From optimizing energy consumption to streamlining maintenance processes, facility engineers play a pivotal role in generating cost savings for businesses and building owners. And although operations vary across industries, there are several fundamental areas where facilities engineering is crucial for optimizing operational efficiency, leading to significant cost reductions.
Here we take a closer look at the benefits that facilities engineering can provide owners and occupants for buildings and their operations across industries.
Maintenance Planning: Extending Asset Lifespan, Minimizing Downtime
In 2018, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) conducted a survey of the country’s building stock. The survey, known as the CBECS (Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey), found that the median construction date of commercial buildings in the U.S. is 1981, with 50% of building stock having been built between 1960 and 1999.
While it’s no secret that regular maintenance services can extend equipment and building lifespans, reduce downtime, and avoid costly emergency repairs, with such a large stock of older buildings, preventative maintenance needs to be more strategic than ever.
Maintenance from facilities engineering teams that is planned instead of reactive, predictive instead of catch-up, is the optimum approach to smooth building operations, especially for older buildings. In addition to keeping these buildings in check and preventing repairs from becoming replacements, facilities management and engineering that is preventative will also have less negative impact on staff productivity—cutting costs in two ways.
Repairs become replacements when maintenance is deferred. Unfortunately, just because repair is delayed doesn’t mean daily use by building occupants will stop. Take a malfunctioning water heater, for example. Fixing it as soon as it starts to fail keeps a minor repair from becoming and more time-consuming and costly replacement.
Maintenance planning includes regular and timely inspections of all equipment. This will reveal the minor defects that can turn into major problems if not addressed. Regular inspections can uncover things like blocked air returns, missing pipe insulation, and daylight sensors that have been inadvertently covered.
Energy Efficiency: Facilities Engineering for Optimized Operations
From hospitality to healthcare, whether the facility is large or small, implementing energy-efficient measures can significantly reduce utility expenses and increase sustainability.
Across nearly all industries, heating and cooling systems account for as much as 30% of a building’s energy consumption. Engineers can ensure this energy use is continually optimized. Cleaning and maintaining filters, detecting and sealing air leaks (which cause the HVAC system to work harder), and ensuring thermostat settings are adjusted according to weather and building occupancy—all these efforts contribute to improving the building’s efficiency.
Lighting is another area where energy can be saved. Switching to LED products throughout a building can reduce energy consumption by as much as 60% compared to typical lighting. With more sustainable lighting, maintenance requirements drop significantly. LEDs are rated to last 50,000 to 100,000 hours, which—with typical office usage—means it will take 12 to 20 years before a bulb needs to be changed!
With skilled engineers in place, areas of energy inefficiency can be identified using an energy management system (EMS) that monitors and manages energy consumption in real time. If you already have a building automation system (BAS) in place to control electrical and mechanical equipment, you can take efficiency to a higher level by layering in an EMS to provide comprehensive data analysis and reporting. With this additional data, facility engineers can then adjust the BAS to optimize HVAC, lighting, power, and other systems, reducing energy waste and maximizing operational efficiency.
Even with expert technology-aided energy management, as buildings get older operations inevitably experience a “drift” from the optimum efficiency level of a new building or a building commissioned after a change of operations. This drift lowers efficiency and increases costs. To combat this, facilities engineering can conduct further commissioning audits (re- or retro-commissioning).
Through commissioning, operational inefficiencies are identified and necessary adjustments, fine-tuning, or equipment replacements are performed to reset the building operations to optimal performance. Commissioning outcomes not only save costs on energy but also contribute to occupant comfort and overall building performance.
Ideally, commissioning reviews should be conducted every five years. These reviews are essential for meeting the challenges that high-tech facilities such as data centers, healthcare facilities, and labs encounter; and they can be cost-effective even for small businesses.
An ongoing study (last updated in 2022) of Existing Building Commissioning (EBCx) by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that increases in energy efficiency from commissioning saved facilities as much as 19% in energy costs. The research, which looked at 1482 buildings across the United States, showed a median simple payback time of 2.2 years. And based on the results of an earlier version of the study (2009), the energy savings continue for another three to five years.
Although commissioning can sometimes include a recommendation for retrofits, the study showed that over 80% of the energy savings achieved in the surveyed buildings were obtained by scheduling, operation and control changes, and modifying setpoints and advanced resets. But whether operational changes or retrofits, these are all measures that can be conducted by facility engineers and technicians.
Water conservation saves money and resources—and it’s another area where facilities engineering can make a big difference. Facilities engineers play a key role in designing and implementing water-efficient technologies and practices, which reduce water consumption and its associated costs.
One of the largest consumers of water and energy in a typical commercial building is the HVAC system. Heating and cooling accounts for as much as 48% of a building’s total water use. Facilities engineering teams can take several steps to reduce this water usage and save owners money.
For closed looped systems and cooling towers, engineers can install water meters that help troubleshoot operational problems, track water usage, and enable the benchmarking of water efficiency improvement projects. Additionally, regular inspections by engineers are essential to identify and fix any leaks in closed systems, thus ensuring efficient water use and preventing waste.
The water conservation techniques that are applied to HVAC cooling tower systems, which use water to evaporate and cool air, differ from the approach taken with closed looped systems. In water-cooled chillers, where the water that remains after evaporation is periodically drained and replaced, a lot of makeup water is needed. For example, a 400-ton water-cooled chiller operating year-round at a 30% load requires almost 1.9 million gallons of makeup water just to replace evaporation losses.
By exploring alternative water sources for use as makeup water for cooling towers, facilities engineers can conserve this essential resource. For example, condensate from fan coil units and air handlers can be used as tower makeup water. Gray water (reclaimed water that can be used for non-potable purposes) is another viable source. Even rainwater can be harvested from rain barrels or cisterns to serve as makeup water. By “reusing” water in this way, facilities can reduce the need for fresh water.
Scale buildup in areas with hard water is another cause of inefficient water use—and can even damage cooling towers. To minimize this scale buildup, facilities engineers can blend soft water with the area’s natural hard water. This improves efficiency and reduces water consumption.
Water conservation opportunities can be found in other parts of a building as well. In restrooms and kitchen facilities, for example, retrofitting the aerators on taps and replacing high flow toilets with low-flow versions can significantly reduce water consumption.
Wide-Reaching and Efficient
From the rooftop to the curb, across different sectors and industries, facilities engineering is vital to the smooth running of any building. By leveraging their expertise, facilities engineers can offer opportunities to drive cost savings, enhance operational efficiency, and ensure a sustainable future for commercial buildings.