The Facility Technologist: Reaching Into The Tech Toolbox

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By Tom Condon, RPA, FMA

Published in the November 2008 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

In this challenging economic climate, facility managers (fms) everywhere are looking for ways to save money. Many organizations have technologies already in place that can facilitate more efficient management; it is often a matter of rediscovering capabilities or tuning up performance. Opportunity may also lie in implementing cost-effective strategies. Here are some ideas proven to save time, money, energy—and an fm’s sanity.

Change HVAC filters when they “chirp.” Clogged filters waste energy, but they are often only replaced according to the calendar, rather than when it is actually needed. Changing filters too often wastes materials and labor; not doing it often enough wastes energy. Fms can install pressure differential sensors that will alert staff to when filters really need changing, but they can be a bit costly. Installing this type of sensor may require the services of an electrician for wiring; in that case, it can cost several hundred dollars to install each filter with sensor.

There is an alternative to pressure differential sensors. Filtersmarts, made by Xtec, Inc. of Huntsville, AL, is an optical sensor for HVAC dust filters; the device clips onto the edge of a filter and uses a beam of light to sense dirt. These units start at $30, are battery operated, and will turn on a flashing light or “chirp” when the filter needs changing.

Occupancy sensing light switches. These devices replace standard light switches, and they turn off lights when nobody is in a room. Using this technology, an fm can save hundreds of dollars per year per switch. One fm I know shaved more than $1,000 off his lighting bill in one year just by installing six occupancy sensors. And they’re not just useful during regular business hours; they also combat the bad habit some cleaning crews have of leaving all the lights on during their shifts.

Track energy use. Retrofitting systems to save energy is a good first step, but energy saving management is an ongoing challenge. Too often, what starts out as a green initiative is soon derailed by busy or careless management. If an energy system isn’t being fully taken advantage of, an fm can revisit it to ensure maximum benefits.

There are tracking tools that go beyond a “traditional” energy management system. For instance, TREES from Tririga of Las Vegas, NV monitors energy usage as well as related attributes. For instance, an fm can use the tool to set benchmarks, track performance in terms of CO2 emissions (from the facility as well as those generated by employee travel), and identify dollars saved.

Stop “snoozing and using” with timers for office machines. Even when copiers are in “sleep” mode, most are actually still using energy to keep the system in ready to work mode. A heavy duty programmable appliance timer that plugs into a copier’s outlet will ensure that the machine is really shut down—not just “snoozing and using.”

LED T8 bulbs. While specs vary among manufacturers, this latest lighting retrofit can enable 14 watt LED bulbs to replace traditional fluorescents while using less than half the electricity of fluorescent T8 bulbs. An LED T8 bulb contains no mercury, produces almost no heat, doesn’t require a ballast, and, on average, is supposed to last as long as 50,000 hours (that’s 24 years when operating 9 to 5, Monday to Friday). These are still relatively pricey, but costs are expected to drop in 2009.

Tankless water heaters. Most conventional water heaters waste more energy than they put to use. Fms can replace these with tankless water heaters that only activate when someone turns on a faucet. These pieces of equipment are especially effective in offices, because they don’t use energy on nights and weekends when there are (usually) no occupants. They are simple to install and are available in electric or gas fired versions.

Use CMMS data more effectively. How often do most fms analyze their computerized maintenance management software (CMMS) work order logs? Probably not often enough. Seeking patterns in work orders can help to identify equipment that would be cheaper to replace than repair. It can also help to recognize work patterns that can assist an fm to schedule work more effectively. If possible, it is useful to transfer the work order data into an Excel spreadsheet in order to sort, filter, and graph the way to increased efficiency.

Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) systems for fleets. With an AVL system in place, fms are alerted when drivers speed, make unauthorized trips, or let vehicles idle excessively. Drivers are tracked on a map and in reports; some systems will also send an e-mail when drivers misbehave. AVL systems can save 10% to 20% on fuel and labor costs, and pay per month systems can run as little as $50 per month per vehicle.

Performance contracting. Now more than ever, this strategy is worth a look for any facility more than 10 years old. Performance contractors will retrofit lighting and HVAC systems to be more efficient, and the contractors get paid based on the increased efficiency that is achieved. For very little cost upfront, fms can save a lot in the long run and get the benefit of some of the best brains in the energy efficiency business.

Square footage accounting. While this is not purely a technology solution, it can save fms so much money that I am inclined to include it here. Most facility professionals do not know the exact square footage of their properties. Changes in BOMA regulations on square footage measurement, effect of office buildouts, and incorrect numbers from construction documents can affect the accuracy of the figures fms have about their facilities.

Organizations leasing space may be paying too much rent, and for those who rent out space, money may be lost on unrecognized square footage. This can add up to big bucks. Fms in one building in Chicago discovered almost 200,000 square feet of space they didn’t know they had, which increased the value of the building by over $30 million. In an average office building, it is common to find unrecognized square footage totalling 5% to 8% of the facility’s space.

As we trudge through this morass of economic woe, hopefully these ideas will be useful in helping fms keep their facilities lean and green.

Condon, a Facility Technologist and former facility manager, is a contributing author for BOMI Institute’s revised Technologies in Facility Management textbook. He works for System Development Integration, a Chicago, IL-based firm committed to improving the performance, quality, and reliability of client business through technology.

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