Understanding Building Operations

The last energy services column (January 2012) introduced an 11-step energy services project delivery process. Electrical contractors can follow the process systematically, thereby developing a comprehensive program to help their customers identify and achieve energy and sustainability goals. Step No. 1 is to understand the customer’s building operations. Since it does not directly contribute to or measurably reduce building energy use or improve sustainability, it is often overlooked.

An understanding of building operations is very important and a necessary prerequisite for any successful energy services project. Understanding building operations is really about understanding the customer’s business operations, which are reflected in how the customer uses the building and how the building operates. To be successful, an energy services project must complement the customer’s business and enhance its bottom line. Only after the electrical contractor understands its customer’s business and how it uses the building can the contractor effectively assess building energy and sustainability in Step No. 2 of the energy services project delivery process.

The purpose of any building is to provide a safe and controlled environment for the activities it supports. For most residential, commercial and institutional buildings, the focus is on people, providing occupants with an environment where they can live, work and play healthfully and productively. For other buildings, such as manufacturing and warehouse facilities, the focus is on providing an environment suitable for the production processes taking place inside; it also must be safe and healthy for the people working there. Understanding the purpose of a building and how it operates is the first step in improving its operation efficiency, reducing energy expenses and improving sustainability.

It also is very important to understand that the purpose for which a building was originally built may not be the purpose that it currently serves. Over time, businesses and business processes evolve, changing the building’s function and operation. Similarly, new tenants or owners may acquire an existing building, which would result in a new purpose for the space. This changeover of a building’s purpose can open opportunities to improve the energy efficiency by better matching the building function to building operation.

Building energy usage and load profile
A building’s energy usage and load profile are reflections of how your customer uses the building. Energy use looks at how much energy the building uses during a given time period, such as a day, month or year, and is expressed in kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electric energy. On the other hand, the building’s load profile considers the demand on the electric utility service in terms of kilowatts required at particular times during the day, month or year. Depending on the building, it is often useful to look at energy usage and load profile for the building as a whole as well as by specific function or load when it is significant or unique.

Buildings with similar purposes usually house similar functions and activities that result in similar energy use and load profiles (adjusted for geographic location, size, layout, functions incorporated, activity density and other factors). All commercial and institutional buildings—such as office buildings, stores, restaurants, schools, health clinics, shopping malls, multifamily dwellings and other building types—have similar energy usage and load profiles. Likewise, manufacturing facilities, warehouses and other production facilities have typical energy usage and load profiles. Knowing the general energy usage by type of facility will help the electrical contractor tailor its energy services to its customer. In addition, knowing how the customer’s building operates will provide a basis for identifying successful energy saving and sustainability strategies that worked with similar buildings, and it will establish realistic benchmarks to measure operational improvements against.

Know your customer’s business
This first step is about gathering information and data about your customer’s business and how it affects building operation. It is not possible to identify, analyze and recommend effective energy saving and sustainability projects to your customer if you do not understand the building’s purpose and use. Reducing light levels in an area might result in energy savings but could cost the customer many times those savings in lost productivity, work defects and errors, lost sales, employee absenteeism, and accident costs. Instead, the solution might be to retain the higher light level but achieve it through a better quality lighting system using a more efficient light source, luminaires with better optics, supplementing general lighting with task lighting, or a combination of strategies. A poorly executed energy services project can cost your customer more than the energy it saves if the customer’s business operations are not taken into consideration when defining the energy project.

The author thanks ELECTRI International Inc. for its sponsorship of the research project, “Energy Roadmap: Electrical Contractor’s Guide for Expanding Into the Emerging Energy Market,” on which this article is based.

GLAVINICH is director of Architectural Engineering & Construction Programs and an associate professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering at the University of Kansas. He can be reached at 785.864.3435 and tglavinich@ku.edu.

About the Author

Thomas E. Glavinich

Freelance Writer
Thomas E. Glavinich was an associate professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering at the University of Kansas. His tenure as one of Electrical Contractor's most trusted and reliable source of industry research end...

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