings done nationwide found an average energy cost savings of 30 cents per square foot per year after a building tune-up. The lab’s study put investment payback at 1.1 years with a benefit-cost ratio of more than 4. The buildings it monitored averaged 16 percent energy cost savings per year post-commissioning.

Gutschow said a retro commissioning of a 100,000-square foot office facility in Anchorage could be expected to save $29,000 per year.

“$40,000 unlocks $145,000 in savings over five years,” he said.

In addition to saving money, making sure a building’s systems are running properly can prevent what Gutschow called “sick building syndrome” by properly circulating air and continually operating it at an appropriate temperature, particularly in winter.

A few adjustments can keep employees healthy and working at peak efficiency themselves, he said, providing another unquantifiable cost benefit.

Usually no one is to blame for less than efficient building operation, Gutschow said. Building managers are tasked with keeping the lights on and the temperature comfortable and often are not familiar with the complex network of systems a large facility can have, he said.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

09/26/2013 - 6:13am