How to Make a Commercial Building More Energy-Efficient

November 9, 2023

The iconic office buildings that adorn our city skylines operate on a sprawling network of complex machinery, including Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning (HVAC), lighting, elevators, and hot water systems.

The costs to operate large office buildings can be astronomical. In the current climate, where every penny counts, energy and utility costs alone consume approximately 40% of the overall operating expenses of a commercial office building.

In this blog, we will explore the primary causes of waste in commercial building energy management, the two methods to making your commercial building more efficient, and finally, provide a practical seven-step guide to enhance your building's energy efficiency.

Click on any of the below titles to jump to a specific section:

Major Cause of Energy Waste in Commercial Buildings

The Two Routes to Energy Efficiency in Commercial Buildings

7 Steps to Make Your Commercial Building More Efficient

Watch Your Energy Bill Fall and Tenant Satisfaction Rise

Major Causes of Energy Waste in Commercial Buildings

1. HVAC System: The Heart of Energy Consumption

When delving into the major culprits of energy waste in commercial buildings, Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems emerge as a prime offender across both warmer and cooler climates. 

Surprisingly, in a more temperate climate like the United Kingdom, where summers are generally mild, HVAC accounts for 47% of annual energy consumption in commercial office buildings.

  • 33% to Heati
  • 8.22% to Cooling and Humidification
  • 5.07% to Fans

Pie chart showing UK  Commercial Office Energy Consumption

Because HVAC comprises such a significant portion of energy consumption, when a fault occurs, the impact is often much greater than a malfunction in another system.

Here are some common examples of HVAC faults that cause your building to be less energy efficient:

  • Excessive Fan Speeds
  • Poorly calibrated heating systems
  • Unbalanced airflow:
  • Improper controls hardware installation

Ensuring HVAC energy efficiency is the first challenge to making your building more energy-efficient.

2. Overnight or Weekend Operation: Battling the Phantom Load

Many commercial buildings suffer from the chronic operation of HVAC and lighting systems during non-business hours, resulting in a chronic phantom load that steadily saps energy resources. This chronic energy waste is a consequence of outdated or inefficient control systems that cannot distinguish between occupied and unoccupied periods. 

Manual overrides, faulty sensors, or even improper programming can result in resources being squandered to heat or cool a building outside of work hours.

3. Software Programming Errors: The Hidden World of Code Errors

While modern commercial buildings rely heavily on sophisticated software to manage various systems, the quality of programming can profoundly affect energy efficiency. Poorly written or outdated code can lead to significant inefficiencies that may go unnoticed but result in substantial energy waste.

Lights may stay on in empty rooms or HVAC systems may overheat or over cool spaces. Additionally, faulty coding can cause improper setpoints or equipment operation setups.

4. Lack of Fault Detection Software: The Unseen Inefficiencies

Building Management Systems (BMS) serve as a critical component of commercial building infrastructure, designed primarily for building control and management. 

While these systems excel in regulating various building systems, they often fall short in the realm of energy management.

When issues arise, such as malfunctioning equipment or energy inefficiencies, BMS may provide alerts, but their capabilities for detailed fault detection are limited. Indeed, BMS alarm fatigue can be downright disruptive to property management teams. 

This limitation sets the stage for facility managers and building engineers to embark on labor-intensive, manual quests to identify and rectify problems, consuming valuable time and resources.

The Two Routes to Energy Efficiency in Commercial Buildings

There are two paths to make your commercial building more energy efficient:

First, you can invest in capital expenditures. Capital expenditures generally involve replacing or upgrading building equipment. 

Common examples include: 

  • Equipment replacement (especially HVAC)
  • Lighting upgrades
  • New BMS installation
  • Adding solar power

While these investments are valuable, they can be expensive and may take years to pay off. Our recommendation is to only invest in capital upgrades when you are confident they will offer quantifiable improvements in efficiency.

Instead, there is a cheaper and more efficient option: invest in operational improvement. By reviewing your BMS control strategies and implementing optimisati initiatives in your current building, you can deliver immediate efficiency gains and yield quick energy savings. Project that focus on building optimisation alone can deliver a 10-15% reduction in energy use, without investing in a single piece of equipment. 

Only after you have fully optimized your current building, does CIM recommend a final step of making capital expenditures.

7 Steps to Make Your Commercial Building More Efficient

To tackle these challenges and reduce energy waste, follow these six steps:

Step 1: Connect All Of Your Digital Endpoints 

A fully digitized commercial property sector is a practical necessity for making your commercial building more energy efficient. 

To begin, you’ll need to answer the question…. Do you currently have access to all the data sources you feel you need to take stock of your building’s operational performance?

Luckily for most owners, tenants, and asset managers, there is a system for aggregating your data in one place: your BMS (Building Management System).

Most buildings over 10,000 sq meters will have a backnet-compatible BMS already installed. However, a BMS can only control or manage components that it’s connected to. The next step of digitizing operational data requires connecting every single sensor, component, and digital endpoint to your BMS including:

  • Lighting
  • HVAC
  • Metering Networks
  • Lifts
  • Fire Endpoints

In the hierarchy of building efficiency maturity, connecting your building’s endpoints to your BMS is a critical first step before you can start paving the way for data-driven decision-making; however, this is only the beginning of your building optimization journey.

To unlock peak performance, you’ll need to install building analytics software. 

Step 2: Monitor Your Data with Building Analytics Software

With your foundational step of digitizing operational data in place, it's essential to follow up by taking stock of your data through building analytics software. 

Building analytics platforms provide operational data as a benchmark against which you can measure the success of all subsequent initiatives. It helps you identify the most significant opportunities for enhancing sustainability performance.

With real-time insights derived from your monitoring efforts, you will have accurate baseline data as guidance on how to optimise your assets’ operating condition, facilitating peak performance. You’ll know where to reduce drift, and how to improve the efficiency of the most important plant and equipment, including lighting, HVAC, air compressors, equipment, coolers, motors, and so on.

Key Questions to Consider:

  • Do you have a way to tap into missing data?
  • Is your data presented in a consistent portfolio-standardized way for ease of reference and comparison across assets?
  • Is your data available to you in real-time?
  • Do you have the ability to vary the level of granularity?
  • Is your data in a format that is accessible to even non-technical team members?

If you answered no to any of the above, we recommend considering a building analytics provider to facilitate the necessary changes required to reap the benefits of a digitised portfolio that is being continuously and effectively monitored.

Step 3: Conduct an Energy Audit

Regular energy audits are an indispensable part of the process of assessing your commercial building's energy efficiency. These audits help identify wasteful devices and systems within your building, creating an actionable plan for optimizing energy consumption.

Energy audits can be conducted by consultants or Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) providers; however, building analytics platforms stand out as a superior solution. An ESG provider can give you a picture of your building’s energy usage; however, these software platforms won’t be able to provide any information as to how to optimize your performance. You may be able to see your energy usage spiked the last week of October with an ESG platform, but a building analytics platform will tell you with precision where your system is malfunctioning.

Your building analytics software might offer recommendations to revisit your setpoint ranges, optimize your lighting for maximum efficiency, or use outside air to cool your building. 

In summary, this proactive approach allows you to conduct daily energy audits effectively and allows you to address issues promptly, minimizing downtime and maximizing energy savings.

Step 4: Create an Energy Plan

After conducting an energy audit, the next step is to create a plan to address those issues that are causing the most amount of energy waste. Here again, building analytics software plays a pivotal role in enhancing your energy plan.

These platforms go beyond merely identifying issues; they often provide ready-made recommendations for your facility manager and contracted engineers. A facility manager can utilize the platform to rank alerts in order of priority, generating the maximum amount of efficiency gains by focusing on suboptimal assets.

This streamlined approach not only accelerates the decision-making process, but also optimizes resource allocation, leading to faster repairs and energy savings.

For example, a facility manager might prioritize a waterside valve issue that is causing a cistern to run continuously over a light switch that has been manually overridden to stay on. 

Instead of trying to extract efficiencies from already high-performing assets, your FM can concentrate on improving the performance of lower-rated assets. Simultaneously, it ensures that highly rated assets are maintained and do not experience 'energy drift.

See the below screenshot from CIM’s PEAK platform showing a high-level overview of sites, tasks assigned, and pieces of equipment:

Screenshot showing PEAK platform home screen

Step 5: Supercharge Collaboration and Ensure Accountability

To make your commercial building more energy efficient first requires information. After data has been parsed and issues detected, the next step to achieving efficiency gains is through action.

A building analytics platform offers asset managers and property teams the visibility, transparency, and oversight required to move toward data-driven property operations.

This centralized view provides your team with a holistic perspective on your commercial building's performance, allowing for better-informed discussions, strategic planning, and faster action.

AI-generated recommendations provide a starting point for facility management to provide direction to engineering teams.

After a ticket is assigned, the facility team has complete visibility over that specific issue and its progression toward resolution. 

When all stakeholders can access the same data effortlessly, it streamlines communication, enhances decision-making processes, and ensures that everyone is on the same page when it comes to optimizing energy efficiency and overall building performance.

See an example of workflow collaboration within the PEAK platform: 

Ticketing workflow stream showing assignment and resolution

Step 6: Benchmark Your Progress

The next step toward achieving commercial building energy efficiency is benchmarking your progress. The ultimate outcome of adopting building analytics software is to demonstrate clear energy usage reduction to tenants, investors, and other stakeholders.

Building analytics platforms offer powerful dashboards that provide insights into your building's performance over time.

By having all of your operational data in one place,  you can easily monitor various metrics, including energy costs, as they trend downward.

Comparing data from different periods allows you to readily track the effectiveness of energy-saving initiatives and gauge your progress toward sustainability goals.

Furthermore, these platforms often offer customizable reporting features, enabling you to generate detailed reports that can be shared with stakeholders, investors, and tenants to showcase your commitment to energy efficiency and environmental responsibility.

See the below screenshot from the PEAK platform showing energy performance improvement over time:

Platform screenshot showing a decrease in energy usage

Step 7: Upgrading for Enhanced Efficiency

There will come a point where upgrades and equipment replacement become necessary to achieve even greater efficiency gains.

As your energy optimization journey evolves, you'll inevitably encounter opportunities where upgrades and equipment replacement become crucial to achieving higher efficiency levels.

Consider the Following Upgrades:

  • Heating and Cooling Systems: Embrace efficient heat pump systems as replacements for less efficient alternatives.
  • LED and Lighting Sensor Upgrades: Begin by upgrading lighting systems to energy-efficient LED technology and implementing lighting sensors to enhance energy savings.
  • Chiller and Boiler Upgrades: When existing systems are no longer efficient, consider upgrading them to modern, energy-efficient alternatives.
  • Variable Speed Drives (VSDs) for Pumps: Utilize VSDs on pumps to introduce variability and improve energy efficiency where applicable.
  • Building Management System (BMS) Enhancements: Identify opportunities to upgrade your BMS to enhance control and optimize building operations.
  • HVAC and Energy System Improvements: Evaluate and implement upgrades to HVAC and other energy systems to enhance overall performance.
  • Natural Ventilation and Window Upgrades: Explore options for introducing natural ventilation technology and upgrading windows for better insulation and energy efficiency.
  • Emergency Backup Power: Enhance reliability and efficiency by investing in or upgrading energy-efficient emergency backup power sources.
  • Smart Meter Integration: Consider integrating smart meters for water, gas, and electricity to improve tracking capabilities and reduce energy consumption.
  • Innovative Solutions: Explore innovative upgrades, such as cooling paint or AI-powered tinting, to further optimize energy usage.

While energy optimization starts with maximizing the efficiency of your current assets, it's essential to remain flexible and prepared to implement upgrades when necessary.

By doing so, you'll continually improve your building's energy performance and sustainability, ultimately reducing energy usage over time.

Second part:

Watch Your Energy Bill Fall and Tenant Satisfaction Rise

Running a building efficiently is about data and teamwork. Building analytics and fault detection systems empower asset managers to gain visibility over their portfolios and give their facility managers a comprehensive system for cutting energy costs and ensuring thermal comfort.

These platforms identify issues and help take quick action, reducing waste and boosting efficiency.

But it's not just about savings. Tenants appreciate eco-friendly buildings with optimal thermal comfort. Your efforts in sustainability can attract and retain tenants, setting you apart in the market. Happy tenants renew leases and recommend your building, enhancing your success.

As we move into the era of smart buildings and cities, commercial buildings must increase their energy efficiency to combat rising energy costs and meet growing sustainability demands. Achieving these goals requires a combination of strategic planning, technological solutions, and ongoing commitment to improvement.

Ready to transform your commercial property's energy management? Get started with CIM's PEAK Platform and unlock significant energy savings today!

Connor Holbert
November 9, 2023