What is a Building Energy Audit? Everything You Need to Know to Implement a Successful Energy Systems Optimization Project

As facilities age, the result is often dim lights, failing mechanical equipment, drafty windows and doors, and poor air quality that cause building occupants to be uncomfortable or less productive.

Facility management can either turn to their partnerships with disparate specialty trade contractors as equipment fails or proactively find an energy systems optimization contractor. Energy systems optimization contractors focus holistically on enhancing energy consuming systems like HVAC, lighting and building envelopes, based on the impacts those systems have on building occupants, energy use, and life-cycle costs.

The first step to an energy systems optimization project is the building energy audit. This is a vital process that lays the foundation for a successful project. An experienced energy systems optimization company will break the building energy audit into two phases: a needs exploration to better understand the customer’s needs and priorities, then a physical energy audit of the building. Without this two-step approach, the result is an audit and ultimately a project that isn’t aligned with the customer’s priorities and falls short of their requirements. When this happens, the result can be a project that doesn’t solve the customer’s needs.

Needs Exploration – Listen & Learn

A reputable energy systems optimization company will first meet with facility stakeholders to explore needs and better understand how each space within the facility is being used. They will want to know what your facility is used for, how users interact with the space, and what problems the failing system is causing for its users. They will also try to uncover the unique business challenges that the organization faces.

“This is the most important step to the building energy audit process and really lays the foundation for the entire project,” said Bill Clark, a Certified Professional for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED AP) by the Green Building Council and an energy systems optimization proponent. “Listening for ways to solve problems is the only way to fully understand needs, priorities, and requirements.”

It’s important that the energy systems optimization company bring in qualified energy engineers during the needs exploration phase, who have design-build experience and expertise in the particular measures being explored, said Clark. The engineer who conducts the needs and facility exploration should continue to be a key member of the team that implements the energy systems optimization project.

The industry often uses the specialist-nurse analogy to explain why sending a specialist to conduct an audit is the best approach.

Imagine being a patient with a very specific ailment with a variety of symptoms. You want to see a specialist, someone who can immediately listen to your history, inspect wounds, and explore other problems that you may not have known about. They then diagnose the problem and come up with creative ways to get you up and running again. But instead, nurses, aides, assistants, and practitioners all come in, at various times, ask the same questions, take your temperature and relay the message to the specialist who you then have to make an appointment with. They may tell you to rest and give you a band-aid, never getting to the root of the problem or having the skills to remedy your aches.

This is similar to a traditional energy services company (ESCO) sending in middlemen to do the job that they aren’t qualified to fix. This results in missed opportunities for identifying potential measures that could benefit them or potential issues that they may not have known about. An experienced energy systems optimization firm will have experts on staff in various disciplines, like solar, lighting, HVAC and building automation. Such a firm will give the customer direct access so they can ask the right kinds of questions in order to understand the problems and offer a solution that meets the unique needs of the facility.

Building Energy Audit – Envision & Plan

After the needs exploration, the building energy audit can begin. The energy engineers start by meeting with the customer to review building drawings and the history of the facility and equipment within it.

Then the energy engineers will walk the facility, from roofs to basements, taking photos, inspecting equipment, said Ray Lesnik,  a Certified Energy Manager (CEM) with the Association of Energy Engineers and a proponent of Energy Systems Optimization.  They should be detailing everything from horsepower to age of each component, he said.

“We are not only looking for ways to reduce energy and save money on maintenance and utility bills,” Lesnik said.  “We are looking for ways to make our customers’ facilities more comfortable and safer for anyone who uses it.”

The building energy audit should conclude with a verbal summation of findings. The expert will then complete a preliminary feasibility assessment report. This should outline possible solutions, costs, savings, return on investment and overall scope of project and time it would take to complete.

“By listening and learning first, then conducting a building energy audit, key facts will be uncovered that will make the project successful,” Lesnik said. “Without a strong partnership and thorough investigation into the customer’s unique needs, the project will never solve the energy problems the company experiences.”

Partnering with a firm specializing in delivering energy efficiencies and infrastructure optimization will also ensure whatever is designed can actually be built, Clark said.

“All good energy engineers will be looking for ways to solve the customer’s energy problems, but ultimately the recommended solution must be cost-effective and buildable,” Clark said.

Consulting engineering firms offer building energy audits for the purpose of generating an energy report, but stop short of making specific recommendations and usually avoid getting involved with project implementation. A reputable energy system optimization firm conducts hundreds of building energy audits annually and are focused on developing recommendations, designing solutions and implementing well-constructed projects, Clark explained.

Companies with energy and infrastructure aches should also look for an energy systems optimization company that isn’t exclusively tied to one vendor to fix all the problems. This allows them to choose the best products to create an optimal system for their clients’ needs.

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