When Andy Schonberger, director of the Earth Rangers Centre in Woodbridge, Ontario, arrives in the morning, he grabs a cup of coffee, flips on his computer, and begins analyzing a breakdown of the building’s energy performance. He’s constantly checking its pulse, looking for areas of improvement.
When his counterpart Brett Sverkas, the facility manager, gets in, he mans the back end of a communications hub he implemented, where occupants can anonymously report complaints or concerns via Google Docs. He’s continuously gauging the goings-on, wondering where performance can get better.
Some buildings are simply left humming along after having earned some mark of energy certification. But this ho-hum approach won’t suffice for these building managers.
For them, being efficient and sustainable isn’t just a nice distinction in the community or a plaque on the wall. It’s their job.
“One of the performance metrics in my review is to decrease energy consumption every single year,” Schonberger explains. “That’s a constant challenge for sure.”
From Baseline to Top of the Line
Occupied in 2004, the Earth Rangers Centre – which houses a non-profit organization dedicated to biodiversity and sustainability – employed several green strategies from the onset. “It had a very heavy concrete thermal mass, radiant heating and cooling, heat recovery on air handling, earth tubes, and a PV-ready roof,” says Schonberger. “It was pretty well-equipped as a base building.”
Part of the building’s initial $22 million price tag entailed making it ready for the future, as the organization and its goals grew, Schonberger explains. Upon completion, the Earth Rangers Centre earned LEED Gold certification for new construction.
“As we learned how to operate the building, we kept finding ways to cut energy consumption, reduce our environmental impact, and also decrease costs,” says Schonberger. “After making several ongoing improvements, we wanted credit for that.”
Their previous recognition only served as motivation. “Getting gold for new construction was great, but we wanted credit for performing operations in the same manner,” Schonberger explains. “We wanted that platinum plaque for existing buildings.”
Their first step was enlisting consulting firms MCW Custom Energy Solutions and Ecovert Sustainability Consultants. On their advice, the center underwent an in-depth, ASHRAE Level II energy audit in 2009.
Motivated by the organization’s desire to ultimately achieve carbon neutrality and earn every LEED point possible, Schonberger and Sverkas asked their consultants an open-ended question: “What would you do to this building if it were a blank sheet of paper?”
They poked and prodded every building system. “They even looked at waste heat off one of our refrigerators,” adds Schonberger. “Then they were able to prioritize what is the best bang for our energy buck.”
Schonberger and Sverkas wound up with a prioritized “grocery list” of items to consider. At the top of that list was energy metering.
“They identified that our existing building automation system didn’t have the muscle for what we wanted to do,” says Schonberger. PageBreak
Setting and Surpassing Goals
Employing an energy management system enabled Schonberger and Sverkas to carry out their strategy of constantly tweaking and improving the facility.
“We needed monitoring because until then, we were only relying on utility bills. The metering system empowered us to figure out what to target and how to commission properly,” Schonberger explains. “With the help of partners and the dedication of staff, we focused on setting and attaining goals, then exceeding them.”
One of the key partners was Schneider Electric, which in 2009 donated $375,000 worth of equipment including energy metering hardware and software, the building automation system, security cameras, and LED lighting. During the same time period, new opportunities prompted the Earth Rangers Centre to undertake several major upgrades.
“We were able to wrap a bunch of things into one big capital plan,” says Schonberger. “We extended the parking lot because we needed more parking on-site and at the same time installed a ground source heat pump system beneath it.”
Offering perhaps the biggest contribution to energy reduction, this geoexchange heating system was also one of the biggest investments, says Schonberger. Since its installation, the Earth Rangers Centre has drastically cut its natural gas consumption by 90%, while slashing its carbon footprint by 40%.
“We were also able to put in a 58 kW solar array on dual-axis trackers out there,” Schonberger adds.
The parking lot PV now generates up to 85,000 kWh per year, accounting for about 20% of the building’s consumption, notes Sverkas. The facility has since added another array on the aviary roof on the south side of campus, which produces an additional 33,000 kWh annually.
“Solar output is typically the first thing I look at on my dashboard each day, because it’s a moneymaker for us,” says Schonberger, adding that the facility has a deal with the Ontario Power Authority and earns a premium for solar energy it contributes to the grid ($0.443 Canadian per kWh from the lot, $0.701 per kWh from the aviary).
“Then I check that pie graph, basically looking at a systems breakdown to confirm that the building reacted the way I thought it would based on what’s going on in the building and what’s happening with the weather outside,” Schonberger adds. “I look at supply air temperature coming out of the air handling unit and humidity levels and do a quick thermal comfort check so that I can nip anything in the bud before we get complaints from tenants or staff.”
Every few weeks, Schonberger checks other graphs to see if he’s on track to meet annual goals. He monitors net electricity from the grid, solar revenue from each array, and the total cost for energy. “Now I’m seeing those dollars flowing along with the kilowatt-hours,” he says, adding that the organization has trimmed 10% energy consumption every year on average. PageBreak
Spurring Current and Future Initiatives
In keeping with the goal of constant improvement, Sverkas is currently working on a lighting control update that will incorporate wireless occupancy and light level sensors. “We saw significant consumption when the building was completely unoccupied, so there are still plenty of opportunities for savings,” he explains. “Aside from savings, we were able to properly commission the system and get it to work as originally intended.”
Their next focus is security and implementing a system that uses dynamic occupancy scheduling in conjunction with building automation. “You swipe in so the building knows you’re there and it could turn on an IP-configured power bar at your desk, for example,” explains Sverkas. “We want to be able to put the building into occupied versus sleep mode, and there’s potential to incorporate many other systems.”
In addition to prompting major projects, the energy management system also helps the facilities staff identify and address smaller day-to-day concerns that might otherwise go unnoticed.
When the facility accommodated additional occupants, Sverkas expected an increase in plug load, but it went up drastically compared to what he anticipated. The reason: an occupant had brought a space heater. “We looked into the building automation system and found a $60 stuck valve in the radiant heating in that area,” he explains. “We opened it up and solved the issue. If we didn’t have the system, we wouldn’t have known it was malfunctioning like that.”
On another occasion, a system alarm alerted Sverkas to a huge spike in water consumption. “We found out a toilet had been flushing for four or five hours, and the problem was simply a stuck valve,” he says. “We were able to stop that before it became an issue for our wastewater treatment plant.”
The unique nature of the organization’s goals and attitudes about energy efficiency has even led the staff outside of the facilities team to notice areas for improvement. “The receptionist had a space heater at the desk because the revolving door is leaky,” adds Schonberger. “Using an infrared scan, we’ll be able to prove thermally that a high-performance door will make a major difference to that space. We’ll be able to justify a case for it in terms of comfort, productivity, and cost.”
Other issues the team has encountered include a stuck damper on the air handling unit and a fan running at an unusually high speed. “I get a lot of these alerts on a daily basis,” Sverkas says. “We’re still setting them up and tweaking the thresholds for when they go off. It’s not a function of what it can tell you, it’s a matter of what you want it to tell you.”
Not Always “Puppies and Ice Cream”
Making these tweaks and improvements is a constant battle, and sometimes the team has bit off more than it can chew.
“It’s not always puppies and ice cream,” Schonberger explains. “We’ve gotten a little complicated, and then the automation system becomes another thing to maintain. We try not to get too complex with the gadgets yet still take advantage of the capabilities of technology. It’s a fine line to walk.”
By the same token, the level of intricacy should mirror your goals, which is part of the reason Sverkas writes his own mobile apps.
“Generic apps wouldn’t work the way I want them to for all the specific applications,” he says, adding he has the ability to turn off any system, open or close valves, and operate the green roof irrigation. “Complexity is relative to the amount of understanding you have of your systems and what you want to achieve.”
Energy metering can impact your bottom line no matter how green your goals are.
“It’s really hard to gauge what’s going on in a building. It’s a moving train,” says Schonberger. “We have a top-down ethos right from the organization’s founder, and he wanted to make sure his investments were maximized. We’re on the extreme, bright green end of the scale – but getting value out of your investments is something any owner wants.”
Chris Curtland [email protected] is assistant editor of BUILDINGS.