Rethinking the demands of facility operations

Rapidly fluctuating capacity calls for energy efficient solutions
Monday, November 30, 2020
By Hugo Lafontaine

In March, buildings around Canada transitioned from full to low occupancy in a matter of days. As safety quickly became top priority, business spaces emptied, and habits and routines shifted dramatically. Canadians started spending the majority of their time at home—working, studying, shopping, and even exercising. As organizations consider how to get back to work, there is still significant uncertainty around the ability to physically return to buildings in the way we did pre-pandemic.

In responding to the impacts of COVID-19, facility managers are facing added complexity on how to manage these physical assets. While safety remains the top priority, facility owners and managers must also rethink the demands of existing operations and systems and look for new ways to deal with rapidly fluctuating capacity.

Buildings are huge energy consumers and are responsible for nearly one-third of the world’s energy consumption, so it is critical that we make the most out of the energy they use and find ways to optimize. Along with basic heating, cooling and lighting needs, more and more of our buildings are electrified and digitized. From computers and smart devices to the networks that connect it all, we rely on this technology to make our buildings work.

These two challenges—capacity fluctuations and energy efficiency—go hand-in-hand. Better facility management will ultimately have an impact on achieving greater efficiency and higher levels of energy savings across buildings.

Considering the significant energy demands buildings have, it is easy to see the impact that can be made by implementing smart solutions. The good news is that these technologies already exist today. Energy efficient solutions can help buildings reduce their energy consumption, which can significantly impact the bottom line. In turn, these cost savings can be used to improve a building’s existing features for occupants.

Consider that temperature control can be a huge contributor to energy consumption. New changes in working habits, including regular work from home, means that our traditional patterns of heating and cooling office buildings and other work settings may no longer apply. In Canada, a cold climate means heating systems are turned on for several months of the year, working hard to regulate temperatures. Similarly, buildings tend to keep electrical and storage spaces cool by relying heavily on air-conditioning, even when cool temperatures aren’t required. Real-time sensors can detect current occupancy to set temperature effectively and can improve on energy efficiency throughout buildings by using state-of-the-art technology to monitor temperature and help maintain a comfortable environment. This technology is relatively easy to install and requires simple maintenance, making it an ideal early step in digitizing building management.

Lighting systems are another area to consider. Like temperature, automated lighting control can be installed throughout buildings to reduce energy usage and provide greater cost savings. These control systems use sensors to respond in real-time to human activity—turning lighting on when motion is detected and dimming or turning lighting off when the space isn’t in use. As time spent in the office becomes more irregular, signaling a move away from the traditional nine to five workday, control systems can optimize lighting, making it more functional and responsive to a building’s occupancy. Installing energy efficient or LED lighting can also offer a longer life span, requiring bulbs to be replaced less often and helping to reduce overhead costs, all while being environmentally conscious.

With more and more buildings operating at a lower occupancy, it’s also worth considering what technologies, appliances or utilities no longer need to be functioning 24/7. If cafeterias or common kitchen areas are closed, consider adjusting fans and freezers and turning off/unplugging unused appliances to reduce wasted energy in the interim. Additionally, it may help to consider what technologies are no longer in use, such as conference call lines, employee landlines, televisions and more. While these actions may seem small, continuing to power non-operational technology can serve as a major contributor to building’s total energy usage.

While these examples were relevant before the pandemic, the importance of control, visibility and flexibility has become even more acute as working from home becomes a viable, favourable option for many Canadians. The growing trend towards remote work may cause additional fluctuations in the number of occupants in a building at one time and the associated energy needs. The ability to make smart decisions about energy consumption in real time provides a significant advantage.

Over the last six months, we’ve all been reminded just how unpredictable our world can be. As we collectively adapt to our new reality, the importance of being agile and adaptable has never been more important—and buildings are no exception. Facility managers can implement many technologies that exist today to help them prepare for whatever the future holds. Whether our buildings are back to full capacity in a year’s time, or the way we work changes permanently, these actionable steps can improve on energy efficiency and help manage changing capacity.

Hugo Lafontaine is vice-president of Digital Energy at Schneider Electric.

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