In the past three years, Kenny Seeton has overseen a 50% reduction in greenhouse gases at California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH). During that same period, the campus added 300,000 square feet of new construction, for a total floor area of 1.5 million square feet. Not surprisingly, CSUDH’s director of central plant operations and strategic energy projects spends his days monitoring building automation systems and his nights ideating ways to eke out more percentage points of efficiency. A regular speaker on facilities management and smart building technologies at national, regional, and campus events, Seeton shares his tried-and-true recommendations for owners and operators looking to save on energy.
SBT: What is possible today when a building or campus is smart?
Seeton: This sounds simple, but what’s possible is that we stop heating, cooling, lighting, and wasting energy on spaces that don’t have people. We have all these multistory buildings that run like they’ve always run: chiller on at 6 a.m. for occupancy at 7 or 8 a.m.; off at 5, 8, or 10 p.m. But with the controls we have now, we can shut things off when nobody’s inside a space. We have sensors that tell us what the CO2 levels are. We can do a minimum flush where we push air through the building and say, “OK, you’re safe now.”
The sensors aren’t that complicated anymore. As you add these devices, make sure they’re able to work with your building automation system (BAS): You need an up-to-date BAS if you want the huge savings. If you’re worried about complaints from occupants, then override everything to be super cold or super warm and call it a day—and that’s how we used to do things. But to reduce our impact on the environment, we have to do more. It will take more work, but there are tools to help us, such as smart building analytics with fault detection diagnostics.
The basics have been around long enough to where we should be able to fix things. And soon you’ll begin to ask, “What else can I do?”
How has AI affected your operations?
AI can do things that we can’t because we’re biased. We think we’re supposed to do things a certain way. And we don’t have the time to analyze all that operations data—and the data is always changing. With AI, we can make tweaks, have it take snapshots, go back, and analyze the results. AI can say, “When you are at this condition, this condition, and this condition, this is the right place to run things.”
I recently used AI for a cooling tower reset. For running one chiller, it said we should be at wet bulb temperature plus 2.5 plus tonnage times 0.00987 or something. I don’t know how it came up with these numbers, but I saw that my average kilowatt per ton is better now than before. And the analytics showed that while we increased cooling 3% year over year, we saved 7% in energy.
We’re still in the learning phase, but we will start asking AI for more. Running a building is complicated. You can make adjustments and then wonder, “Did it help me or not?” Maybe other parameters kicked in that you didn’t know about. AI can look at all these different points—but the average person can’t.
Here’s another use for AI. Every device I’ve put in talks through BACnet to my BAS—but what if people haven’t done that and information is scattered in different parts of the cloud? AI can aggregate the data, analyze it, and then write back to just the BAS. Instead of spending money to completely replace stranded assets, people can spend money on the AI and keep things in place that are good at what they do.
What steps or actions should a building owner or facilities director take to move toward their sustainability and energy goals today?
You have to install meters. If you don’t meter your systems, you can’t prove the savings. You need to solidify that what you’re doing is the right thing. You need to get the message out.
If you’re still running buildings on pneumatic controls, you need to come up with a five-year plan to get rid of them. It doesn’t have to be all at once. When my buildings went from pneumatic to direct digital control and had lighting and occupancy information feeding into the BAS, they used 50% less energy. Toss solar panels on top of them, and we drop it down more. Find a 250-kW battery and voilà, the buildings can almost become net-zero.
Install occupancy-based controls. You have to be able to control what gets heating and cooling based on when there’s people there. You may have to come up with $1 million upfront, depending on the building size. But how much money does the building cost you to run every year? You’ll save 30% to 50% easily. Electric rates are not going down.
And take advantage of solar. You can get help from the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and still have a power purchase agreement with somebody, which should bring your rates down. Many contracts lock in rates and promise no inflation.
Switching everything to LEDs is a no brainer now. With the IRA money, people need to step up. And if you can’t do it yourself, then reach out to somebody that can help with the paperwork and the project management. There are companies out there. They may take half of your IRA refund, but you will get the project done and get the benefits of the energy savings forever after.
If you’re running a facility and you have a team, share the vision with the team. They need to know what you’re doing and why. After 10 years of speaking engagements, I finally presented to my own department—to my team and the facilities controls specialist who does the crazy implementations I request. Afterward, he said, “Oh, my God, Ken, we can do better.” Keeping the people around you motivated helps because this is bigger than one person can do.
Finally, build relationships. If you’re working on a large campus or building, you’re typically not the one who gets to make all the decisions. How do you get things done right? Maybe that means you buy coffee for the director of procurement. Become friends with the IT department because you can’t do anything without IT onboard now. If you plug something into the IT network, and their job is to protect the campus, they see you as a threat. Have conversations with them. Buying them lunch is cheap compared to them shutting down one of your projects.
Build relationships with everyone. Your peers, your utility company because they can do things to make your life easier, and people who have publications like this. Because someone might read this and say, “Hey, Kenny is doing cool stuff over at CSUDH. We have a widget that can save his campus money.”