Building Maintenance

Intelligent Buildings: Using Data to Manage Energy Consumption and Costs

Russ Banham

Depending on the type of commercial facility, energy consumption is a big bottom line expense. While owners and managers of facilities can do little to nothing to control the cost of buying energy, they can reap substantial energy savings by using “smart” internet-connected applications to manage their energy usage.

Time may be of the essence in this regard. All commercial building types consume a great deal of energy, led by mercantile and service buildings and followed by office buildings, educational facilities, health care institutions, and hotels, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Up-to-date statistics on the average cost of energy consumption for these commercial building types are hard to come by. A 2010 study states that a U.S. office building spends nearly 29 percent of its operating budget on utilities, with the majority of it going toward electricity and natural gas. The report pegs the average energy cost for office buildings in excess of $30,000.

A more recent study by the U.S. Department of Energy tallies the cost of electrical lighting alone at $38 billion per year for all commercial buildings, representing the largest source of these facilities’ electricity consumption. Needless to say, it is not a stretch to conclude that reducing energy consumption will leave money in company budgets to allocate to more strategic needs.

Becoming Smarter

The use of smart devices is a proven way to reduce energy consumption and related expenses. According to a 2017 report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficiency Economy (ACEE), smart technologies can reduce a commercial building’s energy use by nearly a fifth, while providing such unexpected benefits as increased worker productivity.

“There is a big approach toward using data to make more informed and better decisions around energy efficiency,” said Eric Steele, Vice President of Business Development at Groom Energy Solutions, a provider of turnkey energy efficiency solutions, and Grainger’s exclusive partner in helping companies decrease their energy footprint.

A building’s energy efficiency is enhanced in various ways. For example, sensors determining the presence or absence of people in a building can control the lighting and HVAC systems to reduce energy use when areas are vacant. “When a room is unoccupied, the lights shut off,” Steele explained. “This eliminates the need for someone to remember to shut off the light fixtures.”

Other examples abound. As sunlight increases in a room or office, for instance, smart window shades can automatically lower to reduce sun exposure, with a commensurate effect on air conditioning costs. Smart plugs can be programmed to shut off when nonessential equipment has been in standby mode for a preset amount of time to reduce plug load energy use. And diagnostic algorithms in software that connects to sensors embedded in factory equipment can determine which machines will soon be in need of maintenance, improving the ability to schedule repairs and manage downtime. 

Where to Start

Facilities managers interested in becoming “smarter” about connected technologies must first understand where and how they can be effectively deployed to reap energy savings. “A facility assessment is the first step,” said Steele. “The next step is to capture data to determine where enhancements can reap the biggest return on an investment, followed by the implementation of the turnkey solution producing the anticipated savings.”

In this step-by-step process, Steele noted that smart systems are repositories of valuable data indicating how to obtain this investment return. He cited the case of a recent customer, a box manufacturer that wanted to decrease the energy costs associated with its use of a smart dust collection system.

“The system they were using ran all the time, even when it wasn’t collecting dust,” he explained. “We captured the system’s data to understand exactly how it operated, and then put in place a variable-frequency drive so the motor ran at full capacity when needed to collect dust and slowed down when this was not the case.”

A variable-frequency drive is a type of adjustable-speed drive that controls motor speed and torque. “Ultimately we were able to reduce the system’s energy costs by 30 percent, simply by studying the data and adjusting the motor,” Steele said.

By capturing data from the varied smart devices controlling the HVAC, lighting, plug loads, and other electricity-consuming systems, facilities managers can reduce overall energy consumption on a system-by-system basis. “Together, these systems make up the `energy DNA’ of an intelligent building, Steele said.

Typically, this information is lumped together in a utility bill as one cost. “With metering or sub-metering, in which utility usage is broken into different subsets for measurement purposes, you’re able to separately look at each of the different systems that consume energy,” he explained.

A Methodical Approach

In his work with customers, Steele has found that too many of them rush the process of optimizing energy usage. “Typically organizations move too quickly when trying to uncover opportunities in energy efficiency,” he said.

The prior project either failed to achieve the intended consequences or the technology did not perform as expected. The reason is that the company did not take the time needed to understand how energy is consumed in a building before rolling out a project to decrease the related cost.

By adhering to the aforementioned step-by-step process beginning with an assessment, energy savings are realizable. A case in point is a hospital that recently contacted Groom Energy Solutions to improve the quality of the outdoor lighting in its employee and visitor parking lot.

“The old technology used in the lighting consumed a lot of energy when the lights were on,” said Steele. “At the same time, a lot of fixtures were not functioning properly, creating a safety issue.”

By transforming the fixtures to smart, energy-efficient LED lights that turned on when sensors detected encroaching darkness, Groom was able to reduce overall energy consumption in half and increase illumination in the parking lot to enhance safety. “In the end, they were able to get a solution that was cheaper, brighter and safer,” Steele said.

Facilities managers interested in the myriad benefits of an intelligent building should contact their Grainger representative about next steps. When more companies smarten up their facilities, the entire country benefits from a reduced energy footprint.

Russ Banham is a Pulitzer-nominated business journalist and author who writes frequently about smart technologies.

To learn more or to schedule your free facility assessment, visit Grainger Energy Services.


The information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This article is not a substitute for review of current applicable government regulations, industry standards, or other standards specific to your business and/or activities and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.


Get more great content like this sent to your inbox.