Why, with today’s smart buildings technology fifth generation energy management systems, sophisticated direct digital temperature controls, and Title 24 Building codes, do we still have buildings that are uncomfortable and expensive to operate?

Over the past several years, companies of all sizes have been upgrading their HVAC systems, installing computer controlled energy management systems, and adding sophisticated building controls. The promise has been lower operating costs, fewer comfort complaints, and fast paybacks.

Yet, in the most recent Building Owners Managers Association (BOMA) survey of office buildings in the United States and Canada, the lack of comfort because of temperature is the single most common complaint of office workers. The International Facilities Managers Association (IFMA) also prepared a similar survey of their Corporate Managers. The number one complaint from occupants was too hot! The number two complaint was too cold. It didn’t matter what size the building was. The first two complaints were the same.

The same surveys also show that, on average, employers pay over $233 per square foot for each of those workers. In terms of just productivity alone, the impact of uncorrected comfort problems can be significant. So, the question remains, “Why are these problems continuing?”

The answer is in the complexity of the HVAC systems. These are the most complex systems in a facility and have the highest impact on comfort levels and energy cost. There are, literally, hundreds of things that can go wrong, and each system component itself is complex. Yet, most people normally assume that the system is okay and just needs to be turned up or down.

The HVAC business is an exact science, and theoretically, there should be no such thing as an uncomfortable building, but the reality is that there are so many parts of the system that have to work together that it is difficult to provide a perfectly coordinated, functional, and integrated system.

The major problem is that the four components of an HVAC system have to be integrated properly, and they seldom are. A mechanical system has to be designed properly. Installed as designed, maintenance in a properly operating condition, and controlled.

Usually, each of these four major components is done by a different individual or company. Trying to get the four sources to work together can be a facility manager’s nightmare. When comfort is not realized, the design engineer can say “well, I designed it, but I didn’t install it or maintain it.” The installer can say “well, I installed it, but I didn’t design or maintain it.” The maintenance mechanic can say “ I maintain it, but I didn’t design or install it.” The finger keeps pointing to the next guy and the building owner ends up frustrated.

What is even more sad, is that many facilities continue to invest additional capital into providing alleged solutions to the comfort problems that seldom work. Solutions to the continuing problem are usually done on a piece meal basis with service call after service call; this can add up to as much as $1.00 per square foot, per year without a guaranteed solution. Meanwhile, the productivity of building occupants continues to slip and confidence in the facility manager’s ability to fix the problem continues to erode.

The solution to getting this problem under control lies in identifying and quantifying the problem

There are three questions that need to be addressed:

1. What exactly is the problem? Is it the design, the installation, the maintenance, or is it a combination of all three components?

2. Second, what will it cost to fix the problem, once and for all?

3. Third, who is going to take responsibility for the “solution” and what penalties will they incur if they are unable to fix it?

In order to determine the answer to the first question, a detailed technical audit must be performed on the building by a Professional Engineer and a qualified HVAC technician, usually working as a team to uncover and document all system deficiencies.

The Professional Engineer and technician need to work together to physically check every detail of the existing system’s operation. The result is a “snap-shot in time” that freezes the dynamic operating process of your facility and highlights the causes of energy inefficiencies of comfort abnormalities.

In such an audit, every valve, damper, thermostat, and related control component is inspected, each detected deficiency is itemized and in general, each major piece of energy using equipment is documented as to kilowatt use and operating efficiency.

In addition, computerized data collection and analysis is done over a continuous period of time for such parameters at outside air, zone, supply and return temperatures; amp readings; air flows; and other variables that can affect energy usage. A database can then be graphed to show the exact points of mis-operation or inefficiency.

Audits should be detailed. Among other things, temperature control systems are checked for calibration; reset schedules are verified; economizer dampers are checked under actual operation; minimum air volumes are measured; and heating and cooling valves are checked for leakage.

Original design is compared to actual building use. Capacities are calculated and compared to design. If the design is correct or functional, the installation is verified to assure that the system can, in fact, function as designed.

Additionally, lighting intensifies are measured for efficiencies; lighting and equipment on-off schedules are checked against actual use; and existing HVAC and lighting systems are check for proper capacities.

The audit also identifies and quantifies comfort problems by graphing real time temperature data from various building zones to spot abnormal temperature ranges. These, then, can be compared to equipment event logs and supply temperature records to identify the exact cause of the abnormalities.

The final, detailed picture of the building’s current energy use and control system operation documents deficiencies or problems within each of the four key areas – design, operation, maintenance, and control.

Typically, the audit report includes recommendations for correcting each deficiency, complete with itemized costs and guaranteed payback projections.

Armed with a detailed audit, you are able to focus in on just what it is you need to do. It may be as simple as performing some needed repairs or you may actually need an entirely new system. Either way, your decision can be based on factual technical and financial information.

Now the first two questions have been answered; the problem has been identified, and the costs to correct the deficiencies has been defined. The Facility Manager can now make a decision as to the cost effectiveness of fixing the problems. When the human productivity factor is added to the cost savings of energy and repairs, I think most problems will become cost effective to repair.

The last question now has to be answered: who is going to take responsibility for getting the problems fixed and assuring the Facility Manager that the cost savings identified will be realized? The answer to this question is that it must be the same person who performed the technical audit and prepared the proposals to correct the deficiencies.

You need a turnkey, sole source responsibility because no one is going to guarantee somebody else’s work! Failing to assign the responsibility is how the comfort problems occurred in the first place.

It is, therefore, very important to pick the proper person or company to do the technical audit. There should be some up-front guarantee as to what the audit will produce, the amount of cost savings that will be identified, and the maximum payback on total capital that will need to be invested to realize the deficiency correction identified as the payback period agreed upon.

Impossible? This is not as hard as it may first seem. The types of guarantees that I am describing are called performance contracts and they are used all the time in business today. Performance contracts are, in fact, one of the few ways that problem buildings can actually be corrected once and for all.

I never fail to be amazed at how little performance is required by most contracts awarded. Take, for example, the subject of energy management. I don’t think I have ever seen an energy management specification that specifically required the supplier to save energy. Most energy management decisions today are based on hardware costs, after a lengthy comparison of hardware features rather than on verifiable results. But, Unix software, “C-Language”, “high-speed networks”, “user friendliness”, and similar features do not reduce energy costs or improve comfort! It still requires proper engineering and application after existing deficiencies have bee identified and the desired results have been defined.

But the most important thing, and the most often overlooked, is that someone needs to be responsible and the questions need to be answered. What happens if you don’t save energy? What happens if the facility is not comfortable? Who takes responsibility?

Energy cost reduction is now being used effectively by facility managers to provide the funding for numerous unbudgeted projects such as retrofit projects to improve comfort, and indoor air quality regulation .
Sounds like a difficult time to be a Facility Manager, doesn’t it? However, with all problems there is opportunity, if you know where to look. The opportunity lies in identifying the problems and creating and administering a plan that eliminates those problems and improving the overall operation of your facility.