Retrocommissioning reduces Materials Science and Engineering Building energy usage

The Materials Science and Engineering Building is old and wasn’t really designed with saving energy in mind.

Poorly insulated pipes, inefficient heating and cooling systems and a line of other problems have led to a yearly utility bill of about $350,000 — but a team housed in the building’s first floor aims to change that.

The retrocommissioning team, headed by Facilities and Services employee for construction projects Guy Grant, is part of a project that has been in place for six and a half years. The team reviews and improves University buildings, and by the time they’re done with a building, they average a 27 percent reduction in utility costs, said Karl Helmink, associate director for Utilities and Energy Services.

“We’ve had lists of buildings and the dollar amount of utilities per year they consumed,” Helmink said. “We’ve been working off the top of that list — the most energy intensive buildings off that list.”

So far, they have retrocommissioned 50 buildings and avoided about $20 million in utility costs.

The inefficiencies are apparent once a student enters MSEB’s front doors — starting off with the door itself. The space between the doors gapes open, letting heat escape in the winter and cold air escape in the summer.

But that’s just one of the problems Grant’s team pinpointed, a “low hanging fruit” that when fixed, will provide energy savings with little effort.

His team primarily deals with heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, so one of the big energy savers his team has been working on is reducing heating and cooling in rooms that aren’t occupied during certain parts of the week — essentially letting temperatures fluctuate.

“During occupied mode, instead of having a temperature range like this,” he said spreading his hands far away from each other. “It’s more like this,” he said inching his hands close together.

The team has also renovated how the building cools air. Instead of recycling the building’s air and cooling it by chilled water whenever the building occupants need cold air, they set it up so that it brings in outside air when it can, what he called “free cooling.”

“Why not use 40 degree outside air, mix it with the 75 degree return air and blend it?” he said.

MSEB has a lot of labs. In each lab, there’s a fume hood that exhausts air to a fan that propels it outside at a rate of 3,000 feet per minute. But before it leaves the building, it goes through an energy recovery wheel the team installed that recovers the air’s heat.

In addition to this, Grant’s team is bringing MSEB a temperature monitoring system that will let the maintenance worker know when something wrong happens.

“Some of the stuff we wouldn’t know until somebody in the building complains that it’s too hot or too cold. With monitor controls, we can set little temperature alarms in here that say ‘Hey, temperature’s too hot.’ It’ll send out an alarm and we can get out and fix it immediately,” Grant said.

“Whenever you can monitor something, you have a better chance of addressing problems before it wastes a lot of energy,” he added.

The retrocommissioning team doesn’t just deal with older buildings like the MSEB, the team has also tackled big energy users like the ACES library, which was constructed in the ’90s. Helmink said the retrocommissioning team was able to save 40 percent of the building’s annual energy usage.

“We were able to … modify the operation of the HVAC systems so we could save some significant amounts of energy when the library is closed,” he said.

Steven Breitwieser, Facilities and Services media communication specialist, said one of the most important aspects of the project is the collaboration between workers that wouldn’t have been brought together before.

“You’ve got guys  who work on the control system, and you’ve got electricians, and you’ve got pipe fitters and you’ve got sheet metal workers,” he said. “All those guys are working together, dedicated in those facilities to make those upgrades.”

Austin can be reached at [email protected] or @austinkeating3.