Making the Move to Greater Efficiency
Building owners are increasingly demanding HVAC and lighting systems
that operate efficiently and economically.
By Dan Rafter
The historical society History Colorado opened its new 200,000-square-foot $110-million history museum in Denver in April 2012. And while the interactive displays, exhibits, and soaring open spaces of the History Colorado Center captured most of the attention, the museum is notable, too, for its high-tech and high-efficiency HVAC system.
And just because this system doesn’t attract the same “oohs” and “aahs” from visitors as does the museum’s 132-screen media wall, doesn’t mean that the HVAC mechanical systems are any less important.
The History Colorado Center needed a reliable and high-quality HVAC system to protect its eight key nerve centers, four electrical rooms that hold large transformers and switchgear, and four data closets filled with database servers, fiber-optic equipment, and security equipment.
This was a challenge for MKK Consulting Engineers of Denver, the engineering company tasked with installing an HVAC system at the history center. The temperature in those eight rooms needed to be at 76°F at all times. This meant that the systems maintaining this temperature could not fail. At the same time, museum officials wanted an HVAC system that was as efficient as possible, one that would keep their heating and cooling costs down.
This is the challenge that building owners and facility managers often face today. Many are overseeing buildings that are filled with high-tech data centers and other information-age technology. The rooms housing this equipment must be kept at a constant temperature. At the same time, budgets are tight, and the economy continues to struggle. Building owners also demand HVAC and lighting systems that operate efficiently; reducing the amount of dollars they waste on energy costs each year.
In Denver, MKK solved this problem by specifying for two separate HVAC systems. The museum’s offices, common areas, presentation areas, and exhibit spaces are heated and cooled by a Variable Air Volume (VAV) HVAC system. But a Variable Refrigerant Flow (VRF) zoning system from Mitsubishi Electric serves the eight key nerve centers. Both systems are highly efficient.
Doug Crowell, chief building engineer for the history center, said, in a written statement, that this solution made the most sense.
“It is critical to have the controls for these nerve center systems be entirely separate,” he said. “If the main VAV system fails, the IT [information technology], electrical, and AV [audio-visual] rooms will not be impacted.”
Officials with the history museum are far from the only ones looking to install the most efficient lighting and HVAC systems possible. Many building owners and facility managers are considering retrofits in order to upgrade older, inefficient systems to systems able to utilize motion sensors, remote controls, and contact points in order to reduce energy consumption.
|Photo: American Green Technology
Interior of the Creative Foam
warehouse floor, lit with
Making the Move to Greater Efficiency
Dennis Cobb, senior director of commercial sales with Mitsubishi Electric, says that municipal officials and the owners of private buildings should start weighing the pros and cons of retrofitting to more efficient HVAC systems once their current systems start to hit the 10-year mark.
After a decade of service, HVAC systems can begin to lose their efficiency, Cobb says. At the same time, advancements in technology—which are ongoing in the HVAC industry—mean that more efficient systems are now available for purchase. And these systems can reduce energy consumption by enough to justify the upfront costs of an HVAC retrofit, he says.
As an example, Cobb points to the VRF systems that Mitsubishi Electric offers. This system, which gives building owners the ability to independently control indoor air-conditioning units, can reduce a building’s energy consumption by about 30% every year, Cobb says.
“And we’ve seen it go higher,” he says. “We’ve seen some incredibly high numbers when it comes to energy savings. They are often hard to believe, but those savings are real. Depending on how old a building’s HVAC equipment is the energy savings can be considerably higher if you put in a new, more efficient system.”
Gene Klaffke, sales manager with Liberty Steel Fabricating in St. Joseph, MI, doesn’t need convincing. In early 2012, Liberty Steel switched from low-efficiency mercury vapor lamps to induction lighting provided by American Green Technology.
The new lights, about 40 bulbs in the facility’s production bays, consume about 50% less energy than do the plant’s old bulbs, Klaffke says. And they also produce higher-quality light.
“The lights are super,” says Klaffke. “We get more than ample light out of less wattage than we were using before. The light pattern is much better, too. There isn’t as much shadowing effect.”
In addition, the steel plant has received government rebates for going green, something that has brought even more savings.
“Everyone here is real happy with these lights,” says Klaffke.
Building owners don’t even have to upgrade to the most efficient HVAC systems on the market to realize significant energy savings, Cobb says. That’s because buildings heated and cooled by systems that are 10 or more years old are relying on HVAC equipment that didn’t have to meet the same kind of high efficiency standards that systems must meet today.
So even if these building owners invest in a standard, baseline HVAC system, they should see a significant increase in energy savings each year, usually enough to justify whatever the retrofit to a new system costs, Cobb says.
And the best news for building owners? The energy savings from upgrading to more efficient HVAC and lighting systems can be what Walt Dowling, director of sales and marketing for Autani, which provides both efficient lighting and HVAC systems, calls “low-hanging fruit.”
Building owners have to answer just two main questions when determining whether they’d save significant dollars from an HVAC or lighting retrofit, Dowling says. First, are the current systems they are using include controls allowing for the designation of hot or cold zones throughout a building? Do they make it possible to turn off lighting, heating, or cooling in a room when it is unoccupied?
Secondly, are they using the controls that their systems already have?
If the answer to the first question is “no,” then it’s probably time for building owners to consider an upgrade. If their HVAC and lighting systems do have appropriate controls, though, building owners can probably realize energy savings simply by using these controls more effectively, Dowling says.
Networking can help with this. When devices are networked, building owners can make schedule changes for an entire facility from a central location. For example, stairwell lights can be programmed to dim after work hours, but brighten if activity is detected on the stairwell after hours. They can lower the amount of hot or cold air that pumps into a conference room if motion sensors determine that the room is empty.
This is an improvement over systems that instead rely on individual thermostats placed throughout a building, Dowling says.
“It’s a lot better than having to walk up to every thermostat to make changes,” says Dowling.
With the right controls, building owners can eliminate the problems that most often cause heating bills to soar.
“There aren’t little kingdoms throughout the building,” says Dowling. “Instead, you treat everything as one unified system.”
Creativity plays a role, too, in reducing energy costs, Dowling says. And today’s HVAC and lighting control systems give facility managers the ability to customize them to meet their buildings’ individual needs.
Maybe a room is set to receive a greater amount of hot or cold air only when motion sensors determine that it is occupied. But a system programmed so that the hot or cold air waits five minutes before shutting off after the room becomes unoccupied could further fine-tune environmental controls so that the room’s temperature remains comfortable for occupants.
Other systems employ door and window contact points to regulate when hot or cold air blows. If the system senses that a window is open, it won’t blow treated air into the space. Again, this can result in significant savings throughout the year.
“You don’t want to be heating or cooling the great outdoors,” says Dowling.
These contact points are used often in gyms, Dowling says. The manager of a high school football team might prop open a gym door as equipment managers hustle tackling dummies and bags of footballs in and out of the space. It makes no sense to cool that gym if the back doors are propped open.
It might seem like a small measure, but the energy savings from these contact systems can add up, Dowling says.
“How much does it cost to cool a gym in California during an entire baseball practice when the doors are propped open in the summer?” asks Dowling.
With a networked system, facility managers can also set ranges for how hot or cold a space can get. For example, at a high school, managers might program the HVAC system so that no one can adjust the temperature during the school day. But once school lets out, the HVAC system might let building occupants adjust the temperature to a certain level. Maybe there are times of the day during which occupants can set their spaces to cool down to a maximum temperature of 65°F or heat up to a maximum of 72°F.
Larry Seurynck, senior vice president of operations for American Green Technology, a company that offers induction lighting, says that too often building owners and facility managers neglect the most basic of their building’s operating systems.
And that’s unfortunate, he says. A building’s lighting and HVAC systems, after all, can have a significant impact on the bottom-line profits that owners realize.
“Look at solar and wind technologies. Without energy-efficient lighting, there’s really no point in putting up solar panels on the roof,” says Seurynck.
He says that when building owners upgrade to more efficient lighting such as his company’s induction lighting, they can save at least 50%, and often more than 60%, on yearly energy costs.
And efficient lighting systems often provide higher-quality light, Seurynck adds.
“A lot of owners or managers don’t know about all their options,” he says. “There’s a lack of exposure about the different lighting options available.”
Seurynck points to induction lighting as an example. Despite the high-quality light it produces, and despite the energy savings it can generate, many building owners are leery of upgrading to induction, often because they’re unfamiliar with the technology.
But Seurynck hopes this will change as new lighting technologies earn more press and succeed at higher-profile installations. For instance, induction lights are now burning outside the Rose Garden, the new arena for the Portland Trail Blazers’ basketball team.
“Though induction lighting has been around for 100 years, we are still in the first adoption phase of this technology,” says Seurynck. “But this technology will grow as more learn about it.”
As proof, Seurynck talks about the 60 municipalities across the Midwest that are now using induction lights on roadways and at their municipal buildings. American Green Technology installed these sample lights in these communities, Seurynck says, to provide an example of how the lights work and the energy savings that they can generate. So far, the reactions from municipal officials have been positive, he says.
The mayor of one of these municipalities, Donald Lyons from Dowagiac, MI, says that the induction lights provide both high-quality light and energy savings while lighting the city’s downtown streets.
“Our downtown is the showpiece of our community, and we work hard to make sure that it represents us well,” he says.
Lyons explains that a worker told him Dowagiac’s downtown streetlights once looked like a set of bad teeth, with each one burning at a slightly different color. Today, though, the mayor says, the downtown streetlights look more like a strand of perfectly colored pearls.
Larry Leetzow, president of Magnaray International, a division of World Institute of Lighting and Development Corp., says that building owners today have a wide enough range of choices when it comes to lighting that they have no reason to feel locked in to any one type of lighting system.
Many building owners are moving to LED systems, a system that is being pushed by the federal government for its efficiency. But Leetzow says that LED lights aren’t always the right choice for all building owners. For one thing, LED lights are still costly. And other lighting options are just as or nearly as efficient, he says.
“There is more than one solution that might be best,” says Leetzow, whose company specializes in exterior lighting products, products that building owners often use to illuminate their parking lots and parking garages. “It does not have to be a one-shoe-fits-all type of approach.”
Too many facilities managers, though, blindly recommend LED because it is the current hot lighting option, Leetzow says. They do this even if other products would provide the same quality of light and energy efficiency at a lower cost.
“Many managers never think beyond the sexy product right now, LED,” says Leetzow. “They never consider that there might be other options, options such as high-efficiency fluorescents, metal halides, even.”
Leetzow’s advice is straightforward: Facility managers should research the many lighting options available to them. And then they should study their own buildings’ needs. Some buildings are filled with spaces—conference rooms and lunchrooms, for example—that are only occupied in short bursts. Such buildings might have different lighting needs than do buildings in which all interior spaces are occupied throughout normal business hours.
“One of my sales guys recently spoke with a building manager. My guy told him that we can do what LEDs can do at 50% of the price. The building manager simply wasn’t interested,” says Leetzow. “He said that if it wasn’t LED, he wasn’t interested. That is very short-sighted.”
When choosing a system, Leetzow recommends that building owners focus on the quality of light that bulbs throw off. They want to invest in a system that doesn’t throw off much glare, because glare can reduce the productivity of workers, especially when these workers are sitting in front of computer screens most of the day. And they want a system that spreads light in a uniform way so that all areas of a room receive the right amount of light.
“When workers feel as if they are in control of their lighting environment, they become more productive,” says Leetzow. “If they are working on their computers, they want to be able to dim the lighting above them so that it’s easier to see the screen. When they are working on other tasks, they want to be able to make the light above them brighter. Adaptive lighting is the key. You want lighting that can adapt to any situation at a given time.”
|Photo: American Green Technology
Dowagiac, MI, uses energy-efficient bulbs in city streetlights.
And energy savings are only one factor that building owners should consider, Cobb says. Older lighting and HVAC systems also cost more money to both repair and maintain. They break down more often, and need more goosing from building maintenance staffers to keep facilities hot or cold.
“Building owners or facility managers have to determine if they are on the other side of the life-cycle costs bell curve,” says Cobb. “What is their annual average repair cost? They can’t just look at how much energy they are consuming. They can’t just look at maintenance costs. They have to include repair costs, and those can be expensive. Aging buildings and equipment require more maintenance.”
Then there’s tenant retention, an often-overlooked element when it comes to HVAC and lighting systems. Buildings might struggle to keep tenants if offices are too cold or stifling hot. They might see tenants seek new locations if the stairwells or parking lots are always too dark.
Companies know that their employees work best when they are comfortable. If the temperature in their workspaces make them feel sticky or cold, these workers aren’t likely to be as productive. This can negatively impact the bottom lines of their employers. And these employers won’t be as likely to renew when their leases are set to expire.
“Often, building owners will see that they are struggling to retain tenants. But they won’t understand why. They don’t understand that much of their problem comes from their building being too uncomfortable,” says Cobb. “Why are they having struggles? They have to ask whether their building is a comfortable environment. Can their tenants control the temperature in their own space? Can they control their environment, or are they at the mercy of a central HVAC system?”
It’s clear that there are plenty of good reasons for building owners to invest money in HVAC retrofits. But there are some fairly significant hurdles that are keeping more owners from upgrading their systems.
Cobb says that many buildings owners and facility managers have a fear either of new technology or a fear of change in general, which can prevent them from upgrading to more efficient HVAC systems even when such an upgrade makes obvious economic sense.
Others worry that their building staff won’t be able to successfully operate or maintain a new, higher-tech HVAC system. “Who do I have to train to maintain this system? Who will support this? Those are questions that building owners often have,” says Cobb. “That, coupled with a lack of understanding of all the benefits that a more efficient HVAC system can bring them, can cause them to skip on making an upgrade.”
It’s crucial, Cobb says, for manufacturers of HVAC and lighting equipment to make the effort to educate building owners and facility managers about why retrofits are so valuable. And when doing this, manufacturers need to focus on what matters most to owners: money and function.
Manufacturers need to emphasize that a more modern, efficient lighting or HVAC system will create a more comfortable environment for tenants and that it will make their buildings operate more efficiently.
And they need to pound home the point that higher-efficiency heating and cooling systems and more efficient lighting systems can dramatically reduce their energy bills.
“The big picture is the annual savings and energy efficiency, the retention of customers and those customers being happy in their spaces,” says Cobb. “There are some other benefits. For instance, aesthetically newer equipment often looks better. It often takes up less space and comes with less mechanics. The aesthetic appeal is better. But for building owners, cost savings and a building that operates better are the most important considerations.”
The national economy is improving, though this is happening too slowly for most. Building owners, though, are still too often staring at lower year-end income totals. Because of this, many are reluctant to pay the upfront costs of installing new HVAC or lighting systems.
It might be a shortsighted approach—the ROI on many of these systems is incredibly short—but upfront costs can persuade many building owners to forgo retrofits.
Dowling says that demand for more efficient lighting and HVAC systems is on the rise. But he breaks building owners into different types.
Some know they need something new and are looking for the right HVAC or lighting products. Others don’t realize what they need, but do realize that they’d like to save money. Members of the third group neither know that they need upgrades nor do they care.
As the economy has struggled, though, fewer building managers or owners fall into that last group, Dowling says. And that bodes well for the HVAC and lighting industries.
“When the economy was rolling, the biggest problem that last group of managers and owners had was finding enough employees for their companies,” says Dowling. “They spent a lot less effort on energy efficiency and saving money. But as the economy has retracted, they’re rethinking. They’re wondering if they should buy cheaper coffee for the breakroom, or whether they need that twenty-fifth person on staff. They’re also now wondering how they can reduce energy costs. Heating and cooling are obvious areas for them to look at.”
Again, it’s the job of manufacturers to sell the short ROI periods, Cobb says. “Upfront cost is a myth in this industry. Our systems offer a quick payback period.”
The good news is that, despite the national economy’s travails, demand for more efficient HVAC and lighting systems is growing, Cobb says.
“Building owners are looking for more efficient ways to heat and cool their buildings,” says Cobb. “Whether it’s because they want to go green or they want to attain LEED status, or they want to save money, HVAC systems can provide owners with a tremendous amount of flexibility. They offer zoning, remote sensing, and so many applications today. And we think the demand will only increase as building owners take longer looks at how much they are spending on cooling and heating their buildings each year.”
Author’s Bio: Dan Rafter is a technical writer and frequent contributor.