Building Teams need to help owners avoid 'operational stray'

"Operational stray" occurs when a building’s MEP systems don’t work the way they should. Even the most well-designed and constructed building can stray from perfection—and that can cost the owner a ton in unnecessary utility costs. But help is on the way.

November 25, 2013 |
Rob Cassidy

"Operational stray" occurs when a building’s mechanical, electrical, or plumbing systems don’t work the way they should. As we’ll see, even the most well-designed and constructed building can stray from perfection—and that can cost the owner a ton in unnecessary utility costs. But help is on the way!

That help comes in the form of a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council. In “Real-time Energy Management,” NRDC’s Philip Henderson and Meg Waltner document the results of an eye-opening experiment.

Last year, NRDC convinced the Tower Companies real estate firm to have a couple of MEP consulting firms install energy meters and monitoring/alarm systems on the chillers and HVAC systems of three of its large office buildings in Washington, D.C. This setup gave Tower’s facilities staff real-time management of the buildings’ energy use over a one-year period.

The system enabled the building engineers to find problems they might never have discovered. In one building, faulty VAV controls were telling the chiller to turn on even though the building management system was signaling it to stay off. Early detection saved a lot of energy.

In another case, daily usage charts indicated that one chiller seemed to be cycling on and off for no good reason. The consultants alerted the building engineer, who found the water temperature to be well above the set point, triggering the chiller to shut off. The culprit? A blocked strainer that was restricting water flow to the chiller, causing the temperature to spike. The filter was cleaned, and the chiller returned to normal operation. There are numerous other examples of operational stray like these in the NRDC report. 

How did this miracle cure pencil out? Total cost of setup and a year of operation for all three buildings: $144,320. Total energy savings: $218,703. Average energy savings: 13.2%.

But, you protest, Tower must have cherry-picked some real dogs for the experiment. In fact, the buildings had Energy Star scores of 71, 78, and 86 (out of 100). After a year in the program, their scores had improved to 87, 88, and 91.

More “typical” buildings likely would do even better. And the nice thing about the experiment is that, unlike an expensive retrofit, it was not all that disruptive to the buildings’ occupants. Why, then, don’t more building owners do what Tower did to attack the problem of operational stray? And what can AEC firms do to help them?

The answer to the first question is ignorance—and inertia. Unlike Tower, most commercial property owners either don’t realize how badly their buildings may be performing, or they couldn’t be bothered and just chalk up the extra costs.

As for what AEC firms can do, there are several opportunities. For one, engineering firms in particular might look at extending their business line to include services to deal with operational stray, especially in underserved markets.

AEC firms can also encourage their clients to include metering and notification systems in new and reconstructed buildings, in the certain knowledge that MEP systems, even in the most exquisitely designed and constructed buildings, will eventually fall victim to operational stray.

If a client doesn’t want to assume the extra cost of installing such systems, you should still make sure to design the building such that meters and monitoring systems can be easily and cost-effectively installed at a later date, should the building come into the hands of a more enlightened owner.

Send your comments to: rcassidy@sgcmail.com.

Rob Cassidy | Building Team Blog

Rob Cassidy (“ClimateGrouch”) is editorial director of Building Design+Construction. A city planner, he is the author of several books, including “Livable Cities,” and was a co-founder of the Friends of the Chicago River.

Related Blogs

Photo: Infrogmation via Wikimedia Commons

The National Institute of Building Sciences estimates the retrofit market for small commercial buildings at $35.6 billion. Photo: Infrogmation via Wikimedia Commons

January 28, 2015Office Building Design

The real opportunity for shrinking the nation’s energy footprint lies in the mundane world of small commerc...

read more

This past October, 78 young AEC professionals gathered in New York City for leadership development and networking during BD+C's Under 40 Leadership Summit.

January 21, 2015
Many AEC firms focus on training for the hard skills of the profession, not so much for business prowes...
read more

Photo: Joe Mabel via Wikimedia Commons

December 22, 2014

Commercial and residential construction can be as different as night and day. But as one who covered the ho...

read more

American Standard's SaTo sanitary toilet pans (shown here installed in a latrine in Haiti) seal off pit latrines from flies to prevent the spread of pathogens.

December 08, 2014

When we see the incredible technology being produced by global plumbing manufacturers, it’s hard to conceiv...

read more

Prajakti \"PJ\" Glasco, AIA, ACHA, LEED AP BD+C, Senior VP/Senior Project Planner, FKP Architects (Class of 2014 40 Under 40 winner)

November 21, 2014

Are you an AEC superstar? The 2015 "40 Under 40" competition is now open for entries. Here are some helpful...

read more
November 17, 2014

It’s been almost two years since 20 first-graders were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in N...

read more

Photo: Nightscream via Wikimedia Commons

September 25, 2014

Precedents and patterns may not tell you all that much about future spending or demand.

Illustration: ratch0013 via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

September 03, 2014

Architecture, engineering, and (presumably) construction firms will face difficulties with management succe...

read more

Qianhai Development - Goettsch Partners, August 2014

August 29, 2014

U.S. architecture and engineering firms like Goettsch Partners have been enjoying full employment in China....

read more

Chart: \"Fear on Foot,\" Planning Magazine

August 27, 2014

A report from Smart Growth America on pedestrian fatalities shows that cities in Florida and other parts of...

read more

Add new comment

Your Information
Your Comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.
Overlay Init