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Vantage Point


Lab Retrofits Bring Down Energy Costs

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The University of Utah, Salt Lake City, is home to 31,860 students, 3,421 faculty, 24,053 staff, and 564 buildings—all on a 550-acre campus. It’s also home to a big utility bill: Utility costs in 2016 totaled about $23 million. That utility bill is why the university has decided to use energy master plans as a way of controlling costs.

What is an energy master plan? In 2016, the Federal Utility Partnership Working Group Seminar held in Cincinnati described such a plan as “a road map for an efficient, practical, cost-effective, and robust energy infrastructure system.” In other words, it focuses on the energy consumption of existing buildings, providing both a baseline condition, as well as recommendations for increased efficiency, costs for implementing improvements, and projections of savings.

Finding the Biggest Energy Users

The university adopted its first energy master plan in 2012. Rather than covering the entire campus, which was not economically feasible, it provided an evaluation of 23 buildings in the southwest quadrant. We selected this area of campus as a starting point because it houses a number of lab facilities, which tend to be large consumers of energy. The plan, prepared by an outside consultant, cost $148,800.

Not surprisingly, the consultant’s report corroborated what our maintenance and engineering personnel on campus had long suspected: Of the 23 buildings evaluated, the biggest energy users were the two chemistry buildings and two biology buildings—all lab facilities. It quickly became apparent that the institution’s funds would be best spent on making energy improvements to those labs rather than to numerous classroom buildings.

The chemistry buildings are a good case in point. The energy master plan pinpointed the fume hood exhaust and makeup air systems in the chemistry buildings as large sources of energy consumption. These systems featured an outdated constant volume design—no matter what type of work was being done in a lab, the fume hoods pumped out the same flow of air.

We converted the systems to a variable volume design, to better match air handling to each lab’s operations. This led to a significant reduction of conditioned air losses. The engineering improvements to the lab facilities, which cost approximately $1.7 million, are projected to reduce energy costs by about $187,000 annually.

Scheduling time to do the required work proved one of the biggest challenges, because lab facilities operate year-round. We ended up shutting down each lab for two weekends and one full work week—or nine days in total—with our contractor working on one lab at a time.

Although we incurred some overtime charges with this phased-in schedule, it minimized the amount of time each lab was out of service. We met with the researchers in advance to explain what was being done, and why. Being environmentally minded, the researchers all accepted the construction schedule with few complaints.

Targeted improvements to fume hood exhaust and makeup air systems in lab facilities are helping the University of Utah trim annual energy costs.

Targeted Opportunities

We have continued to focus on the biggest energy users on campus, rather than trying to blanket all facilities with HVAC upgrades. The institution’s second energy master plan, also prepared by an outside consultant, addressed the health sciences portion of campus. It included evaluations of 26 buildings, but the university will make major improvements to only the 11 buildings that proved the biggest energy users and, therefore, offer the greatest return on investment.

One of these 11 buildings is the Emma Eccles Jones Medical Science Building, built about a decade ago. Using information from the energy master plan as a guide, we opted to increase the performance of the building’s chilled water system by adding smart control valves, which optimize the equipment’s operation based on actual usage. We also increased the capacity of the cooling tower, to boost the efficiency of the building’s indirect evaporative cooling system. Through improvements to this one facility, we reduced the cooling load by an estimated 6.4 million BTUs per hour; this represents nearly 20 percent of the total cooling reduction expected from implementation of the health sciences energy master plan.

In addition to identifying projects that we could address through deferred maintenance schedules, an energy master plan serves as a tool for integrating the energy needs of individual facilities into an overarching energy plan for an entire campus, or large sections of it.

The institution, for example, is planning to replace its existing School of Medicine with a newly constructed one, as well as to build a new rehabilitation hospital and ambulatory care center. Implementation of the second energy master plan provided us with an accurate picture of how these new facilities would affect the energy needs of the overall health sciences campus. We realized that the university’s existing infrastructure was inadequate to support the new facilities; we would either need to add plant capacity or decrease energy consumption.

We took the latter approach, developing a plan to reduce energy consumption in existing buildings so we could accomm-odate the additional heating and cooling capacity needed for the new facilities. As an example, we plan to increase the HVAC efficiency of existing buildings and in the central chilled water plant that are expected to collectively liberate nearly 24 million BTUs per hour in additional cooling capacity.

Cost Benefits and More

The energy master plans implemented by the institution have provided valuable information that has led to significant reductions in energy consumption and operating costs.

It is important to recognize, however, that energy plans are not always a panacea. In particular, it is advisable to scrutinize the results of master plans closely to ensure that results are not overstated. We now hire a third-party engineering firm to review energy master plans as a way of confirming the accuracy of the findings and projected savings, and identifying additional improvements.

The energy reduction and related cost savings realized in the university’s southwest quadrant and health sciences area provide strong evidence of the value of energy master plans. These plans have helped energy planning personnel to coordinate energy production, distribution, and usage across broad sections of the campus. The energy plans we’ve already implemented remain active; as we complete and initiate plans for the other areas of campus, we’ll return to the earlier ones to address other recommended improvements.

SUBMITTED BY Stephen Laraway, mechanical engineer, University of Utah, Salt Lake City

Related Topics

We have continued to focus on the biggest energy users on campus, rather than trying to blanket all facilities with HVAC upgrades.