Encycle Blog

Dear Advisor: Advice on Your Most Pressing HVAC Efficiency Questions

Posted by Robert Chiste on Sep 7, 2017 9:01:00 AM

Dear Advisor: I just joined an HVAC engineering design firm, and my boss told me that I only have one week to produce a new HVAC design for our key customer’s flagship building. He also said the design needs to meet the highest attainable sustainability goals because it will be a shining, showcase example of the best-of-the-best for the entire organization.  Help!!!  I’m petrified.

Dear Petrified:  Stay calm and never give up, my friend. Just study what makes a championship basketball team — and follow the same rules.

Dear Advisor: Huh?  

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Dear Petrified:  Think about it. Most professional teams have talented players, along with a coach who a track record of success. Your building already has some air conditioners, thermostats and most likely a building management system, or BMS. But just like not every basketball team will win the NBA title, not every HVAC system will win a sustainability award. In fact, the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Lab has put out a detailed report stating that commercial HVAC systems with BMS controls in place under-perform their energy efficiency capabilities by 30%. That wasted energy is the same amount of electricity consumed by about 15 million people — 4-5% of the total energy consumption in the country — wasted!

Dear Advisor: I’m lost. What does my air conditioning project have to do with basketball teams?

Dear Petrified: OK, let’s consider that the Department of Energy is correct in that by deploying 34 different energy efficiency programs, your client will have a successful sustainability initiative, and your boss will give you a big pat on the back. Let’s assume you are starting from scratch with an HVAC system and a building outfitted with a BMS. This is like a brand-new group of players and coach to make up a “team.” Where would you start?

Dear Advisor: You've got me!

Dear Petrified: Well, your new team has all the physical tools and talent in place, but if that “team” went out on the floor to play a finely-tuned team, I suspect they would lose by 30 points. Similarly, that less-than-optimally tuned HVAC and BMS system is probably 30 percent inefficient. There are two ways to improve things. One is to make each player (or air conditioner) more efficient. Two is to focus on better and more regularly-scheduled maintenance of the individual packaged air conditioners and improved execution of commands from the BMS platform.

Dear Advisor: That sounds good, but it seems like whether it is basketball or air conditioners, those things will only provide a couple percentage points of improvement.

Dear Petrified: Bingo! You are right because all I have mentioned so far is improving INDIVIDUAL performance. Did you know that packaged air conditioning units are like “ball hogs” on a basketball team? They could care less how the other players or air conditioners are doing — they are completely focused just on themselves.

Dear Advisor: OK, I think I am getting it. But I didn’t realize that packaged air conditioning units are “ball hogs” and have no idea how I'd figure out what the rest of the HVAC units are doing up on the roof. How do I advise my client to develop the best basketball team around — I mean the best and most efficient HVAC system? How do I eliminate that 30 percent energy waste that the National Lab discovered?

Dear Petrified: That is the true heart of the matter and the fundamental question that needs to be addressed. The answer is to develop the TEAM. Of course, those individual players need to fine tune their skills, and the facilities manager must maintain the HVAC system to operate effectively. BUT, the group of players or rooftop units will never win a championship or eliminate that 30 percent inefficiency unless they learn how to work as a TEAM.

Dear Advisor: I kind of get the basketball analogy. The coach must work with each player to communicate constantly — almost to the point that each player knows what the other players will be doing before they even do it. That is how they will reduce that 30-point deficit and win a championship. But air conditioners aren’t that smart, are they?

Dear Petrified: You are absolutely right. They never have been in the past, but that changed recently when a group of entrepreneurs interested in a science called biomimicry applied the swarm intelligence of honeybees to the challenge of making HVAC systems smarter and more collaborative. In other words, they leveraged biomimicry to achieve the goal of transforming dumb HVAC systems into teams of HVACS that communicate – and communicate well.

Dear Advisor: And?

Dear Petrified: And…it turns out that this swarm intelligence-based technology (which has come to be called Swarm Logic) saves close to that 20-30 percent shortfall we talked about before that is found in most systems. Even where a BMS, IoT platform or Wi-Fi thermostat are already in the facility, the same results can be achieved because those devices operate the HVAC system as INDIVIDUAL units. Swarm adds the TEAM dimension, and the best part is that Swarm can be integrated with those existing systems, so up-front capital costs are minimized.

Dear Advisor: Wow, now I am not nearly so nervous about satisfying my client and boss! A new HVAC design, a sustainability winner and a showcase project…  I can do this!  I’m changing my name to Dear Confident. 

Dear Confident: Go off, young engineer, and make your mark on the world. You'll do great things! 


Topics: Biomimicry, HVAC Control, building energy management, building management system, building energy efficiency