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Recommissioning: The best-kept secret in reducing operating costs

Over the past year, organizations like the Building Owners and Managers Association of Canada (BOMA) and the Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC) have emphasized perhaps more forcefully than ever that effective and efficient building management isn’t necessarily about spending money on expensive retrofit projects. At the most basic level it’s about policy, processes and people. This point was emphasized once more during a session at this year’s PM Expo in Toronto on recommissioning — perhaps the best kept secret in reducing energy costs.


December 23, 2009
December 23, 2009
By Robert Colman

Commissioning is a quality management process that is applied to the whole building and all its systems — in other words, making sure a building is running the way it should. It’s natural to believe that there wouldn’t generally be large savings from recommissioning an existing building, but the panelists in this session each suggested that energy savings of at least 15 per cent are not uncommon, with payback periods of less than three years.

“NRCan’s current newest building was built in 1984,” notes Phil Jago, Director of the Buildings Division, Office of Energy Efficiency, Natural Resources Canada. “Through a recommissioning process and a continuous improvement recommissioning process, we’ve cut the energy bill in half.”

NRCan will also soon be opening new laboratories in Hamilton, Ontario. Being built to a LEED standard, the buildings will also have an ongoing building optimization program.

Simcoe Place
Tom Kovendi, Director of Portfolio Operations, Toronto Office Portfolio, Cadillac Fairview, presented a case study of Simcoe Place, one particular building in his company’s portfolio that has had great success through recommissioning.

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“The reason I bring this particular case study to you is that Simcoe Place happens to be one of the most energy efficient buildings in the entire Cadillac Fairview portfolio,” notes Kovendi. “Some of you have heard about 20 x 15 — achieving for commercial office buildings an equivalent energy efficiency of 20 kilowatts per hour per square foot per year by 2015. That is the standard that is being promoted. Most commercial buildings average somewhere around the 36-38 kilowatt hour range. To get down to (the 20 x 15 goal), you’re looking at about a 50 per cent energy use reduction. I do think it’s achievable. But even before we started recommissioning Simcoe Place it was operating at an equivalent kilowatt hour per square foot per year of 19.2.”

Kovendi wanted to make an example out of Simcoe Place — that even though it was already fairly efficient, it could be more so. The challenge was to get the general managers to make the leap of faith to invest what was required. To recommission the whole building would require an initial investment of $197,000.  But in recommissioning work, there is no guarantee of a payback, so that was a steep price. Therefore, instead of asking that management attempt all of the recommissioning work, Kovendi went with what he calls a “progressive recommissioning” model.

“I said, ‘give me $25,000, if I’m wrong I’ll eat my words, but let’s spend $25,000 on some recommissioning. Here’s the equipment we have — we have 8 boilers, let’s do two boilers. We have three chillers, let’s do one chiller, we have so many VAV boxes, let’s do a representative sample.’ Using that technique, you’re able to get a very good feel of what the potential savings there are once you’ve spent $25,000.”

Technique and results
Kovendi notes that probably between $3,000 and $5,000 went into an initial in depth analysis by the commissioning agent to target what savings might be possible.

“As far as methodology, if you are working with some of the established commissioning agents, they will have a particular technique they follow. They need to target where the opportunities are. They do an energy-type analysis. Some tests are proprietary, some are standard. There is also a consultation between the commissioning agent and the building managers and they basically decide together how many pieces of equipment they will initially work on. Again, let’s see the results and then if it makes sense and there are great opportunities with boilers or chillers you can decide, do you do all of them or just a representative sample?”

At Simcoe Place, the team found 23 energy conservation measures that were identified and documented because of the recommissioning process. Eleven are still being costed out because they require consultant input. Twelve out of the 23 account for projected energy savings of $306,000 a year, with the simple payback on these 12 measures being less than three years.

“Six of these measures had an energy savings of $238,000 with a 1.6 year payback,” says Kovendi. “There is a lot of low hanging fruit here.”

Kovendi also believes it’s important to involve occupants of a space, considering they can account for between 50-60 per cent of the total energy that’s used in the average commercial building.

“We are now working with tenants to commission or recommission their spaces,” Kovendi says. “One thing you can do as a precursor to recommissioning is a midnight audit. To some extent, that is what recommissioning is about — coming into a space and determining what is running, what is running well, and what is operating as it should be operating. Even this will give you some quick results.” 

One point that Kovendi stressed, however, is to use an established commissioning agent — preferably someone who has joined the Building Commissioning Association, which now has a Canadian chapter.

Commissioning basics
Bill McCartney, Director of Commissioning Services at Isotherm Engineering, served as a representative of the commissioning agents on the panel and partly explained how he approaches his work. The first thing he does is review what sort of documentation is available for the building. Has the building been properly commissioned before? If not, what other documentation is available, such as operations and maintenance manuals, AutoCAD drawings, shop drawings, testing and balancing reports.

With this basic information, he creates a “systems manual” for the facility — so that if you want to know how the air handling unit runs, and what area it serves, you can “read a nice simple description without having to dig down into the heavy duty documents,” McCartney explains.

A good systems manual can save you money immediately because it offers clear guidance regarding what needs to be done in certain situations and in what order — so it could help avoid big paybacks were operations handled less intelligently. In one example McCartney offered, through the use of a proper systems manual, and no capital outlay, one facility was able to save 11 per cent on electricity, 18 per cent on gas, and five per cent on water.

“I learned a long time ago that if no one bothers to train an operator how to run a system the way they designed it, the operator will definitely create his own operating system,” says McCartney. “So there we had a typical building that was using operator-created operations — not what the engineers created.” Once they had a written manual, and training to support it, the team was able to run the facility more efficiently.
 
Kovendi agrees with the importance of this particular investment. “One thing we’re trying to do is make sure we have an up to date building operating manual in every building,” says Kovendi. “I challenge anyone to go back to their buildings and just see if you can find one. If there is no script to follow, that building is probably not operating as it was designed.” 

Asked by an audience member whether recommissioning should be considered an additional investment next to an energy audit, Kovendi was outspoken.

“I’ve taken the view, personally, that I do not do energy audits anymore, I simply lead with recommissioning because the information that I get out of that is much more useful to me than what I get from the typical energy audit,” Kovendi stresses.