It’s no surprise that the occupancy of commercial office buildings looks dramatically different as a result of COVID-19. The unexpected upside is that lower occupancy creates an ideal opportunity to conduct an energy audit for your building.
What is an energy audit, you ask?
Energy auditing is the professional practice of reviewing all energy systems within a building and provides a report to ownership detailing recommended measures to reduce energy waste, also known as energy conservation measures (ECM). The ECMs are typically broken into low-cost ECMs and capital expenditures. The report includes estimates on initial cost and annual savings for each energy conservation measure, enabling property owners to make informed decisions on which ECMs will bring them the most value. With fewer building occupants comes less risk of disruption – and a prime opportunity to reduce costs and improve indoor conditions in preparation for your tenants returning to the office.
Let us take a look at what steps an owner can expect from an energy audit:
Step One: Identifying Ownership’s goals
Before starting an energy audit, the auditor and ownership should decide which goals are most important for the building or campus. Ownership’s goals are typically unique to each building. Goals often include:
- Identify energy-saving opportunities
- Identify utility cost-saving opportunities
- Comply with their jurisdiction’s code requirements
- Meet their own stated energy reduction goals, increasing asset value
- Understand their building’s energy use breakdown
- Lower carbon emissions.
Once the goals of the energy audit have been identified, it’s time to develop a strategy for the building or campus.
Step Two: Forming a Strategy
To get the most value out of an energy audit, the auditor and owner should work together to devise the audit strategy. Especially in the case of campuses or large buildings with complex or varied systems, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer number of options at your disposal.
There are several types of energy audits and surveys that a building owner could employ. The most common and well regarded is the ASHRAE energy audit, which consists of three levels. Depending on the goals and desired outcomes identified in Step One, an owner can pursue any of the three audit levels available to them. The right level energy audit will provide the right balance between audit cost and the value of the audit.
The diagram in Fig. 1 shows the different levels of effort and their relationship to each other, starting with a Preliminary Energy-Use Analysis (PEA). As the diagram moves from the bottom upwards, it shows an increasing level of effort and increasing initial cost. The best choice depends on the desired outcomes and can range in detail from one level to the next:
Step Three: Conducting the Audit
Each ASHRAE energy audit level offers a different set of tools for the owner, and each level can be used in different ways. A Level 1 energy audit can bring a lot of insight to a building lacking initial energy usage data, while Level 2 and 3 audits bring a more detailed analysis in the final report and more accurate estimates for ECMs. The energy audit levels can be used in different strategies or sequences to best fit a project. For example, an owner who is unsure whether they want to pay for the detail in the Level 2 audit, may opt for Level 1 initially. This provides an owner with more information to decide if they want to continue to a Level 2 audit.
The ownership team of a campus of buildings or several unique, satellite buildings may want to know which buildings are their worst offenders. This owner may strategically choose to perform a Preliminary Energy Use Analysis (PEA) or Level 1 audit across all the buildings. This establishes a baseline and a priority list of worst offenders. Level 2 and Level 3 audits can then be performed on those offenders.
Level 3 audits are rare, usually due to the high initial investment for detailed building and/or system modeling. Best practice is to perform a Level 1 or 2 audit initially to determine if the Level 3 audit’s return on investment is worth pursuing.
The Approach: client-based vs. building-based
Conducting an energy audit can be very straightforward, but what sets a successful project apart from the rest has a lot to do with who is conducting the audit and what they do with the resulting information. The status quo is simple: auditors are hired, perform the work, and then turn in a final report left to be interpreted by the owner. This is what Paladino refers to as a building-based approach.
The challenge with a building-based approach is that the focus is placed solely on the building, rather than on the consultative process of guiding an owner through an audit from beginning to end. After all, an audit’s success relies not on just good information, but on a team of professionals that can understand the data and make smart, cost- and efficiency-driven decisions.
The alternative to a building-based approach is a client-based approach, which is what we practice at Paladino. We believe there should be checkpoints throughout the process to reassess the direction of the audit because goals can change as you unearth more information about your building. A good client-based approach should maintain that balance between audit cost and value, all while remaining flexible and acting as the owner’s trusted advisor.
Perhaps a major discovery was found early in the process and it makes sense to drop from a Level 2 to a Level 1 audit, reducing the cost. Perhaps there are more issues than originally anticipated and a Level 1 needs to be increased to a Level 2 audit. With our client-based approach, we can read what the building is telling us, discuss it with our clients, and adjust accordingly. We guide the owners through interpreting the results and offer a full-service approach, working alongside ownership through every step of the process.
Energy audits are the best secret weapon for facilities and operations managers. They make sense for a building owner any time there’s an interest in optimizing an asset, and they are particularly smart when occupancy is low and there are fewer interruptions. Energy audits can extend the life of your equipment, reduce CapEx costs, maximize ROI, and avoid regulatory fines.
If you’d like an estimate for an energy audit for your building or portfolio, contact us. A member of our building performance team will be more than happy to discuss your options!