Steps to Success

Building automation has ascended from the property level to the cloud, creating better efficiencies and controls.
Martin Levkus, Yardi Energy Regional Sales Director
Martin Levkus, Yardi Energy Regional Sales Director

Building automation has ascended from the property level to the cloud, creating better efficiencies and controls. Yardi Energy Regional Sales Director Martin Levkus talks about improvements in building automation and other means to increase energy performance—at the building and the portfolio level.

Q. Tell me about your three-step approach to improving energy management in a commercial property.

A. When we talk about a three-step approach, we talk about learning, measuring and managing. We are helping our customers learn about their energy data: Getting good visibility of data and being able to understand building energy data and energy load is very important. The data could come from various sources; the most traditional way is to either capture data from utility bills or obtain real-time data from your local utility vendor or by using monitoring devices to report on the energy load of your buildings. There is also an option of receiving whole-building data. Once the data is successfully captured, then you need to be able to apply different data points to normalize it—for example, weather data, service periods or square footage of the building—for more accurate benchmarking. And then you can start really understanding your energy data and see how your building compares to other buildings in the area. Gaining that visibility will also help you to make the right decisions in terms of what should be your next logical step to make your buildings more energy efficient.

The other key element about learning is understanding energy regulations in your area. We’re seeing an impressive trend in adopting the ENERGY STAR bechmarking requirements in several cities and jurisdictions. Just recently, cities like St. Louis, Denver and Kansas City mandated ENERGY STAR benchmarking for both commercial and residential buildings. For some of these cities, the submission deadline is as early as June 1, 2017. It is important that clients stay apprised of these new ordinances and make sure they comply.

Now we get into step two, which is measuring. Measuring really means understanding the energy load of your building or portfolio to implement benchmarking options. Typically, we’ll see clients doing two types of benchmarking: One is receiving an ENERGY STAR score through Portfolio Manager, which is more at the building level. This score typically indicates how energy efficient your building is in comparison with other buildings in your area. You can use the data to determine any potential opportunities to enhance your building’s energy performance by implementing different energy optimization tools or doing some retrofit projects. We’re also seeing that investors are interested in looking at energy scores and benchmarking of potential assets. They’re really paying attention to energy numbers. The other level of benchmarking is done at the portfolio level, where individual organizations are participating in GRESBE benchmarking, which stands for “Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark.”

Once you learn about your data and you have good measuring and benchmarking tools in place, then you start exploring opportunities to improve energy and optimize your building. Depending on what you learn and how your property benchmarks against other like-type buildings, there are just so many different options. Traditionally, the building automation system (BAS) would allow the building manager to set certain default points to ensure the HVAC system is optimized to run efficiently. But unforeseen events will happen, and the BAS needs to be adjusted to address them. Those adjustments are typically performed manually by staff at the building level. Once those events are addressed, the BAS continues to run without auto-recommissioning, which typically requires more energy than is really necessary for your HVAC unit.

There are systems that will ensure automatic recommissioning to reset your defaults points and schedules to ensure constant checking with appropriate adjustments so the HVAC continues to run efficiently and maintains or improves tenant comfort. Implementing our cloud-based HVAC energy-efficient load-based optimization software (LOBOS), you will not need to rely on your staff at the building level to ensure HVAC is optimized and prepared for unforeseen events. The automated software will return the building to its optimized level without generating additional energy or disturbing the comfort of your tenants. LOBOS Energy Efficiency can actually generate energy savings up to 15 percent of the total HVAC energy used while maintaining tenant comfort in your buildings.

Q. What are the measurement options today and how are they evolving?

A. Measurement is critical. Typically, measuring means benchmarking, and we have seen quite the evolvement around benchmarking in the last two decades. Starting with some very limited data gathering and evolving all the way to 15-minute interval data, which gives you good visibility to your energy loads. The industry has gone from tracking the data in an Excel spreadsheet to adopting proprietary and non-proprietary software solutions. Overall, commercial real estate is seeing improved visibility and access to national data. Adding data points like weather information and square footage of your buildings lets you normalize your data for true “apples to apples” and is very important.

Yardi’s own software has evolved with the times, as well. Yardi E2 Insight is a platform that gives you the visibility to view your cost and consumption data throughout your entire portfolio. Data is normalized by square feet, service dates and weather information, with the ability to slice and dice your data many ways—very similar to how you package your information for your property management reporting. The platform allows the user to drill down from the portfolio view of their assets all the way to the metered account level and see the image of the invoice. Very handy when you are analyzing some unusually high-consumption data.

Q. Is automation still in its infancy or do you see building owners—especially larger and better established ones—with systems in place at this point?

A. There’s still a good number of buildings that do not have any building automation system installed today. It’s evolving as we speak, but for some building owners it’s still a cost-prohibitive upgrade, especially on older buildings. It’s very encouraging to see new buildings coming equipped with building automation systems. Typically, those systems are limited to monitoring and controlling a single building, but as a manager of a portfolio, companies want to view and control all of their buildings through a single platform.

Q. What are the biggest challenges for clients?

A. I think the biggest challenge is that there are just so many solutions out there and it’s difficult for companies to know which one is the right one. The right fit typically depends on the type of building, the geographic location, whether it’s a long-term or short-term building ownership, and the deployment of the hardware or software solution. Obviously, the overall cost plays a big role.

We hear from clients, “I know I need to do something with this building, but with the investment that I have to put in, the payback time is just not reasonable.” Certainly, there are many factors that play a key role in your return on investment, but if you have a larger building with a chiller plant and BACnet-enabled building automation system in decent working condition, the LOBOS Energy Efficiency (EE) or Fault Detection & Diagnostics (FDD) has been a proven solution with very reasonable ROI. Our typical payback time is within 24 months, which is pretty good considering other solutions out there.

Clients also find it challenging to educate their employees on energy management programs, options and ordinances. Organizations like BOMA, BOMI, NAA, IREM and NMHC are a great resource for companies to attend their various educational sessions and workshops, like a recent event around ENERGY STAR benchmarking in Denver.

Q. What kind of new optimization solutions are out there?

A. Traditionally, the building optimization would be managed on site through an existing building automation system and the results would depend on the building manager or engineer to really monitor the system and make proper and timely adjustments to ensure continual building efficiency and tenant comfort. The new building technologies managers and owners should explore are cloud-based portfolio HVAC optimization solutions. Introducing a layer of software intelligence with a single dashboard on top of your existing BAS system to monitor your entire portfolio is very powerful and effective. It translates directly into energy savings, proactively detecting and diagnosing equipment faults, operational efficiencies and most important, maintaining or improving on your tenant comfort. Tenant comfort remains the key focus when working with building optimization solutions.

Q. There seems to be an increasing number of possibilities for automation in buildings.

A. Certainly with the Internet of Things and rapidly increasing trends around building innovation via cloud-based software solutions, building automation continues to be a hot topic for many building owners and managers. For some it can be viewed as a threat of software replacing the human aspect of building management. There are areas where software is a more effective and reliable option for building automation, but the human aspect cannot be eliminated. For example, when we deploy cloud-based FDD software at a large building, the system will quickly and easily detect potential problems, and in some cases it can auto-correct them, but there are instances where someone like the building manager or engineer needs to step in and respond. With so many options, companies should embrace a portfolio cloud-based building automation software solution—for energy efficiency, fault detection and diagnostics, improving tenant comfort or managing automated demand response—because they improve your building efficiency.

Q. There’s some skepticism regarding cloud solutions. Is any of that well-founded?

A. The cloud technologies have been around 10-plus years, and many businesses and technologies are either already in the cloud or in the process of migrating to the cloud. It’s not uncommon for businesses to run their entire enterprise on cloud-based solutions. So why not take the next step and implement your building optimization software through the cloud? There are several advantages for your business to adapt products deployed through secured and reliable cloud-based technology. Some of the key benefits are:

  • Easy deployment and automatic regular updates to ensure your building or portfolio is taking advantage of the latest feature set of your building optimization software.
  • Security is a key component of a good, reliable, cloud-based solution. It’s expensive for businesses to keep up with cyber-security threats, and cloud-based solutions greatly reduce these risks.
  • Building optimization cloud solutions typically come with a proven disaster recovery solution.
  • It offers flexibility, which is ideal for growing or fluctuating portfolios.
  • Cloud-based solutions cut out the high cost of hardware.
  • It increases accessibility and team collaboration, since staff working from anywhere can connect to the Internet and manage their buildings remotely 24/7 through a single-stack solution.

Q. Where do you see things evolving from here?

A. Energy is the largest controllable expense for any business, and finding an elegant solution that is built into your cloud-based ERP system is a huge advantage. Not just from the energy savings perspective but also from the day-to-day building operations efficiencies that your staff will gain through portfolio-level energy management and building optimization solutions. Why work with three or four different vendors if you could have a single vendor that works extremely hard with you to help your organization meet your building efficiency goals? Cloud-based products like Yardi Utility Expense Management and Yardi Pulse will increase the visibility of your utility data and building energy load. SaaS-based products like Yardi LOBOS EE, FDD or Proliphix will help optimize your building HVAC, drive energy consumption down, and maintain or increase your tenants’ comfort. These solutions are all tightly connected with your ERP solution and will continue evolving in the next two to three years.

Q. Do you see investors and owners thinking more along these lines now on their own, vs. being required to do so?

A. Certainly, these new benchmarking ordinances are mandating the property owners or investors to participate in energy benchmarking programs. There are also several studies showing that greener buildings are more attractive to tenants, retention is typically higher in greener and more energy-efficient buildings, the rent goes up and the tenants are willing to pay extra to have their employees in more environmentally friendly buildings. This is increasing the value of the building and the attention of investors. Everyone is playing their role in being more environmentally friendly and socially responsible.

Originally appearing in the April 2017 issue of CPE.