Thursday, November 06, 2008

University of Illinois retrocommissioning team working to save planet one building at a time

University of Illinois retrocommissioning team working to save planet one building at a time

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

When people envision reducing their carbon footprint they tend to look into the distance and see a greener future defined by shiny solar panels and towering wind turbines. But the fact is, both individuals and institutions can reduce their carbon footprint much more directly—and save money at the same time—by making the most of opportunities to conserve energy in the heating and cooling of existing buildings.

With this reality in mind, a new group was brought together last year within the Division of Engineering at University of Illinois Facilities & Services. Dubbed the retrocommissioning team, the group includes engineers, field technicians and tradesmen, who are working together to tune up campus buildings one at a time. The purpose of the retrocommissioning team is to restore optimal operating conditions for the heating, cooling, and ventilation systems of campus buildings, and to make or facilitate upgrades to components of those systems where that is feasible.

The team typically spends about two months on each building it works with, and it employs a highly systematic approach. That entails a thorough analysis of available documentation on mechanical systems by engineers, and a comprehensive investigation of operating conditions, equipment, and more by field technicians and tradesmen. The retrocommissioning team also depends on clear and open communications with the people who use the buildings they work on, since their intent is to best serve the needs of building users, not to restrict them.

One straightforward thing the retrocommissioning team does is to identify the maintenance issues that tend to multiply in overlooked places as facilities age—things like clogged ducts, stuck dampers, damaged coils and worn out sensors. [Photo: A blocked air silencer at the Tryon Festival Theatre had greatly reduce HVAC efficiency there.]

Beyond attending to such issues, the retrocommissioning team directs a great deal of effort toward enabling facilities operators to work more effectively. For example, at the Krannert Center for Performing Arts, the team installed digital controls and set up a web-based graphic interface that allow the director of facilities to monitor climate conditions for every part of the building from his computer. [Image: A web interface like this one allows facilities operators to monitor climate conditions and mechanical systems.] This system replaces one that required a person to visit each space to check on conditions there, no mean feat in a facility as large as Krannert.

Precision controls make it easier for facilities operators to dial back or shut down climate control systems when spaces are unoccupied, which can result in great reductions in energy use. In many parts of the Music Building, for example, significant mechanical systems are now shut down between 11:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m., saving about $15,000 a month in energy expenses.

If you think that’s a lot saved, you’ll be even more impressed by the overall numbers the retrocommissioning team is compiling. To date they have completed work on five buildings, and they are currently engaged with two more. In general they are able to reduce energy use and utility costs by 20% in the buildings they tune up. They calculate that the work they have done so far will result in an annual savings of approximately $875,000 per year. At the rate money is saved on energy, the work of the retrocommissioning team pays for itself in a period of just one to three years.

None of this is to downplay the pressing need for development of alternatives to fossil fuels. Rather, it’s to emphasize how retrocommissioning can help us move toward a sustainable future, in the words of one team member, “saving the planet one building at a time.”