Focus, Construction, and Sustainability

Battle of the HVAC bill

Battle of the Buildings is a competition to cut energy use in commercial buildings.

February 14, 2014
| By Pete Daly |
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Cheri Holman, left, helped Mike Ignatoski and Clark Retirement Community find significant energy savings. Photo by Alissa Lane

If saving money on energy use isn’t enough incentive, commercial building managers in West Michigan who think they really know their stuff can now join in some friendly competition to see just who can slim down their annual energy bill the most.

The deadline to sign up for the First Annual USGBC West Michigan Battle of the Buildings is March 31.

Cheri Holman, president of the U.S. Green Building Council West Michigan Chapter and director of energy services at Hurst Mechanical in Grand Rapids, said she originally thought she might get as much as 1 million square feet of commercial and industrial facilities in the competition to shed wasteful energy habits. But as of February, she already had about 25 buildings with a total of almost 5 million square feet — “so this is bigger than I ever thought it would be.”

Enthusiastically described by Holman as “an energy reduction war, a crusade against kilowatts, a barrage against BTU’s,” the Battle of the Buildings competition is backed by the USGBC with funding support from Consumers Energy and Hurst Mechanical. 

Amway corporate headquarters in Ada has been entered in the competition, joining other properties such as River House Condominiums in Grand Rapids, FireKeepers Development Authority in Battle Creek and a number of Huntington Bank branches throughout West Michigan.

“There are going to be some more,” said Holman in early February, adding she was not able to name “the big ones” yet.

Holman said the free competition, which is open to any building, is a different way to encourage energy-efficient practices in a spirit of friendly competition among the region’s building owners and managers.

On March 31, registration will close and categories will be determined based on type and number of building entries. Throughout the remainder of 2014, participants will measure, track and report their monthly energy consumption using Portfolio Manager, the Environmental Protection Agency’s online energy-tracking tool.

The amounts of electricity and fuel used will be quantified and divided by the number of square feet in each facility.

Holman compared the competition to a “Biggest Loser” type of event, noting that the “weigh in” will be the benchmark set by each competitor’s energy use at the end of 2013.

Throughout the competition, participants will cut energy waste through energy-saving activities, such as making improvements to the building, optimizing operations and maintenance, and involving the occupants of the building in methods of saving energy. The buildings that demonstrate the greatest percentage-based reduction in EUI (energy use intensity) over the course of the competition will be recognized as winners at a 2015 energy summit. She said the summit will consist of a panel discussion by participants, plus vendor booths and an awards banquet.

Holman noted that, on average, roughly 75 percent of a commercial building’s energy cost is from its HVAC (heating, ventilating, air conditioning) and from its lighting.

“Approximately 30 percent of energy used in commercial buildings is wasted,” said Holman. “Organizations can reduce energy consumption up to 10 percent through better energy management, with little to no upfront costs.”

The competition will provide numerous opportunities for West Michigan building managers to learn more about reducing energy use with constantly advancing technology through a series of free workshops. Topics will include financing energy efficiency projects, rebates and incentive programs in place, plus tax deductions and credits, and more.

“There will also be free on-site energy audits for some of the competitors by Hurst Mechanical and others,” said Holman.

The West Michigan Battle of the Buildings was endorsed by the EPA, according to Holman. The EPA has noted that its Energy Star program revealed a spirit of healthy competition and the opportunity for recognition are among the best means of inspiring and motivating voluntary efforts by business to reduce energy use.

Holman received a statement from the EPA that “applauds USGBC West Michigan for their leadership in promoting commercial building energy efficiency, and we can’t wait to see what buildings come out on top!”

Hurst Mechanical, located off West River Drive in Belmont, is one of the largest service-based HVAC companies in the Grand Rapids area, according to Holman. Many smaller HVAC companies focus on installation of equipment, and while Hurst does installations, it also tries to establish continuing long-term service relationships with its clients.

“We are a very progressive energy company, as well,” she said, noting that Hurst set up an energy department within its corporate structure long before other HVAC companies began focusing on energy efficiency.

Hurst has about 100 employees and has offices in Traverse City, Kalamazoo and Muskegon, with headquarters in Belmont.

Holman offered a few tips on where to start in determining if a building has an energy waste problem.

“If you see that doors are hard to open or open too easily, there may be an air pressure issue,” she said. That could mean too much air is flowing in and out of the building, with outdoor air replacing indoor air. The fresh air being brought in has to be heated in winter or cooled in summer, adding to the energy bill.

But a balance is required: Employees have to have a constant supply of fresh air in the building, so balancing that with the energy use aspect takes careful planning.

Lighting, especially with today’s newest advances, is “huge” in energy reduction plans, said Holman — “an easy payback” on the investment.

Variable frequency drive on motors used in the facility is another energy saver; many motors are designed to run at just one speed, even when that speed is more than what is required.

Other types of equipment that can be energy wasters include boilers.

“There are a lot of extremely easy and high-ROI things that can be done right now in almost every building,” she said. “Lighting can be as low as a six-month payback, and so can variable frequency drive on motors.”

Hurst Mechanical completed a major energy reduction HVAC project at Clark Retirement Community in Grand Rapids a couple of years ago that is projected to save the organization $1.2 million over a 15-year period in electricity alone. The cost of the project will be recovered within five years, she said.

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