10 strategies to reduce non-essential building energy costs and help fight COVID-19

By Adam McMillen and Lincoln Pearce 

Owners whose buildings support essential services are seeing large-scale utilization of their facilities in the fight against the coronavirus pandemicThose who own locked-down, non-essential buildings can also join the fight against COVID-19 by capturing and repurposing currently unnecessary energy expenditures. 

For example, K-12 and higher education institutions – whose students aren’t likely to return until the fall – can shift a substantial amount of the finances typically spent to operate their buildings toward financial support for their employees and community. A 50,000sf building at reduced operation for five months could generate energy savings of $30,000 to $40,000 that could then be used to help fund a variety of COVID-19-related needs. These needs could include remote learning for students, reduced/free lunch programs, support for local small businesses, meals/resources for those tirelessly providing our essential services, and numerous other important community services.   

Shutdown strategies 

Shutting down your building includes several relatively simple measures that reduce daily energy use and cost. These strategies include: 

  1. If you have a wellscheduled BAS, changoccupied periods to unoccupied periods. 
  2. Adjust daily and/or setback temperatures to a more aggressive state. 55F heating/85F cooling is a good rule of thumb with some key considerations: 
    • Do not let humidity levels creep to high. Lack of humidity control over the summer could lead to IAQ issues, or worse – mold.  Maintaining relative humidity below 60% RH is recommended to limit potential mold growth. (Too low humidity, however, could be an issue for IT equipment in dry states such as those in the southwestern U.S.) 
    • Schedule a building air flush at least once or twice a day for an hour. 
    • Since IT equipment will be working overtime, plan accordingly for those rooms. Standalone cooling systems – even if temporary – may enable central systems to be throttled back or turned off. 
  3. Reduce outside air flow to a non-occupied cfm, i.e., the minimum your building requires to maintain air quality(Spaces housing odor-producing products, such as janitor’s closets, may always require some ventilation.) 
  4. Temporarily reduce VAV box minimums to zero or the minimum box control value. VAV box minimums are typically based on full occupancy. 
  5. Override any daily timeclock control of building lighting. 
  6. Disable parking lot lighting except as needed for security. 
  7. Turn off non-essential local exhaust fans.  
  8. Disable VAV box reheat except as needed to control humidity. 
  9. Reduce heating water supply temperature to improve boiler efficiency. 
  10. Verify that airside economizer controls are properly functioning.
The shutdown process 

When shutting down your building, you must ensure that the building and critical functions are still protected. A helpful video by Building Automation Monthly provides great guidance for implementing the measures listed above. Key takeaways include: 

  • Create an inventory of systems and equipment to adjust for this extended period (use BAS or building drawings/specs).
  • Document what was shut down or adjusted for each piece of equipment. Be sure to include previous setpoints for pressure, temperature, cfm, etc., to avoid the need to rebalance during startup. 
  • Enable remote monitoring if not already set up.
  • If buildings/systems are fully manually controlled, document the entire shutdown process so it can return on startup.
  • Even though we are now in the shoulder months, remember freezing and high humidity can still be concerns.
  • Adjust alarms for all these new settings so you don’t receive unnecessary notifications.
  • Identify critical equipment for maintaining essential building operations – e.g., if the chiller and pumps support cooling for IT equipment, do not turn off these systems!
  • Since cooling towers may not operate much during setback periods, be sure to circulate water as needed to maintain proper quality.
  • Consider increasing the quality of air filtration in air handling units if rack space allows; increasing to MERV 13 or higher can capture more particulates and protect downstream equipment.
  • Parts orders can have long lead times right now, so conduct an inventory of critical part replacements and order anything missing now so you’ll have it when you need it 

By re-directing building operating expenditures to support current and dire community needsowners of non-essential buildings can play a vital role in helping to provide much-needed funding of services to help people get through this difficult time.