Introducing Supertech

6 min read

Maximizing efficient energy savings

A 2012 Deutsche Bank study titled “Recognizing the Benefits of Energy Efficiency in Multifamily Underwriting” analyzed 230 buildings encompassing over 21,000 units of affordable housing where energy efficiency retrofits were performed to understand how predicted energy savings stacked up to actual energy savings. The results: only about 61% of predicted savings were realized. As to why this rate was so low, the conclusions included: “lack of training, lack of third-party attention, lack of on-going maintenance.” Beyond these dismal results, there is much antidotal evidence that high-performance buildings are not as high-performance as predicted.

Degradation of predicted savings over time, particularly when the energy improvements are financed, poses a serious risk to energy investing, particularly to the higher-dollar, longer-payback type of measures, such as boilers and chillers.

To combat these issues, many owners and property managers are creating the position of a Supertech – and this makes both financial and business sense. Employed by owners or large management companies, the Supertech organizes and conducts routine maintenance, helps sites troubleshoot operational issues, reduces overall training cost and serves as the first line of defense against losing operational efficiency. A Supertech is the site’s mechanical systems expert, able to diagnose issues, coordinate repairs and provide input to final operational strategies. Supertechs are assigned to a handful of sites between which their time and expertise is shared.

Outsourcing: part of the solution AND part of the problem
Reducing energy and operations cost is demanded by the competitive market to purchase, develop and operate affordable housing. Investors, state agencies and HUD are all looking for the best returns for their dollar. HUD, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac either currently have, or will soon introduce, green lending programs making the persistence and the full realization of savings over the life of financing imperative.

As more efficient and technology-oriented solutions are installed on-site, the challenge grows. Labor, training, and complexity of computer driven heating, cooling and domestic hot water systems lead owners to third-party contractors to provide maintenance services. These contractors are required as complexity and liabilities are beyond the skill set of existing site staff, who simply have many other priorities.

While outside contractors bring the knowledge and expertise required to effectively maintain the systems, they don’t take “ownership” of the building and its systems. As a matter of fact, competitively bid, lowest cost, third-party maintenance simply cannot have the same alignment as “ownership.” The low bid operations and maintenance contractor has the economic incentive to minimize time and expense spent at your site, not to minimize your operating expense nor maximize life expectancy of equipment.

A Supertech staff position ensures efficiency and responsibility in energy and in-house operations. Supertechs are “owners” who ensure equipment runs efficiently and for longest economic life. They provide the owner’s due diligence of in house and contracted maintenance.

Good contractors are certainly needed and appreciated, but having in-house “trust but verify” talent pays for itself. The Supertech will triage service calls prior to expense of an outside contractor. They have the skills and knowledge to test and adjust the equipment and verify contractor work is performed to standard.

Finding and Training the Right People for the Job
This new position requires a specific set of skills.

Not only does the Supertech need to have the ability to coordinate with workers on multiple levels of organization, but he/she also has to possess a high level of knowledge of widely varying mechanical systems. Since this position typically works in multiple buildings, the

Supertech needs to be familiar with various types of heating and domestic hot water systems in terms of both how they operate and what opportunities exist to make them more efficient. They need to be able to identify when systems are operating below peak efficiency, what can be done to improve them, and when the time is right to call on outside help, either from an engineer or a contractor.

With funding from the Better Buildings Challenge, Trinity Property Management and Housing Management Resources are out to provide training for this unique and important position. They are using this funding to organize training sessions for nine large affordable housing portfolios in the Better Buildings program along with seven public housing authorities in the greater Boston area. Developed and provided by Sparhawk Group, the Supertech training is providing the Supertechs of tomorrow with the information needed to have an immediate impact on operations budgets. Besides the energy audits, design, implementation and commissioning of efficiency solutions, Sparhawk Group develops context appropriate manuals, training opportunities and verification of system performance. Helping owners develop their Supertechs was a natural fit.

Training a Supertech
The training focuses on main areas of building energy consumption including lighting, domestic hot water, cooling, heating and building envelope and ventilation. Topics include how different systems are designed, what parameters are ideal for efficient operation, what opportunities exist for upgrading efficiency, identifying simple energy conservation measures, and a discussion around available resources to combat rising utility usage.

By teaching best-practice maintenance and operations for these systems, this training provides Supertechs with the ability to develop and execute maintenance plans that can stop the downward trend of site efficiency.

The training takes place at four different properties where the operational specifics of the heating, cooling and domestic hot water systems, as well as the associated opportunities for energy efficiency, are reviewed. This is followed by peer-to-peer learning sessions and hands on grappling with the latest technology. These sessions are designed to encourage Supertechs to share experiences and ideas – to work together to develop and learn not only new solutions and opportunities, but reviewing a system as a whole, understanding how it interacts with the rest of the building systems and developing the most context appropriate solution.

All things considered, the Supertech is the best long term solution for slumping energy efficiency. As technology continues to develop opportunities for high-level utility oversite and equipment control and automation, the Supertech becomes more and more central to the overall efficiency of a site. This role not only provides best practice maintenance procedures, but also front-line efficiency upgrade opportunities.

With their knowledge and skill set, Supertechs can be leveraged by engineers and efficiency experts, and they play a critical role in the development, implementation and long-term operation of energy efficiency projects. One of the less tangible and often most difficult ways to quantify long-term savings opportunities is centered around on-going maintenance. With someone in the role of the Supertech, consultants and engineers can develop more comprehensive energy reduction programs, and develop the long-term maintenance and efficiency strategies for someone who can effectively and efficiently execute them.

Supertechs play a pivotal role in long-term energy efficiency strategies. As new technologies emerge, and as new efficiency programs become available, they serve as a valuable resource to owners. The time is now to train and develop the Supertechs of tomorrow, and that is exactly what these Better Buildings partners are doing.

Matt Holden is president of Sparhawk Group and sets the vision for the team to provide client solutions that are context-appropriate. Solutions that encompass both technical and financial information presented and explained so clients can make the best informed decision. As a designer, Matt’s goal is to provide robust solutions that can be built and maintained cost-effectively.