Smart Controls

11 min read

Products and People Team-up for Energy Efficiency

Contrary to the messages of the latest spate of dystopian science fiction novels and futuristic prognosticators, the brave new world of high technology and computer control has not eliminated the role of human beings or made them obsolete. At least, not in the area of energy efficiency.

“We’re kind of reaching the limits of energy efficiency; say, going from an 88 percent efficient boiler to a 96 percent efficient boiler. It’s a more competitive marketplace with smaller and smaller increments,” observes Matthew Holden, President and CEO of Sparhawk Group of Maine and New York, consultants in building performance, and an engineer by training. “So the business is about adding up all the increments, which means more and more controls.”

“Smart” control systems for heating, cooling, lighting and water management are quickly becoming the standard of the building industry, but those systems only add value if they are properly understood, monitored and maintained.

“In the most efficient operations, humans and technology go hand-in-hand,” Holden explains. “And if you need a Ph.D. in electrical engineering to interact with the system, it’s not going to work.”

“As a rule of thumb, new technologies are wonky,” offers Jared Lang, Sustainable Development Manager for the National Housing Trust in Washington, D.C. “There are a lot of logistics involved, as well as integration issues on both the soft and hard side, like if you have to put in a new electrical panel. You have to be patient and willing to deal with that.” The Trust considers its buildings a “demonstration portfolio” and as a nonprofit, can often get vendors to let them try out new products and systems with what Lang calls “free samples.”

Training in energy systems can take a variety of forms. Sparhawk, among other companies, can conduct training tailored to a specific system and workforce. There are a number of training programs in existence, though they tend to be both expensive and general rather than keyed to any one type of building or system.

If there is a commissioning agent on a new construction or renovation project, he or she is sometimes retained to get the engineering and maintenance up to speed. For existing properties, Holden recommends developing in-house training resources.

“Training and documentation is both a real challenge and opportunity for the industry,” he says.

Remote monitoring has been available for some time, but in the newest products, the controls are built-in and web enabled, so a building engineer or superintendent can monitor HVAC and boilers by smart phone with no additional expense.

“But you need a good commissioning agent and engineer,” Holden emphasizes, so you can optimize flows and pressures. “We have a client in Connecticut who had put in a fancy control system, but it was not properly set up, so it was heating in June.” And everyone has seen the automatic lawn sprinklers that come on according to their standard programs just after a downpour.

Brian Klansky, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Bright Power, Inc., energy management consultants in New York City, cites the case of a completely programmed office building HVAC system. When the workforce came in in the morning, the temperature was perfect. What no one knew until Bright Power came on board and started monitoring for higher than expected energy costs was that several months previously, there had been a power failure and the programmable thermostat had been coming on at 3:00 a.m. The system had reset itself to factory standards.

“We were wasting gobs of energy,” Klansky recalls.

The next phase in high tech energy management? “There is great new technology that manages electricity at the circuit level,” he says.

“We are just on the cusp of smart control systems for whole buildings and even larger projects,” adds Holden. “This will allow master switch and power saving innovations. If the owner pays for electricity, the growth of phantom plug load – the amount of power a device uses simply by being plugged in – can have a tremendous impact. For example, the old style DVRs consumed more power than refrigerators, until policy changes mandated more efficient operation.”

National Housing Trust has begun using Belkin’s WeMo Insight Switch, which connects to a smartphone app and lets the user pinpoint the greatest phantom loads. “We’re just getting started down this road,” says Lang. They are also looking at an occupancy sensor device that cuts off power to vending machines when no one is around and will measure electricity for potential pass-through to the machine owner.

Sparhawk’s Holden notes, “In all honesty, conservation is the lowest cost of energy efficiency. And we should not forget about passive conservation, like insulation and weather stripping. Once you install them, there’s not much you have to do.”

Most operators in the affordable housing space know about the simple increments with proven track records for saving money with short or relatively short recoupment periods. Among these are lower flow toilets and faucets and water shutoff showerheads. And while tungsten bulbs have long been relegated to lighting history, LEDs (light-emitting diodes) have become highly efficient and now rival fluorescents in terms of cost and efficiency, while providing more even, natural and satisfying light.

Water Conservation
NTH has concentrated heavily on water conservation, with impressive results. “We’re very excited about the new showerheads with a thermostatic shutoff valve,” says Lang. “They’re great for heat and water savings.” They are also using Niagara Conservation’s Stealth Toilet that needs only 0.8 gallon of water per flush. “And it really works!” Lang declares.

Flapper leakage has been an ongoing problem. NHT has been working with Water Meter Solutions, which has invented a Wi-Fi leak detector, powered by the toilet’s own water flow. And Mosaic Power’s Load Controller is a box on the electric hot water heater that shuts it off when the grid needs to conserve energy – often for only seconds – in exchange for an annual energy rebate payment. This is all part of the coming “Internet of Things” frontier.

Solar Power
Solar power has been in the energy spotlight for a generation, and it’s still a mixed bag as far as cost-benefit.

Lang says, “The big thing we’re working on is a battery storage system for solar power, which makes the solar energy system stand-alone.” It can be attached directly to the HVAC system and makes it immune to electrical outages or power grid critical load brownouts.

“The good news,” Holden states, “is that solar has come down considerably in cost per unit of energy generated.” On the other hand, he notes, photovoltaic panels are not much of an advantage at the present time because of the low cost of natural gas. There may be better uses for the space they take on the roof. And unless there are Congressional initiatives to extend it, the federal solar tax credit is scheduled to disappear at the end of 2016. “So if you’re planning on including solar power in your project,” he warns, “you’d better get in line now. You need state incentives to make it work right now, so you could say that solar power works, depending on your state. There are only a few states that give incentives, including Massachusetts, Connecticut and California.”

Heat Pumps
Going up a third order of complexity, heat pumps are now far more efficient and cost-competitive than they used to be, effectively heating their spaces down to -15 degrees. And they can eliminate the need for window units on older properties. On existing properties, Holden has seen significant savings realized by replacing through-the-wall air conditioning units with heat pumps.

“This is leading edge. Every energy sleeve in a wall will cost the owner around $30 per year in known costs, and that adds up. If he replaces those units with heat pumps and charges the tenant $30 per month for AC, that will be an attractive prospect.”

The latest state-of-the-art is cogeneration, or “cogen;” also called CHP, for combined heat and power. “This is a technology that is just coming into its own,” says Holden. By producing both heat and electricity from one unit and using them both – such as by capturing the heat generated by the process to produce domestic hot water – savings of 15 to 40 percent over traditional single-use systems can be realized. Such systems generally work most efficiently for large buildings or complexes, and natural gas is the preferred fuel, being abundant and most economical. Lang is currently looking at black start technology that can turn on a system without relying on the electrical grid and basically serves as its own generator.

But even this advanced technology has a caveat. A total energy efficiency approach involves understanding the landscape even beyond one’s own project. Holden notes, “We have a lot of deferred maintenance in our infrastructure and we’re starting to pay the piper.” Literally, in this case. While natural gas supply is abundant, getting it where it needs to be can be a challenge. “We need to have much more pipeline to supply the amount of natural gas we have to deliver. If you don’t have a fixed rate contract and you have to buy on the spot market in the middle of winter, you’re in trouble.”

Holden warns, “There is still no one-size-fits-all solution. A lot of it comes down to active management: What is context-appropriate for the site, the staff and the residents? Programmable thermostats can be problematic for both tenants and maintenance staff. After three Saturday calls, don’t be surprised if maintenance just turns them off. It’s just not worth the brain drain of the staff.”

Ravi Malhotra, who has degrees in both engineering and business administration, is Founder and President of ICAST – the International Center for Appropriate and Sustainable Technology in Lakewood, Colorado – a nonprofit that takes as its mission providing economic, environmental and social benefits to communities in a manner that builds local capacity. Like Holden, Malhotra believes the major savings will come in smart controls and improvements in the transfer of energy.

“Heating and cooling: that’s where it all begins, so that’s where you will find the greatest efficiency,” he says. “How is the air handled? How are the heating and chilling accomplished?”

He also takes a total approach to energy efficiency, and the highest tech is not always the optimum solution in his evaluations.

The Human Element
Far from humans being obsolete in the increasingly high tech energy environment, Malhotra thinks human behavior is the key to performance-based decision-making. His model has three equal components: the technology product; operations and management personnel; and tenants, or end users. “And the key to that is controlling zones – getting the energy when and where you need it. The days of everyone getting the same temperature are gone.

“You always have to take into account the people involved – both the occupants and those who have to manage the systems. Whether you’re talking about residential or office – how savvy are the tenants? Smart thermostat in senior housing? Bad idea. Big numbers and simple up and down buttons are what you want. Too much high tech can be detrimental.”

Jared Lang is also wary of trying to change behavior. “What’s cool is that there are now technologies that don’t feel like behavioral change but just work.” The new showerheads, low-flow and self-monitoring toilets and occupancy sensors are only a few of the current examples.

As an engineer, Malhotra is all for innovation. But he is rigorous in his evaluation of a total system. “Eighty percent is baseline efficiency these days and it goes all the way up to 96 percent. But what is the extra incremental cost of that efficiency? We can project 15 years out with
a performance contract, taking utility rebates and all other factors into account. We aim for payback in under five years.”

Many of Matt Holden’s projects have been “pay-for-performance utility incentives” with payments based on measured energy savings.
The takeaway on energy efficiency seems to be that anyone who considers the latest technology without considering both the users and the people who have to be trained to control and maintain it are leaving out a critical part of the equation.

“We want to educate people on sustainability in a way that motivates them to take action,” Ravi Malhotra summarizes. “We want to create real-world solutions that actually improve people’s lives.”

Or, as Jared Lang puts it, “We look at sustainability as an opportunity, not a cost.”