Efficiency Brings Economy


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Selling clients on an overall approach to improved building performance.

The project started as a straightforward equipment swap-out: A U.S. Air Force base in Arkansas had a building in which the existing boiler and chiller had been budgeted for replacement. When one of Comfort System USA’s operating companies arrived on the scene, however, the occupants also voiced complaints about the building’s comfort level and seemingly high energy costs.

The building, constructed in 1995, proved an ideal candidate for Comfort System USA’s process to encourage customers to consider energy services for their facilities. “The process provides the end-user with a complete, total solution for the building and not just a mechanical solution,” explains Joe Nichter, president of Comfort Systems USA Southwest, Chandler, AZ. The company builds its process around four simple questions:

  • Where are you?
  • Where do you want to go?
  • How do you get there?
  • How do you stay there?

To answer the first question for the Air Force base, Comfort Systems USA benchmarked the office building’s historic energy costs against costs for comparable buildings. The contractor then proposed recommissioning the building, which entailed a thorough evaluation of mechanical equipment, systems, and performance.

This effort identified problems that had undoubtedly contributed to the premature failure of the boiler and chiller. Tim Staley, an engineer for Comfort Systems’ Energy Services Group, reports there were “problems with the building envelope—not insulated and ventilated correctly—air flow problems, zoning issues, simultaneous heating and cooling, the economizer cycle not working, the need for a more efficient lighting system and controls, and other operational issues.”

Next, Comfort Systems USA provided cost estimates to address all the issues in the building and developed an energy model to predict savings once the solutions had been put in place. The company concluded that implementing every recommendation would result in a 30% savings in energy costs.

“We were brought in for one reason, and the project expanded,” Nichter notes. Adds Staley, “This project was the impetus for further discussion with the Air Force base about installing energy dashboards on all buildings and completing a commissioning process” on many other existing buildings.

Leaning Toward Green

Typically, says Nichter, Comfort Systems USA also provides clients with recommendations on how to make their energy operations consistent with the Energy Star and Green Building programs. In fact, the Washington,

D.C.-based U.S. Green Building Council reports that projects which are green, or more energy efficient, and will represent 25% to 33% of the nonresidential retrofit and renovation market by 2015. Already, the square footage of existing buildings that have earned LEED certificate has surpassed the square footage of LEED-certified new construction.

While his company has worked on both new and existing projects aiming for LEED certification, Ronald Sage believes most clients are primarily motivated by the bottom line. “People are looking for savings—money they can put into their pocket or, if they’re a property manager, into the building owner’s pocket,” says Sage, vice president of Westside Mechanical LLC, Naperville, IL. “There are hundreds of ways to save energy, and much of the new technology can be retrofitted. The choice depends on whether the client is open-minded and willing to give you their attention.”

For instance, working under the direction of a performance contractor, Westside Mechanical has updated several distribution centers for the U.S. Postal Service. “We cleaned the ductwork, put in more efficient motors and new belts, installed VFDs to control blower speed, made filtration changes so coils are cleaner, and put in turbulators. These are all things that make equipment run better and consume less energy,” says Sage. When the projects had been completed, a commissioning agent collects performance data for a before-and-after analysis.

Such data is critical to making a convincing case to clients. Sage oft en provides salespeople with articles and case studies to share with clients who want to know what they can realistically expect from improvements to their HVAC systems. “It comes down to real, factual data—whether you can reduce the therms of gas or kilowatt hours used,” says Sage. “Without the statistics, no one would buy the energy savings. You have to be able to prove it.”

The road to that proof often begins with an audit of the building’s existing equipment and energy usage, accompanied by recommendations of various improvements and the estimated savings associated with each improvement. Depending on the scale of the project, Sage might treat the audit as part of the pre-sales process or include the audit’s cost in a contract, with a provision that the audit is free if the client proceeds with certain recommendations.

A Total Tune-up

At Comfort Systems USA Southwest, says Nichter, “Every time we sell a maintenance contract, we do a complimentary energy audit that identifies ways in which to economize with mechanical equipment.” As in the case of the Arkansas Air Force base, the audit may lead to recommissioning, which is typically not a free service because it is so comprehensive. In addition to explaining and prioritizing potential improvements, a Comfort Systems USA retro-commissioning report provides details on lifecycle costs, ROI benefits, cash flow analysis, and environmental impact.

“With recommissioning, you’re looking at a 10- or 20-year-old mechanical system in which equipment may have been added or taken out, making the building less efficient than originally designed,” says Nichter. “Besides checking motors, belts, and airflow, a total system rebalancing may be needed to make a significant difference in monthly energy bills.”

Nichter likens recommissioning to a tune -up for a car. Sage oft en uses a similar metaphor when explaining HVAC systems to clients who might be completely befuddled by talk of demand-control ventilation, variable refrigerants, and ECM motors. Noting that clients are oft en reluctant to admit they don’t understand the science or the terminology, he focuses on “taking the time to talk to the client like a normal person, rather than being a pushy salesman.

“Once you understand what they can grasp, you can put your proposal into terms, or a scenario, that makes sense to them,” Sage continues. “I’m not saying to make it simple, but explain things in a way that makes them feel like they’re part of the story.” On occasion, for instance, Sage has explained an HVAC system in terms of the human body, with a pump standing in for the heart and piping filling the roles of arteries and veins. “Maybe it sounds corny,” says Sage, “but it works.”

Other approaches that help Westside reach clients include networking with engineers at local association events and giving presentations to construction companies—especially those that work in sectors with a high interest in improving energy costs, such as education and healthcare.

Of course, ongoing training is also essential to stay on top of technological developments and revised standards, such as the 2012 International Energy Conservation Code. Comfort Systems USA’s personnel must also be able to explain and demonstrate an energy dashboard—a soft ware program that clients use themselves to monitor a building’s energy efficiency.

“Advanced sales training, with techniques for asking customers deeper and more meaningful questions about their building assets, is the key,” says Nichter. “Knowledge on how Energy Star and LEED work and affect customers’ buildings and facilities is important. However, understanding the key elements that can greatly reduce a client’s operating income, with respect to building performance, is most needed.”

Sandra Sabo
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Posted In: ACCA Now, Commercial Buildings, Technology

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