• Courtney Van Ostran, CPSM

Engineering for Energy Savings: How Operators Can Keep Facilities Healthy and Costs Affordable



The start of spring is a reminder of our planet’s natural beauty and a return to the outdoors for many who’ve hibernated through the winter months. Further, the month of April is Keep America Beautiful Month, in addition to today, April 21st, being the celebration of Earth Day.


While sharing and discussing environmentally friendly goals are an important part of this month’s conversations, it’s impossible to think about these subjects without considering the pandemic’s impact.


When people go to visit a building or space in the current global environment, the precautions being taken by the operators of that space tend to be top-of-mind. On the other hand, facility owners and operators have concerns of their own, trying to bridge the gap between occupant safety and energy exertion, which has an effect on the environment as well as on their budget.


As the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) both concluded, airborne transmission is a primary cause for concern in the efforts to combat coronavirus’s spread. They also concluded that air handling modifications and upgrades could be beneficial in reducing the risk of disease spread.


While HVAC modifications can certainly help spaces reduce their risk of disease transmission, it’s important to consider the costs incurred in this process, both in terms of sheer dollars and energy usage. After all, in order to upgrade systems, there are always going to be costs along the way.


One important consideration for all facilities going forward is the CLEAN Future Act. The piece of legislation would mandate net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions no later than 2050, plus aims to reduce GHG emissions by 50% from 2005 with a target of 2030 at the latest. This legislation would have economy-wide ramifications, causing just about every facility to change their current energy consumption.


Already, there’s a federal effort to act on this plan. According to Building Design and Construction Magazine, the United States has already brought its national electric grid halfway to carbon-neutral or zero-carbon. That comes on the heels of the power sector emissions falling 40% from 2005 to 2020, already nearing its 50% reduction goal. According to the same article, these low-carbon methods that have led to the drastic reduction of energy can meet somewhere between 70%-90% of the nation’s needed power supply with just small increases to costs.


So, what can facilities do to achieve the goals currently being targeted by the government and save costs? It’s different on a case-by-case basis, but engineers are constantly determining solutions to these exact questions.


Assessing Existing Systems Can Determine Where the Facility Finds Its Savings


At the beginning of the pandemic, the CDC and ASHRAE both came to the conclusion that increased ventilation could help mitigate the risk for disease spread within a facility. While this solution had factual backing, it certainly caused some to question the affordability of the methodology. After all, more ventilation is taxing on systems, and may increase operational and maintenance costs.

However, there are low-cost changes that may save facilities money in the long run, while also cutting down energy usage. One method comes from a key takeaway in ASHRAE’s COVID-19 guide, increasing the number of ventilation sources. Adding more points of ventilation throughout a building does come with some architectural and engineering considerations, but it increases a room’s ability to cycle air. It also allows for a more targeted ventilation plan, making sure that an entire room is accounted for in the process.


Another, more expensive option for facilities is a choice to upgrade to LEED, WELL, and Fitwel recommended standards. According to the Engineering News-Record, these standards prioritize the cycling of additional fresh air to dilute contaminants in an air space. These methods are already common practice in the healthcare industry, but as ENR mentions, the pandemic is making the practice seem more reasonable across markets.


In order to do this, facilities need to add sensors to detect when it’s time to cycle in the additional fresh air supplies by monitoring the air quality in any given room or space. These sensors can typically be added to an existing building management system and automate when ventilation is needed. While the sensors add upfront costs, the savings for owners can have an immediate savings impact. For starters, it reduces the need to run a ventilation system on a constant basis, as the sensors make for a targeted plan to approach air changes.


Finding Grants and Government Funding to Cover the Changes Creates a Path to Affordable Upgrades


Government policy doesn’t change with tremendous speed, but it does have a big impact on facilities over time. With the introduction of the CLEAN Future Act, facilities are inching closer to a long-term wave of crucial changes to their energy usage. Certainly, any changes will cause some stress about the potential costs for facility owners. After all, keeping costs as low as possible is an important factor, even if the energy reductions are also important to implement.


These sorts of changes are certain to have different effects on different types of facilities. However, there are similar paths to solutions regardless of the day-to-day operations at each facility. Owners don’t have to incur the costs of upgrades or modifications on their own, in many cases. There are grants and sources of funding that allow for changes to have their costs covered.


Take, for example, the ability of a higher education institution to seek funding for their systems renovations. For state universities, in particular, the allotment of funding is something that’s included in recent legislation that’s already passed through the proper channels. Through the various versions of the CARES ACT & economic recovery packages passed by Congress in the early and late parts of 2020, there is $22 million in funding for higher education ventilation upgrades. According to Campus Saftey Magazine, institutions are not only already eligible but maintain eligibility for upgrades to HVAC systems through the year 2023. The amount a school is able to spend on changes does correlate with the amount of financial aid they distribute on an annual basis. Regardless, educational institutions are eligible to utilize the funds as long as they can prove it’s going towards proper safety upgrades.


On the other hand, manufacturers looking to keep costs low while protecting their facility can pursue different forms of government funding, including private non-profits. In an upcoming piece of legislation, the American Jobs Plan, there are allotments of near $100 billion for projects that improve the country’s air quality. While these funds are pending a congressional vote, the future funding sources can help facilities accomplish their energy savings target listed in the CLEAN Future Act and acquire new, upgraded air handling equipment, which would better ventilate the building.


Need Help Finding an Energy Savings Strategy for Your Facility? Contacting an Engineer is the First Step


Certainly, there are methods for facilities to make upgrades to help with their energy efficiency, but external help may provide even stronger results. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, engineers around the world have been looking for ways to combat the spread of disease. This, combined with long-spanning goals of reducing energy usage and saving clients money, gives engineers a unique perspective that acts as a major benefit to operators.


By working with an engineering team, facility owners gain a wealth of knowledge regarding the best possible changes and/or upgrades for their particular facility. Through their training and continuing education, they provide the guidance needed to meet the goals of a facility operator. Given the variety of spaces and challenges these professionals face over the course of their careers, they’re equipped with the background needed to improve energy efficiency.


Further, it gives facilities added peace of mind knowing that a state-registered engineer inks their plan a stamp of approval.


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