With budgets being tightened and funds being slashed, energy efficiency has been thrust to the forefront and one entity of The Texas A&M University System is doing its part to help System members, as well as other government agencies, save money and increase energy efficiency in their buildings.
Through a program known as the Continuous Commissioning® process, the Energy Systems Laboratory (ESL), a center within the Texas Engineering Experiment Station (TEES), has worked to produce more than $100 million in savings in more than 300 buildings throughout Texas, the United States and the World.
The Continuous Commissioning® process uses an ongoing effort to resolve operating problems, improve comfort and optimize energy use for existing commercial and institutional buildings and central plant facilities. The process has been trademarked by TEES and is being commercialized through the Office of Technology Commercialization.
"When I was growing up, we tuned our cars up pretty often and that could make a significant difference in gas mileage," said Dr. David E. Claridge, director of ESL and a mechanical engineering professor at Texas A&M University. "The Continuous Commissioning® process is a structured process for providing that kind of tune-up to building operation.
"It is a systematic way of looking at buildings and locating problems, and then working with the building operators to correct them."
The origins of Continuous Commissioning® saving money at Texas A&M date back to 1995 when the idea was first brought to then president Ray M. Bowen. After Bowen's financial vice president was briefed on the process, he was significantly impressed and scheduled a meeting with Bowen and individuals from ESL.
Bowen, who has an engineering background, was duly impressed, and told his financial vice president to find the money to make Continuous Commissioning® happen on the Texas A&M campus.
A decision was made to take money from the campus' utilities budget, giving the process its start, but also putting pressure on then-ESL director Dr. Dan Turner, Claridge and their colleagues to produce results somewhat quickly.
"Knowing that the utility budget was a biennial budget, we knew we had to save enough in two years to pay for the work we were doing," Claridge said.
Before they could even begin to study the energy efficiency of the buildings on campus, heating and cooling meters had to be installed, leading to an initial output of nearly three-quarters of a million dollars.
"A key aspect of this is you need to have measurements of the energy going into the building before you can effectively see what you are accomplishing," Claridge said.
After installing meters in the first 20 buildings, data was analyzed and a decision was made to focus on the Kleberg building, which, at the time, was just under 20 years old and was using extremely large amounts of heating and cooling.
What the ESL group found was that in an effort to fix humidity problems in the building the air coming into it was being heated to 110 degrees, then immediately being cooled to 55 degrees.
The coils that were being used to heat the air were designed to only come on if the outside temperature was near freezing. This would keep the outside air warm enough to prevent freezing in any part of the ventilation system.
But in the effort to combat the humidity in Kleberg, the coils were continuously left on.
"It was one of those things where you have a very vexing problem and you are trying to figure out how to fix it," Claridge said. "Somewhere along the way someone thought of this and those problems seemed to go away."
The coils that were left on were turned off, and that simple act led to savings of nearly $200,000 per year according to Claridge. Upon going through the rest of the building, finding other problems and making modifications, additional savings of about $200,000 per year were realized.
The total savings in just the Kleberg building were almost enough to recoup the initial startup cost of the meters for the program.
"The savings in that building were significantly more than the total operating cost of many similar buildings on campus," Claridge said "We immediately saved essentially enough to pay for the metering on the whole campus in two years in just that one building."
The savings were also enough to completely sway Bowen, who admitted some years later he was initially skeptical of the concept.
"A number of years after the program was started President Bowen said, 'When I first heard of this, I thought it had about as much chance of working as room-temperature fusion did,'" Claridge said.
The program has expanded on the A&M campus and continues today in more than 80 buildings on the flagship campus in conjunction with A&M's Utilities & Energy Management department.
Several other campuses in The A&M System have also implemented the program including Texas A&M International University in Laredo, where Claridge says they have done the most work, cutting campus consumption by between 15 and 20 percent.
It has also spread throughout the state to such entities as the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio - where it produced 10 percent savings in a brand new building - the Alamo Colleges in San Antonio, Dallas/Forth Worth International Airport and IBM.
Additionally, through licensees, it is being used in more than 30 military hospitals worldwide and a dozen Veterans Administration hospitals.
Recently a new project was started with the Texas Facilities Commission in Austin, continuing ESL's efforts in an area where it is also using the Continuous Commissioning®process in Austin Independent School District buildings and in conjunction with Austin Energy's Building Tune-up Program.
"The Continuous Commissioning® process ended up being significantly more successful than our initial estimates," Claridge said. "You can say we hoped it would be successful but we certainly had no idea how much it would save.
"I wouldn't have said we are definitely going to be able to save an average of 15 or 20 percent. There is no way I would have said that. People would have laughed us out of the building."