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How to Optimize Commercial Building Energy Consumption for Sustainability

HVAC accounts for approximately 40% of energy use in commercial spaces. Given the significance your building’s HVAC system has on your energy costs, it’s worth understanding what factors into your overall usage so you can better manage your system.

First, let’s take a deeper look at how energy sales have changed over time. 

After a push for more energy-efficient systems, energy sales started to level off but haven’t declined significantly in the last ten years. 

Instead, electric energy and natural gas prices have continued to rise, so the initial energy savings have equalized, leaving businesses looking for ways to reduce HVAC outputs instead. 

HVAC Energy Usage:

Consumption Variables 

Because commercial buildings are incredibly diverse, the operational energy required is dependent on multiple variables. Understanding these variables and how they work together will help you make smarter, energy-saving decisions.

Building Use

Commercial buildings with around-the-clock occupancy will, unsurprisingly, have the highest HVAC usage. However, based on the Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS), only 12% of commercial spaces included were open continuously, with many buildings opening less than 84 hours per week. 

But only 31% of buildings used a programmable or smart thermostat (26% programmable, 5% smart) to manage their HVAC. So, over one-third of buildings weren’t utilizing technology to optimize HVAC usage, even though most commercial buildings had long periods of vacancy. 

Undeniably, building use becomes more difficult to measure with hybrid work environments and a lack of predetermined schedules. In most instances, HVAC systems run at least 90% of the time regardless of these more flexible work routines.

Size of the Building

In addition to building use becoming more complex, commercial spaces are growing. From 2012-2018, floorspace grew by 11% despite new buildings only accounting for 6% of all commercial spaces surveyed. 

Despite the changing work environment, commercial buildings have been steadily increasing floor space and, in turn, energy use. In fact, commercial spaces used 18% of all energy in 2020. And by 2050, floorspace could increase by as much as 33% or 124.3 square feet. 

As building size inflates, so must HVAC units to accommodate the expanding demand. 

HVAC System Setup

The quality of the HVAC system in place and its maintenance will play a significant role in its efficiency. Newer HVAC systems are more efficient but still only allow for limited space customization. 

Commercial HVAC systems use zones and setback features to conserve energy, but those efforts can only go so far. 

High-end commercial HVAC systems with a setback option to reduce output when the building isn’t occupied are time-based and often restricted to only 5-20% of the total runtime. And zones only work well when areas are separated and well-defined. For instance, in a retail space with occupancy primarily in one area and storage in another. 

Building Location and Climate

Of course, variables such as location, climate, and weather patterns have a massive impact on your HVAC costs and are mostly beyond your control. For example, a commercial building in the northwest will experience far greater energy demands in the winter than a building in the south. 

As far as technology has come, HVAC systems don’t yet consider location or weather patterns in their outputs, so commercial buildings are stuck paying high demand charges.

Demand charges are based on your building’s peak energy use. An optimized HVAC can reduce your usage to bring your demand charges down, as well as your overall energy bill. 

Use Data to Reduce HVAC Energy Waste

HVAC systems went as far as legacy equipment technologies could, and now computer vision helps HVAC efficiency cross the finish line. 

The missing component was real-time data so that every commercial space has a custom system. With data-triggered energy demand, it’s no longer a matter of time frames but integrating all the available information to create a responsive system. 

Zone Reporting

Breaking commercial buildings into zones was the traditional approach to making one HVAC setup flexible enough to serve dynamic spaces. However, zones without data aren’t effective enough. 

With zone reporting, you’ll better understand how each space is utilized and if energy is unnecessarily wasted during periods of inactivity. Zone reports ensure each space is as sustainable as possible.  

Dynamic HVAC Controls

HVAC systems receive continuous real-time data, so the system isn’t stuck operating on preset, outdated schedules. Instead, using factors like occupancy and weather patterns, HVAC only runs when it’s needed.

Commercial buildings can cut their energy and carbon emissions by as much as 38% using data to activate HVAC outputs. 

Occupant Feedback 

Current HVAC systems are rigid – one area is always too cold and another too warm. So occupants settle for feeling mildly uncomfortable because there’s never been another option. 

But when occupant feedback is integrated directly into the system, the controls are adjusted so there aren’t ongoing complaints. 

Computer vision is the missing piece to efficient and sustainable HVAC setups. Without data, commercial buildings will continue to waste tons of energy annually. Fortunately, advanced technology can overcome long-time obstacles.

Learn more about solving energy waste from shared spaces or schedule a demo today for a close up look at occupancy-based HVAC strategies from NomadGo.AI.

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