No chief financial officer would consciously pay a bill he or she failed to understand, yet utility invoices frequently get paid without question. Energy and operational costs associated with environmental systems are among the largest expenditures in most buildings. If the balance sheet allowed, one could almost look at these as “cost of goods sold.” Yet, how many facility managers need this data to measure efficiency, but are deprived easy access? Too often, it’s housed in some cryptic “home office” file folder, out of a facility manager’s reach.

This situation exists because the average accounting department has a minimal understanding of a facility manager’s world. Meanwhile, if the facility manager had the utility data at his fingertips, any awareness of a consumption increase might cause him to ask:

• What factors are driving up our utility costs?

• Do we have an idea of the deviations and when they occur?

• Do we know what factors were in place when these deviations happened?

If the occupants are comfortable, most maintenance personnel are satisfied with their HVAC systems. But what happens when an improper control strategy sneaks in and goes undetected? It can result in unexpected trends and increased energy consumption.

For example, I recently visited with a university’s facility manager who told me of the 250-ton chiller that served the campus library. One weekend about 18 months ago, maintenance overrode the outside air dampers. This scenario went undetected because the chiller kept occupants cool and comfortable all the way through the warmest summer in more than 20 years. If it wasn’t for someone turning off the air-handling unit and noticing that the outside dampers remained open, this condition would still exist today. How could this situation exist? Because the mechanical plant was originally designed to support a new addition someday, the mechanical systems serving this building are oversized for current use. Hence, the 250-ton chiller kept everyone comfortable through the searing 90+°F summer heat despite the 100-percent outside air dampers being open.

Many owners think their building automation systems (BAS) will automatically prevent this type situation from happening, however, on their own they rarely do. There is help, however, “early detection” software is available that can alert a building owner to an out-of-design condition. This third-party analytical tool is designed specifically for operational and energy events that deviate from the norm. It allows a facility manager to be alerted to changes in performance and costs.

This software can detect conditions resulting from non-functioning sensors and actuators, excess equipment wear and tear, process inefficiency, economizers failing to function properly, or other devices that are broken although no one knows it.

It’s easy for these conditions to go unnoticed indefinitely if their discovery depends on looking at every trend log to identify a value, condition, or pattern that is skewed.

Analytics software can be used to identify equipment performance issues. These systems have built-in algorithms that can identify sophisticated patterns in data, including tools for regression analysis along with a full scientific math package.

The issues identified are often not complex, yet they have big payoffs when corrected. So achieving desired comfort conditions while using the lowest amount of energy possible is subject to challenge. Watching the operating characteristics of the systems in multiple buildings and their interaction with one another in real time is impossible to do manually.

Superimpose today’s all-too-common reduced budgets and increased workloads, and analytics software makes even more sense. It allows a facility manager to integrate data from various systems into one architecture to achieve energy savings and improved comfort. It will allow you to minimize waste hidden in those cryptic “home office” accounting files.

Doesn’t that sound like you protecting accounting from accounting?

Richard A. “Dick” Starr is president and chief executive officer of The Enterprise Corporation, a design/build/maintain contractor in the Cleveland, Ohio area. The company is an authorized Tridium Systems Integrator, NEBB-certified air/water balance agency, and the exclusive Linc Service contractor for Northeastern Ohio. In 2011, the company was selected as Contracting Business Magazine’s Commercial HVAC Contractor of the Year. Starr also sits on the national boards of both MCAA and MSCA. He can be reached at rstarr@enterprisehvac.com.