New “smart building” technologies are beginning to trickle into the mass market, which means that building owners have more options when it comes to investing in energy efficiency upgrades. In particular, sophisticated data-driven controls that were once only attached to high-end equipment are now beginning to show up in more basic, affordable systems. However, as with any energy efficiency upgrade, throwing money at “smart” technology won’t necessarily result in the best bottom-line savings. The key to achieving a solid return on your investment is to understand the needs of your building, whether it’s residential, commercial or industrial.
What smart buildings have in common
One common denominator among smart buildings is the use of electronic equipment to monitor energy consumption and control energy-consuming devices. One simple example that applies to residential, commercial and industrial buildings alike would be motion-sensitive lighting, which ensures that lights are shut off in unused rooms automatically rather than leaving it up to people to remember.
The smart thermostat is another, more involved, example. Standard thermostats offer some capability for remote adjustment through the use of a timer, but typically that adjustment can be made only a couple of times per day. In contrast, advanced thermostats can quickly and accurately adjust to ongoing variations within a building.
That can mean automatically adjusting to the body warmth generated by higher occupancy at different times of the day, as well as adjusting to warmth generated by appliances and equipment. These considerations can make a far bigger difference in commercial and industrial buildings than in residential buildings.
For industrial facilities in particular, smart equipment offers the potential to interact with grid-supplied energy in ways that save money. In a 2008 report by the federal Electricity Advisory Committee, for example, you can find a discussion of how variable-rate motors could be programmed to take advantage of lower off-peak utility rates.
Smart buildings and the human factor
Eliminating the human factor is only one aspect of smart buildings that cuts across residential, commercial and industrial properties. Smart technology can also enhance and empower human decision-making by providing more information about energy consumption, and providing it more frequently.
That’s the concept underlying smart meters. Where standard meters only give you a total for the month, smart meters break it down into smaller units, and that can be integrated with information about peak rates from your utility provider. With that knowledge in hand, you can decide when to operate major appliances or equipment in order to take the best advantage of off-peak rates.
That can be an especially critical factor in buildings that are hosting solar, wind or other alternative energy sources on site. Depending on the building’s arrangement with the local utility, building owners can realize a quicker return on an alternative energy investment by maximizing its use during peak rate hours.
Other factors to consider
We recently had a chance to speak about energy efficiency upgrades with Tim Flinn, who is the Brand Vice President for Climate Technologies at St. Louis-based Emerson, and he had some interesting insights to add to the smart buildings picture in terms of some not-so-obvious benefits of smart technology.
In addition to communicating more information to the energy consumer and the supplier, “smart” equipment also has the ability to communicate more efficiently with service personnel.
That can mean an improvement in advanced warning about maintenance issues, which reduces the need for more costly repairs down the road.
Improved data displays can also help technicians pinpoint problems more quickly and accurately, which also saves on repair costs and helps to prevent further problems.
In Flinn’s area of expertise, HVAC (heating, ventilating, and air conditioning) systems, smart technology dovetails with an emerging air conditioning efficiency strategy for larger buildings, which is to install a coordinated set of relatively small compressors rather than relying on a single, centralized unit.
Among the advantages is greatly enhanced reliability and continuity for the system overall, since some units can compensate when others fail or are taken offline for maintenance.
Installation and replacement also have the potential to be less costly operations since smaller units can be hoisted to a rooftop with standard equipment while a larger unit requires specialized cranes or even helicopters in some instances.
The intangibles of energy efficiency
In terms of cooling systems, one consideration that Flinn keeps uppermost in mind is the potential for smart buildings to deliver a comfortable temperature and level of humidity without a consequent increase in energy consumption.
That’s important enough for residential consumers, in terms of a healthier living environment. For businesses, the payback in terms of employee well-being and customer comfort can be just as significant as the money saved through energy conservation.