5 Energy Savings Strategies for Commercial Buildings

posted by Michael Raia

Energy saving technologies are experiencing new highs in every way, both as a result of government incentives and programs such as the US Green Building Council's LEED program, as well as a growing consumer market demand. We have listed 5 of the top technologies and design strategies for new construction or retrofits and renovations.

1. LED Lighting

It's pretty hard to miss the trend here. In virtually every store that light bulbs or fixtures are sold, the LED market is taking over. With ever-improving light quality, features, and longevity, LEDs are becoming a no-brainer, particularly for institutions looking to be budget-conscious. Just about any fixture imaginable can be found in LED, and the previous delta in cost is closing as the payback time in energy saved for most fixtures has waned to less than 3 years, if that much. Additional considerations to take into account beyond the energy payoff are reduced heat load due to cooler operation, reduced maintenance costs due to longer life span, greater reliability for high-output fixtures (no duty cycles or shut-off cycles for things like stage lighting), and also a major consideration for new construction: reduced electrical equipment. This last consideration bears a major budget impact. Owners of existing facilities looking to make the swap will still benefit tremendously from the other advantages.

Where the technology is headed: products such as those made by our Austin friends Ketra allow for an automated circadian cycle that slowly and imperceptibly changes brightness output and color temperature throughout the day, being softer and cooler in the daytime to imitate sunlight, and becoming brighter and warmer as the sun sets and more light is needed. Read more about Ketra's products in our March 2015 product spotlight review.     

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2. Automated Lighting & Plumbing Controls

It seems that we are increasingly accustomed to going into a restroom and expecting the toilets, soap dispensers, and faucets to immediately respond to our presence, and increasingly surprised or frustrated by hand dryers or paper towel dispensers that actually require us to physically press a button. Beyond simple convenience, there are practical implications. The automation in these devices assists with major energy savings. Occupancy sensors in meeting rooms, restrooms, and even elevators ensure that energy is not being wasted on unneeded lighting. Plumbing controls and toilet accessories encourage efficient use of water, soap, and paper goods, and also can seriously reduce maintenance costs. Where aesthetics, space limitations, and noise are a concern, many improvements have also been made to help these devices more beautiful, compact, and quiet.

3. Variable Refrigerant Zoned HVAC Systems 

Perhaps still a bit contested by some of the skeptics in the industry but gaining ground year by year is variable refrigerant flow (VRF) HVAC equipment. This technology alone merits its own write-up, but in short it is highly efficient, capable of being ductless, and excellent for coordination with other trades as the systems take up such little space. Used almost exclusively as the HVAC system of choice in Europe, VRF has been making waves in the US market in the last several years. While due to its up-front cost it is not ideal yet for every application, engineers are looking to VRF more and more to deal with the challenges posed by traditional split / DX, packaged, and chilled water systems. 

4. Shading for Glazing 

Windows are wonderful for bringing natural light into a building and providing interest on a façade. A critical consideration for these windows is the solar orientation, which may require certain windows to be covered with awnings, canopies, or shade structures. While such elements are easiest to add to new construction, there are ways to reduce the glare and heat gain that come with certain windows. Consider planting deciduous trees in front of windows that receive the harshest sun (typically south / west facing). Their leaves will fall off in the winter months when the heat gain is desirable, but provide shade during the warmest months. The filtered natural light from a window with a tree in front of it is far more pleasant for the users inside a building. Additional considerations include adding low-e window film or tinting, or even replacing the window entirely if single-paned.    

5. Continuous Insulation / Building Envelope 

The 2012 International Building Code (IBC) requires continuous exterior insulation. What this means is that the widespread practice of using batt insulation between studs is no longer allowed because the studs act as thermal bridges in the building's thermal envelope. Continuous rigid foam insulation is now becoming the industry standard. While this does come with some cost implications, the payoff is evident in climates where temperature extremes are the norm. In addition to providing a much more robust and higher-performing thermal envelope, this insulation can potentially wear multiple hats as a weather barrier and sheathing, which can offset any additional cost over traditional batt insulation.     

JGA is constantly looking for ways to increase a building's value to the owner, which includes balancing its up front cost with its durability, longevity, and efficiency. To learn more about our approach, feel free to contact us anytime.