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25 August 2017

Suitcase test kit to save the US $5bn a year in energy costs

Three US government energy research labs have unveiled a sensor testing kit that fits in a suitcase and has the potential to save the US around 10% in its energy costs each year – around $5.1bn, and a whole load of carbon emissions. Aimed at smaller commercial buildings, which often can’t afford to hire in a specialist to diagnose their energy efficiency, the kit is a great example of Internet of Things (IoT) technology being used in energy efficiency and smart grid deployments.

Jointly developed by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), the Sensor Suitcase could apparently save a 25,000-square-foot office building around $3,500 a year.

The labs believe that this sort of saving, if embraced by every small commercial building in the US, would hit that $5.1bn reduction figure – as these <50,000-square-feet buildings account for around 44% of commercial building energy consumption. Essentially a box of sensors and a tablet, the kit aims to be simple to install and use, and then provide recommendations to save energy.

Back in June, the PNNL published a report that concluded that it could cut commercial building energy consumption by 29%, if all buildings were to adopt the new advanced building control systems. The study compares large buildings to cars, likening the maintenance of the systems to driving with the check-engine light on. With proper maintenance, PNNL says the reduction would be equivalent to the amount of energy used by 12m-15m US citizens.

The goal is to be able to send one of these kits to a business, which can then easily install the sensors throughout their building, in order to perform an energy efficiency benchmarking test. While the US government could opt to build and ship the kits themselves, it seems that a licensing approach is being pursued – with GreenPath Energy Solutions being the first company to license the design, and hoping to better penetrate an untapped market.

There are a vast amount of businesses that use commercial property that is very energy inefficient, and should a government decide to fund the cost of the kits, they could be pitched as a cost-saving measure for the business – with the government able to enjoy the benefits of reduced carbon emissions, and the businesses hopefully enjoying reduced energy bills.

Normally, the business wouldn’t have paid for a specialist technician to come out and diagnose the problem – a process that could easily scale into the four-figure range, for medium-sized buildings, and could take a long time too.

While many businesses will already have a pretty good idea of what their likely problem areas are (ancient water boilers, poor windows or insulation, unserviced air conditioners, etc.), the prevailing mindset will be that the status quo is tolerable – that it is easier to carry on as you are than to shoulder the costs of changing the system.

However, once one of those professional surveys has been carried out, the cost of the energy inefficiency can be shown to a manager, and then hopefully be rectified. For example, once the owner sees that a new AC unit would pay for itself in a year and then reduce monthly electricity bills by 20%, the decision to go ahead and replace it becomes a lot easier – based on data, rather than an assumption or vague hypothesis. Once the cost is staring them in the face, they are much more compelled to act.

So the goal of the suitcase is to make that testing process much easier – something that doesn’t require a professional, and that can be done in an afternoon by an untrained staffer. The DIY approach sounds pretty simple on paper, and just requires the 16 battery-powered sensors to be installed according to the instructions – to measure light levels, temperature, and the operations of HVAC units, installed on equipment and appliances.

After a month of collecting operational and environmental data, the sensors get plugged back into their holders in the suitcase, which is then hooked up to a tablet computer, which then runs the lab-built analytics software – to make sense of their harvested readings. The results are then presented, and provide the recommendations that it thinks will improve the situation.

These changes would include things like HVAC settings tweaks, as well as more obvious things like ensuring employees only use room lighting when needed. A set of occupancy sensors and an automated light switch would solve the problem of employees forgetting to turn out the lights, and those occupancy sensors could also be tied into the HVAC system – so that it isn’t wasting energy heating or cooling parts of the building that aren’t used.

GreenPath, a company that is planning on using the Sensor Suitcase as part of a more affordable diagnosis service for smaller businesses, also plans to sell the suitcases directly to customers – at a cost of around $1,200-$1,500, although PNNL thinks it could get as low as $500 at scale. GreenPath hopes that the system will also let it up-sell its existing auditing and retro-commissioning services – the process of improving on the installed equipment and systems.

Speaking to Greentech Media, GreenPath CEO Samuel Graham said that “a lot of large buildings have always been doing commissioning and retro-commissioning. But a lot of smaller buildings have been priced out of the market because these services are somewhat expensive. This technology drops that price point down to where smaller buildings can afford the retro-commissioning-type services.”

In the PNNL study, the research identified a checklist of 34 steps that companies could use to reduce their consumption. That 29% reduction in commercial usage translates to between 4-5% of the USA’s total energy consumption. This study was more focused on the larger buildings, which often already have building automation systems for controlling energy use. But PNNL found that most are not correctly figured – “similar to using a car at high speed in first gear. Instead of an expensive visit to the mechanic, the result for a commercial building is a high power bill.”

In that study, the most effective efficiency measures that could be carried out included: lowering daytime temperature setpoints for heating, increasing them for cooling, and lowering the nighttime heating, amounting to an 8% reduction; reducing minimum air flow rates using variable air volume boxes, for a 7% reduction; and limiting HVAC to running when the building is most likely occupied, which gave a 6% reduction.