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Lost kilowatts located under the cloak of night
7/12/2013 12:00 AM
An energy coach’s nocturnal visit to BPA headquarters for NEEA’s Kilowatt Crackdown uncovers the unexpected
BPA’s Stewart McLaughlin says the NEEA program brought to light a hidden malfunction in the ventilation system that can cause the eighth-floor chiller units at headquarters to work overtime.
Facilities engineer Stewart McLaughlin knows every square foot of BPA headquarters – all 700,000 of them. Despite inspecting its hidden crannies and inner workings daily for almost 20 years, McLaughlin is still awed and inspired by the behemoth building he has watched over since it was just 7 years old.
You can’t spend five minutes with McLaughlin and his facilities operations colleagues without observing the tremendous pride they take in the 905 N.E. 11th building and its systems.
“This building is huge. It’s huge!” the 53-year-old building engineer exclaims in his rich North Carolina accent. “The way it lies, it’s deceptive. You just don’t see the magnitude of this building. Even though it’s only eight stories, it’s the fifth-largest commercial building in Portland. It’s 422 feet long – you could play football on top of it.”
It turns out that the big building is keeping secrets, even from the people closest to it. Recently McLaughlin learned, somewhat to his chagrin, that the 26-year-old headquarters was getting up to some mechanical mischief when no one’s around. And that has a direct impact on BPA’s $1 million a year electric bill.
“A lot more goes on in this building than people imagine,” McLaughlin says.
Clues to the building’s hidden life came to light thanks to an energy detective assigned to the case by the Kilowatt Crackdown, sponsored by the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance. BPA signed up for the year-long program as part of its cross-agency sustainability targets. Those efforts, which began in 2009, have already generated a gold certification for headquarters from the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability and 437,809 verified kilowatt-hours of electricity savings in a 2012 Energy Trust of Oregon pilot.
“The Kilowatt Crackdown and other efforts like our partnership in the Lloyd EcoDistrict are all about improving the energy intensity of commercial buildings,” says Rodrigo George, BPA’s sustainability team co-chair. Energy intensity is an economic measure of consumption and a reflection of energy efficiency. “It’s showing that the federal government is actively engaged in tracking and implementing initiatives that drive sustainability.”
To propel BPA toward its next goal – cutting electricity use at headquarters by another 6 percent in 2013 – NEEA sent energy coach Brad Weaver of Northwest Energy Consulting to help sleuth out new opportunities.
Like many detectives, Weaver does some of his best work at night. A key investigative tool, the night walk, aims to expose invisible but costly flaws in the mechanical systems, especially those that heat and cool the building. The method is deceptively simple: Catch the building when its guard is down and more subtle failings are no longer masked by the bustle of daytime activities.
“You do a walk-through at night?” was McLaughlin’s initial reaction. “I’d been here 19 years and I’d never heard of it. But you find stuff you’re not going to notice during the day. And sure enough, we found a couple things that we’d never noticed before.”
Adds George, “Having an external set of eyes through programs like the Kilowatt Crackdown has been instrumental in helping our facility operation specialists and building operators continually improve energy management at BPA.”
The only thing better than a fresh set of eyes is a fresh set of ears, when they’re attached to the brain of a skilled building engineer.
Few BPA employees ever venture into the mechanical penthouse on the eighth floor. Outside on the enclosed south terrace, there’s nothing to see beyond four concrete walls. But the energy coach’s trained ear instantly identified a malfunction from the most mundane clue – traffic noise.
“Hear that?” McLaughlin says. “That’s I-84. And we shouldn’t be hearing that.”
To catch the culprit in action – or in this case, inaction – McLaughlin’s crew hauled out an 8-foot ladder, climbed up the parapet and leaned out to look: A large steel louver that controls the flow of air into the building had stopped doing its job. It was stuck open. Of such non-events are energy losses born.
McLaughlin explains that this damper malfunction is far more serious than having a large window upstairs stuck open in your house. Because the BPA building is pressurized, air doesn’t just idly float in and out; it’s pulled hard and in large volume.
That means a stuck damper has a significant impact on energy consumption in two ways. When outside temperatures are below 55 degrees, the open damper forces the heating system to work harder. And when it’s warmer than 55 outside, the influx of warm air makes the eighth-floor chillers – green tanks that look like giant pickles on a pedestal – kick into high gear to pipe cool water down to the data centers on each floor.
The night walk yielded other specific observations that are being used to sharpen the function of the building. Weaver recommended that BPA save energy by turning off commercial-size kitchen fans and adjusting the cooling of server closets at night.
“All of these small but significant changes contribute to an overall energy intensity reduction and show that aggregate savings play a significant role in energy conservation,” George says. The Kilowatt Crackdown, which began in January and runs through May of 2014, is also moving BPA closer to its goal of an Energy Star certification for headquarters.
McLaughlin says night walks are “absolutely” a valuable new strategy in his team’s never-ending work to keep the building running smoothly and cost efficiently.
“I was glad we found the problems, and I’m glad we’re going to correct them,” he said. “I feel proud to be part of the solution.”
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