A comprehensive guide to ASHRAE Energy Audits for commercial buildings

August 16, 2023

In the era of sustainability and rising energy costs, understanding the energy profile of commercial buildings has become paramount. An effective tool in this endeavor is the ASHRAE energy audit. For commercial building owners and facility managers, this guide delves into the different types of ASHRAE energy audits, explaining their role in energy management in commercial buildings.

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What are ASHRAE energy audits?

ASHRAE level 1 energy audit: walk-through analysis

ASHRAE level 2 energy audit: energy survey and analysis

ASHRAE level 3 energy audit: detailed analysis of capital intensive modifications

How much does ASHRAE energy cost?

Why are energy audits necessary?

The importance of energy management in commercial buildings

The role of building analytics in energy management

What are ASHRAE energy audits?

ASHRAE, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers, sets guidelines for various practices in the HVAC&R (heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and refrigeration) field, among others. One of the critical areas where ASHRAE has developed guidelines is energy auditing in commercial buildings. 

An energy audit is a systematic process to assess and analyze the energy use and consumption of a given facility, building, or system. Its primary purpose is to identify energy-saving opportunities, inefficiencies, and to recommend ways to reduce energy waste. By conducting an energy audit, one can understand how energy is used in a facility and then prioritize improvements to increase energy efficiency and reduce energy-related costs.

ASHRAE outlines three different types of energy audits, which differ based on how intensive they are and what type of outcome you can expect. It is important to understand what each level of audit entails before deciding which is most appropriate for your commercial building.

ASHRAE Level 1 Energy Audit: Walk-through Analysis

An ASHRAE Level 1 energy audit, commonly referred to as a "Walk-through Analysis," is a preliminary and basic assessment of a building's energy performance. This audit is designed to identify straightforward energy-saving opportunities and provide a clear understanding of the building's energy consumption patterns. 

It typically involves a brief review of the facility's utility bills and other operating data to get an overview of energy use trends. Following this, an auditor conducts a walk-through of the facility to visually inspect its systems and operations. Based on these initial findings, the auditor will then provide a report that highlights areas of inefficiencies and recommends low-cost or no-cost measures to improve energy efficiency. 

The Level 1 audit aims to give building owners a quick snapshot of potential energy-saving opportunities without delving into detailed system analyses. It's an excellent starting point for those seeking to enhance their building's energy efficiency but might not have the resources or need for a more detailed audit immediately.

ASHRAE Level 2 Energy Audit: Energy Survey and Analysis

An ASHRAE Level 2 energy audit, termed the "Energy Survey and Analysis," offers a more detailed and comprehensive evaluation of a building's energy performance compared to a Level 1 audit. This audit dives deeper into understanding the building's energy consumption by meticulously analyzing its systems, operations, and energy use patterns.

The process begins with a thorough review of utility bills, equipment specifications, and operating data, breaking down energy consumption by individual equipment and systems. Following this, on-site surveys are conducted to identify a broader range of energy conservation measures. Each of these identified measures is then assessed for potential energy savings, costs of implementation, and payback periods. The Level 2 audit is finalized with a detailed report that provides building owners with actionable insights, a clear plan for energy-saving initiatives, and a cost-benefit analysis for each recommended measure. 

This level of audit is suitable for building owners who are committed to understanding and improving their property's energy efficiency in a more in-depth manner, making data-driven decisions based on a balance of costs and benefits.

ASHRAE Level 3 Energy Audit: Detailed Analysis of Capital-Intensive Modifications

An ASHRAE Level 3 energy audit, known as the "Detailed Analysis of Capital-Intensive Modifications," is the most in-depth and comprehensive of the ASHRAE audit types. This audit is specifically geared towards large-scale, capital-intensive projects by delving into intricate details of potential retrofits or modifications highlighted in a Level 2 audit. 

In the United Kingdom, the government-mandated Energy Savings and Opportunity Scheme (ESOS) has a similar analytical requirement to ASHRAE level 3 audits.

The focus is on providing a clear and detailed analysis of specific energy-saving measures, often involving complex simulations, advanced engineering calculations, and detailed energy modeling to validate potential energy conservation measures. The financial evaluation in a Level 3 audit is also more granular, taking into account factors like longer-term energy price projections, equipment lifecycle costs, and maintenance implications. The resulting report from this audit provides a detailed roadmap for major energy retrofits, ensuring building owners have all the necessary data to make informed investment decisions. 

This level of audit is best suited for facilities considering substantial infrastructure changes or upgrades to drastically enhance energy efficiency.

How much does an ASHRAE Energy Audit cost?

The cost of an ASHRAE energy audit is influenced by several factors, including the audit level, building size and complexity, location, any required specialization, travel and logistical considerations, data availability, and the auditing firm's reputation and expertise. Specifically, Level 1 audits are basic and thus less expensive, focusing on a general walk-through and analysis. In contrast, Level 2 audits delve deeper into energy use patterns, while Level 3 audits are the most comprehensive, targeting specific energy conservation measures. 

To determine the exact cost, building owners should seek quotes from multiple audit providers, bearing in mind that prices can range from a few hundred dollars for small spaces with Level 1 needs to tens of thousands for expansive commercial areas requiring Level 3 analysis.

Why are energy audits necessary?

Building owners should consider energy audits for several compelling reasons:

Cost savings: One of the most direct benefits of an energy audit is the identification of opportunities for energy savings. Implementing the recommended measures can lead to significant reductions in utility bills.

Enhanced building performance: An energy audit can uncover issues affecting the comfort and functionality of a building, such as poor ventilation or inadequate insulation. Addressing these issues can improve the indoor environment, leading to happier occupants or tenants.

Increased property value: Buildings with efficient energy systems and lower operational costs can command higher rental rates and have higher resale values.

Environmental responsibility: Reducing energy consumption reduces greenhouse gas emissions and the building's carbon footprint. This is not only good for the environment but can also be a strong selling point for eco-conscious tenants or customers.

Regulatory compliance: In some states and cities, energy benchmarking and audits are mandatory for certain types of buildings. Performing audits ensures compliance with local regulations and can help avoid potential fines or penalties. 

For a comprehensive guide to energy benchmarking regulations in different cities, states and municipalities across the US, check out our blog: “A state-by-state guide to energy benchmarking ordinances and local energy efficiency regulations” 

Maintenance and upgrades planning: Energy audits can identify aging or underperforming equipment. This information is valuable for planning maintenance schedules or prioritizing equipment upgrades.

Improved public image: Demonstrating a commitment to energy efficiency and environmental sustainability can enhance a building or company's public image and reputation.

The importance of energy management in commercial buildings

Commercial buildings are among the highest consumers of energy worldwide, contributing significantly to global energy demand and associated greenhouse gas emissions. This fact means that for portfolios of commercial buildings, proper energy management is crucial in order to ensure greenhouse gas emissions are kept within manageable levels. 

Additionally, amidst a backdrop of globally rising energy prices, using effective building energy management systems translates directly into reduced operational costs. Implementing energy efficient measures and prioritizing low energy usage compounds into significant savings, contributing to a huge positive impact on a company’s bottom line.

With many local, state and national governments implementing stricter energy efficiency standards and regulations, energy management is increasingly becoming a legal obligation for commercial building owners. Many states have legislated energy benchmarking ordinances, which require owners to benchmark their energy usage using the ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager, in an effort to encourage the implementation of energy efficient measures. Some states have additional energy auditing requirements, requiring commercial building owners to conduct ASHRAE energy audits or retro-commissioning studies and implement the energy-saving measures identified.

With these regulations becoming more and more common, it is important to get ahead of the curve and begin the processes of energy auditing, energy benchmarking and retro-commissioning early, to ensure you are in compliance with any future legislations and are demonstrating environmental responsibility across your portfolio.

For more information on the role of building energy management in commercial real estate sustainability, check out our blog: “Building energy management: A core pillar of commercial real estate sustainability

The role of building analytics in energy management

Modern commercial buildings have evolved into complex systems with numerous interconnected devices and subsystems. Navigating this complexity to achieve optimal energy management requires more than just human expertise; it demands advanced building analytics platforms, such as CIM's PEAK Platform.

Unlocking data insights: At the heart of platforms like PEAK lies the ability to collect, analyze, and interpret vast amounts of data from various building systems. This data-driven approach provides insights that might be difficult or impossible to discern through traditional means. The ability to visualize energy consumption in real-time, identify trends, and predict future consumption patterns empowers building managers to make informed decisions.

Complementing ASHRAE energy audits: While ASHRAE energy audits offer a comprehensive assessment of a building's energy efficiency, integrating the findings from these audits with analytics platforms can amplify their value. The continuous monitoring capabilities of platforms like CIM's PEAK mean that the recommendations from an ASHRAE audit aren't just implemented and forgotten; instead, their impact can be tracked, assessed, and refined over time.

Predictive maintenance: With predictive analytics, potential issues in building systems can be identified even before they manifest as tangible problems. This not only saves on repair costs but also ensures that energy inefficiencies caused by failing equipment are minimized, saving both energy and money.

Cillian Casey
August 16, 2023