Labs are among the most energy-intensive facilities, consuming roughly three to seven times typical office buildings, driven in large part by HVAC systems that have high air change rates, high outside air requirements and operate continuously year round.

HVAC energy can be significantly reduced by a variety of low-cost operational improvements; but over time, energy savings often deteriorate as users and operators adjust the setpoints and controls. Although software systems can help identify these problems, efficiency projects need to account for how people interact with the systems. Applying sound project management practices along with findings from behavioral science can help improve long-term outcomes.

Operational improvements
A variety of low-cost operational and control strategies are widely used to help reduce lab HVAC energy. Here are just a few:

  • Night setback. Reduce thermostat setpoints and/or shut off equipment during unoccupied hours.
  • Schedule or control ventilation rates. Cut back ventilation rates when the lab is unoccupied, or use occupancy sensors to control ventilation.
  • Discharge air reset. Rather than supply cold 55 F air, reset the discharge air temperature to reduce reheat requirements.
  • Static pressure reset. For variable-volume supply and exhaust systems, dynamically reset the fan static pressure, rather than maintain a high, constant pressure year round, to save fan energy.
  • Shut the Sash Programs are proving to be effective means of reducing energy in labs equipped with variable-volume fume hoods.

In most facilities, these strategies can reduce energy for a low initial cost, especially when compared to capital-intensive systems, such as heat recovery. Unfortunately, just as your car needs a regular tune-up to run smoothly, operational measures need regular maintenance to operate efficiently.

But operational measures are different in they rely more heavily on people to work properly. Energy-efficient equipment, such as light-emitting diode (LED) lights or high-efficiency cooling systems, typically deliver energy savings provided the equipment is properly maintained.

In contrast, measures that rely on control strategies to deliver savings are more easily undone by the people that control them. Adjusting setpoints and equipment operating schedules or removing signage tends to increase energy over time.

Although products and services, such as fault detection and diagnostics or retro-commissioning, can help bring these problems to the forefront, they still require manual intervention by facilities staff to correct the problems and keep the lab HVAC systems operating efficiently.

Engaging stakeholders to improve project outcome
Sound project management practices, backed by behavioral science, can help improve long-term outcomes. Here are three practices which help ensure your facility operates efficiently over time.

  1. Executive sponsorship. Experts in change management understand that getting support from executive management is a cornerstone of long-term success. A sponsor that sends a clear message that energy savings is important can energize and empower the project team.
  2. Involve key stakeholders. Research indicates when stakeholders are more engaged, chances of project success improve. It’s tempting and expedient for contractors to implement operational changes without consulting lab staff, but doing so misses the opportunity to secure their support and raise awareness.
  3. Pilot projects. Operational changes are often relatively easy to implement and cost little. Collaborating with facilities staff to pilot the changes provides an opportunity for training, helps identify and overcome potential pitfalls and helps get buy-in from lab staff ultimately responsible for maintaining the systems over the long term. People naturally feel a sense of ownership and pride when the project they helped implement succeeds. This can help encourage commitment to energy efficiency long after the project is installed.

To those experienced with implementing lab efficiency projects, this may all seem like project management 101. But too often expediency gets in the way of common sense. Talk to the lab staff? Make sure facilities and maintenance are on-board? Of course. But with a deadline looming these are often the first to go. Don’t let it happen. Put these on your project checklist so they aren’t swept aside.

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Mark Mullins has over 20 years of experience developing energy-efficiency projects for a wide range of customers. Mullins areas of expertise include lab energy efficiency, HVAC controls, project management, energy analysis and strategic planning.

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