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The best way to cut office energy use: Know how much you’re using

Businesses install submeters to reduce energy use and costs

By Rebecca Simanek | | @BeccaSimanek


While the other riders in her New York City spinning class are focused on their workouts, Meaghan Farrell (@meaghancfarrell) is often thinking about office energy usage.

Spinning away on an exercise bike, Farrell, who is a JLL sustainability strategy executive, sees a clear metaphor for how office tenants consume energy. In many fitness clubs, riders labor through workouts with no access to metrics, making it impossible to know how much power they’re using.

“You might think you’re having the best ride of your life—but you might have zero resistance on,” Farrell says.

But in a club like Flywheel, a NYC-based fitness chain, riders can see data like their rotations per minute and resistance levels—the type of information they can use to gauge how they’re really performing, and to make better decisions as they go along.

The same principle applies to companies and their utility usage. Too many businesses don’t have access to information about the energy they’re burning, making it difficult when they want to burn less of it.

“You might have an inkling you’re over-consuming, but if you don’t have information about your consumption, you can’t make fully informed decisions,” Farrell says.

Energy meters in a row (image)

That’s why in the past five years, many businesses have been looking for ways to more precisely monitor energy use. No technology has been more instrumental to that effort than submetering—the installation of systems that allow building owners, occupiers, and commercial tenants to measure their individual energy consumption.

“The main utility meter has always been the starting point of energy management. Submetering is taking out the magnifying glass,” says Frank Teng (@frankthetenkSF), the West region Vice President for Energy and Sustainability Services for JLL. “Owners and tenants want to have a little more insight into how they’re using energy so they can reach their sustainability goals.”

The tracking trend got a big boost a few months ago when New York mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to require non-residential buildings larger than 25,000 square feet to track and disclose energy use. DeBlasio’s plan will require building owners to install submeters and upgrade lighting in those tenant spaces by 2025.

To nail down precise usage figures, Teng says, businesses can compare the data from their submeters against benchmarks provided by services like Energy Star. It lets buildings enter their consumption figures, then uses weather, location, the building’s age and the building’s use to produce a score between 1 and 100; any score above 75 makes you a high performer.

“You might have an inkling you’re over-consuming, but if you don’t have information about your consumption, you can’t make fully informed decisions Meaghan Farrell - Sustainability Strategy Executive; JLL

Building owners or groups of tenants can use the score to see how they stack up against each other and across multiple spaces in their office portfolio. And often, reviewing this data can lead to some surprising findings—and big cost savings.

Using submetering, for instance, a high tech internet client found that HVAC systems at its offices around the U.S. were often online outside of scheduled run times, because smatterings of employees were working nights and weekends to cover the Olympics or awards shows. The company’s landlords charged a high price for running outside of normal business hours. Simply cutting back those off-hours runs produced “six-digit savings” for the tech giant. After looking at their submeters, they also discovered one landlord was billing them for their neighbor’s energy use, and some landlords have even charged overcharged their rate.

Before submetering, companies mostly relied on their workers to spot small but impactful inefficiencies. Sometimes it worked. At Whirlpool, an engineer noticed coffee makers at the appliance manufacturer’s headquarters were left on over nights and weekends. Fixing the errant coffee machines set the company on an efficiency spree—in 2013 it implemented a timer system, then energy-efficient lighting, HVAC adjustments and a slew of other cost-cutting measures totaling $7 million in annual savings, according to JLL.

Submetering provides companies with those kinds of insights every day, and the certainty that, as Teng says, “you’re running it at the right time, turning it on and off, controlling it or turning it down, replacing or retrofitting it.”

The latest submetering technology reaches to the desk or equipment level, showing each employee how much energy she’s using at any given moment. That reminds her to dim the lights when the sun’s out, unplug her devices when they’re idle and turn off computers before she goes into long meetings. Some companies have even begun offering cash bonuses and other incentives for cutting back. At the high tech client’s headquarters, submeters were used to compare energy usage between floors, and create some friendly competition among employees.

“More and more things are getting plugged in at the workspace,” Teng says. “Employees are an important ally in saving energy.”

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