Auditing HVAC for Improved Efficiency

A prolonged recession and the weakest job market in a generation have sent Americans scurrying for the classroom. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, close to 40 percent of young adults ages 18 to 24 are now pursuing postsecondary studies. That is the highest percentage ever. Millions of their older siblings and parents are joining them on campus looking to change careers, learn new skills, and become more employable.

As a result, many community colleges, colleges, and universities find themselves strapped for space. Most are strapped for cash, too. Rising energy and maintenance costs, falling tax revenues, state and local budget problems, a soft economy, and many other factors are putting the squeeze on school budgets and forcing administrators to make tough decisions.

Complicating matters is the fact that campus infrastructure is showing its age. Most buildings are three decades old — or older — and are badly in need of repairs and renovations. In Virginia, for example, half the college buildings were built 50 or more years ago and are reported to need at least $1B in repairs and improvements. Other states face similar challenges.

Campuses Address Overcrowding, Aging Infrastructure

No wonder that the Association of Physical Plant Administrators (APPA), a leading group of education facilities managers, reports that half of the colleges and universities nationwide are in the process of updating their master plans to address overcrowding and update facilities. More than 43 percent of renovations will include work on the school’s heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.

This tracks with a General Accounting Office report that says 25 percent of American students attend schools that are “dangerous or below standard” and that almost two-thirds of schools have building features — such as HVAC systems — that need extensive repairs or replacement.

Administrators and facility managers recognize the impact substandard conditions can have on student, faculty, and staff health and performance. Dozens of studies have found links between student performance and such indoor environmental factors as temperature, airflow, humidity, and lighting. In addition, APPA found a direct relationship between a campus’s physical environment and its ability to attract, retain, and satisfy the best students, faculty, and staff.

But in these tough economic times, few educational institutions have the resources to address all their HVAC needs at once. On average, colleges and universities cut their maintenance and operations expenditures by 10 percent in 2009, according to research. As a result, many schools are already well behind the curve, having been forced to perform only the most critical repairs needed to keep their HVAC systems up and running in recent years.

Critical Systems Audit Helps Facilities Chiefs Set Priorities
An HVAC critical system audit (CSA) is a good starting point for facility managers looking to set priorities and address HVAC challenges and opportunities one-by-one. A CSA helps managers better understand how energy is being used — and probably wasted — on their campus. The audit is a thorough inspection of the HVAC system and its components, designed to identify reliability and efficiency problems.

Conducting a CSA usually pays for itself many times over in energy savings and in improvements in reliability, maintenance, and staff utilization. Automated systems can lead a facilities department through a self-audit, but many facility managers find it makes sense to bring in an independent engineer or energy service company (ESCO) to help perform their CSA.

A CSA usually starts with the gathering of all available data, including energy usage and maintenance records. The automatic reporting and tracking features available on many Web-enabled building automation systems are ideal for this purpose. Interviews with maintenance personnel and building occupants also can provide useful information about system performance. 

Auditors then conduct a thorough inspection, during which they test chillers, boilers, cooling towers, circulation pumps, air handlers, and other HVAC equipment and note any maintenance problems or performance deficiencies they observe. 

With this information, auditors summarize how well the system is operating, what maintenance activities need to be performed, the cost of these activities, the current and projected reliability of the system, and how much longer it is expected to operate. Facilities managers can use the report to validate the need for system improvements, develop maintenance and repair budgets, and set department priorities.

The University of Central Missouri collected and studied three years of utility bills, analyzed 12 months of operations and maintenance data, and used energy-modeling software in a CSA that eventually yielded 265 energy conservation opportunities. The audit provided justification for improvements that generated a 32 percent reduction in utility costs and greenhouse gas emissions. The University made funded improvements by reallocating funds from other accounts and, with a $36M performance contract, paid for upgrades with future energy savings.

New Technologies Improve Audit Results
Game-changing technologies are making system audits even more revealing for facilities departments. These include automated HVAC fault detection and diagnostics (FDD), which detect and report significant faults in air handlers, chillers, boilers, cooling towers, and other critical HVAC components. FDD applications provide early warning of potential equipment problems, helping the facilities department set priorities and better manage its preventive maintenance programs to avoid system failures. The New Buildings Institute projects that the use of FDD can yield annual energy and service contract savings of at least 10 cents and perhaps as much as $1 per square foot in a typical facility.

Many ESCOs offer “intelligent services” that include the use of such emerging technologies as predictive modeling. By using sophisticated algorithms that compare the operating characteristics of a particular system to benchmark data from many similar systems, specialists are able to look deep inside HVAC components, uncover potential problems, and predict when components will fail sooner and with greater accuracy than ever before.

The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) estimates that colleges and universities can find ways to reduce energy costs in a typical campus building by 30 percent when they conduct an audit that includes benchmarking their energy use against that of comparable buildings.

While designing a new dance complex, Point Park University in Pittsburgh benchmarked leading dance studios throughout the country to identify ways to create a comfortable, energy-efficient indoor environment for performers, faculty, and audience members. As a result, systems selected for the complex are expected to use 36 percent less energy than ASHRAE standards for buildings of this type.

By conducting regular critical system audits, facility managers can improve their ability to set HVAC repair, maintenance, and overhaul priorities and reduce energy waste on campus. More importantly, they increase their impact on the institution's ability to create a quality, high-performance learning environment in which students, faculty, and staff can do their best work and achieve their full potential. 

Bill Harris is the vertical market leader responsible for Trane’s K-12 and higher education business segments. He specializes in working with Trane customers to develop HVACR solutions to improve energy efficiency and indoor environment, reduce organizations’ environmental impact, and improve the learning environment in America’s schools.