Thursday, January 13, 2011

University of Illinois team working to save the planet two buildings at a time

University of Illinois team working to save the planet two buildings at a time

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Let’s face it, most people find energy conservation about as sexy as the cardigan sweater worn by Jimmy Carter when he exhorted Americans to turn down their thermostats back in 1977. But thirty-four years later, conservation still offers some of the greatest opportunities for decreasing our reliance on fossil fuels and fighting climate change.

At the University of Illinois, enormous gains in energy conservation are being made through the work of a group within the Utility and Energy Services division at Facilities & Services called the Retrocommissioning Team.

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 has grown from a single, 5-member unit when it was first formed in 2007 (slogan then, “Saving the planet one building at a time”) to a current staff of sixteen people who work in two teams (slogan now, “Saving the planet two buildings at a time”). Both teams include engineers, field technicians, tradesmen and student interns.

The teams typically spend about two months on a building, and they employ a highly systematic approach. Their work 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 Teams also depend 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 Teams do is 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. Beyond attending to such issues, the Retrocommissioning Teams also focus on ensuring that mechanical systems operate only as they are needed, rather than around the clock.

Some of the greatest reductions in energy use enabled by the Retrocommissioning Team have been achieved in relatively new facilities, shiny buildings a casual observer might have presumed to be models of efficiency.

At the ACES Library, Information and Alumni Center, for example, energy use in the year following retrocommissioning was an astonishing 42.7 percent lower than it had been the year before. The greatest part of this reduction was accomplished by using the available programmable controls to cut back ventilation and exhaust fans.

A similarly large reduction in energy use (42 percent) was achieved at the Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science through extensive work on temperature control programming.

While decreases in energy use at the other 20 buildings that have been retrocommissioned are somewhat less dramatic, the average reduction of 28 percent is still quite impressive. In terms of spending on utilities, the University has saved a whopping $4.5 million thanks to the work of the Retrocommissioning Team.

The work of retrocommissioning has also played a large role in enabling the University to attain the 5-year goal articulated in its Climate Action Plan of reducing overall energy use by 17 percent a full two years ahead of schedule.

You might wonder whether there will come a time for the Retrocommissioning Team to ride off into the sunset, leaving behind a campus whose facilities are all tuned to operate as efficiently as possible. But their work is naturally recursive. They constantly monitor the meters for the buildings they have worked on, and return to diagnose and resolve problems when losses in efficiency are detected. Beyond that, notes Karl Helmink, who with Damon McFall leads the retrocommissioning effort, it will likely be necessary to revisit facilities in a more comprehensive way as the years go by. “After we finish with the last building, we’ll go back to the first.”

For further details about retrocommissioning at the U of I, see