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M|O Perspectives

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The lowest hanging fruit

July 30th, 2018

These days many people will tell you that sustainability has spread far enough across the building owner and manager communities that all the “low hanging fruit” is gone. The low hanging fruit being discussed is a reference to energy conservation measures (ECMs) that building owners undertake to improve their buildings and reduce operating costs. It is often said that owners must accept longer pay-back periods for the remaining significant ECMs if they want to squeeze any more efficiency out of their buildings. Well, that is not entirely true.

During the course of our property condition assessments (PCA) we often find buildings that have had a few things slip. Many times, we find busy property managers and building engineers have forgotten to do simple things that can reduce energy consumption or the property’s waste stream and of course - the associated building operating expense.

Here are a few simple items that should be added to every property’s checklist during seasonal change-overs and at other key and easily memorable points during the year.

Lighting: There are few good reasons for building exterior lighting to be on during daylight hours. Time clocks should be reset to adjust for the lengthening daylight hours during summer. Often, we find lighting in parking garage and building exterior areas that is illuminated during the day wasting electricity and causing shorter lamp lifespans.

Another example of the lowest hanging fruit is cleaning of existing light fixtures. Fixture illumination levels can be reduced by up to 15% due to dirty or poorly maintained lenses and lamps. Cleaning fixtures on a regular basis will ensure that those new high-efficiency lamps provide maximum illumination.

HVAC: Ask any mechanical engineer and they will tell you that the best kind of cooling is free cooling. Buildings with HVAC equipment that utilize economizer cycles need to be checked and adjusted just like other key pieces of equipment. Air-side economizers can reduce mechanical system energy costs in cool and temperate climates while also potentially improving the quality of indoor air. But the key is they need to be programmed properly and checked regularly for proper operation. Building managers and owners should push their engineers (gently) to recheck the equipment to be sure all settings are correct to return the maximum savings possible.

Landscape: During the coming hot summer days the irrigation cycle should be changed to allow for greater watering. This ensures that plants are protected and healthy, avoiding the necessity for expensive replanting. On the flipside of this we often find planting areas which are over irrigated during winter months due to a lack of focus on time clocks at that point in the year. Upgrading irrigation systems to rely on internet-enabled control devices utilizing real-time weather data or the utilization of moisture-sensing systems will conserve water, promote healthy plants and minimize the associated expense going forward.

Indoor Air Quality: One of the biggest contributors to poor indoor air quality is mold. Often times moldy conditions in walls and overhead structures are caused by water infiltration from roofs. One of the most common and inexpensive problems to correct relative to roofing is debris which clogs roof drains and downspouts causing leaks into buildings. Many building owners contract for quarterly or once every six months roof inspections and cleaning. While this may work for some buildings, in many cases roofs are covered with debris much quicker. Whether it is leaves from overhanging trees or soda bottles and cans from careless tenants or neighbors, roofs get dirty quicker than most people understand. That is just a fact. Setting up a more proactive roof cleaning program on a monthly schedule is an inexpensive solution that can avoid expensive problems that lead to dissatisfied tenants and increased costs.

Doors: Have you ever walked up to a building in the morning only to find the main entry doors open a few inches with air whistling out? That is an example of an imbalance between the fan pressure of the HVAC system trying mightily to cool or heat up the building for the new day and the entry door closer operation. It is a fine dance between adjusting the HVAC system pressure and the door closer tension, but getting it right will save boatloads of energy during those peak cooling and heating months. It may take some back and forth fine tuning between the two building elements but these are solvable problems. Get it right and save even more energy.

Restrooms: A decidedly low-tech way to save money can be found in restrooms. While the use of automated paper towel dispensers has increased widely across the country, the adjustment of these devices can have a huge effect on the amount of paper consumed and the associated building waste stream. These devices are adjustable with respect to the amount of paper dispensed and often we find that 10" or more of towel may be dispensed with each wave of a hand. Reducing the dispensed amount to 6" or less often will suffice and reduce towel consumption.

At Marx|Okubo we strive to make the buildings we are involved with better. While often that means complex systems and construction, sometimes it is as simple as paying attention to the pieces and parts that are already in place. Building owners and operators should constantly evaluate and check operating procedures and equipment controls to ensure that all the fruit has been taken and their buildings are running as smoothly as possible. For more information on these ideas, as well as other ways you can improve your building's performance, contact

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Marx|Okubo is a national architecture/engineering/construction consulting firm that works with real estate owners, investors and lenders—at every point of the property lifecycle—to evaluate their building projects, solve complex challenges and implement tailored solutions. We help clients understand their projects’ complexities, so they can make more informed decisions and, ultimately, mitigate their risk.