HVAC Retrocommissioning in a Down Economy: a Tough But Logical Sale

Nov. 1, 2009
Commercial HVAC contractors win when they promote the long-term benefits of improving building performance.

In an economy in which many companies are “circling the wagons” and trying to save as much money as possible, it may seem that building retrocommissioning would be a tough sell. However, by focusing on the long-term benefits of the process — cost savings being high on that list — contractors can help building owners and managers realize that now may be the most logical time for retrocommissioning.

“People are focusing on their operational costs. They’re wondering if there’s any way they can save on their utility bills, and that’s where we can step in,” says Dan Slattery, service manager, Geauga Mechanical Co., Chardon, OH.

Slattery points out to potential customers that small inefficiencies in their mechanical systems can add up to become big money wasters over time.

“Take the case of a building in which the system is bringing in too much outside air. It’s a simple fix to fine-tune the outside air settings, but every day we don’t make that simple adjustment is another day that the owner or manager is paying to heat or cool that excess air,” Slattery says.

“Also, we point out to owners how building usage and occupancy changes over time. Many buildings aren’t being used as well as they could be, and need to be tweaked by adjusting airflows, sequences, setpoints, and so forth,” he adds.

Slattery admits that it can be difficult to sell a whole-building retrocommissioning. “You’re not going to hit a home run every time, ” he says. However, Geauga Mechanical keeps an open mind and provides a free consultation to help building owners who may not be able to make a large investment with a long-term payback.

“We’ll go through the building and identify potential savings for the customer,” Slattery says. “Most people buy into the fact that there are at least some areas of their building that aren’t working right. When we can walk through and point out those areas, we may get some small ‘fixes’ to perform now, and also help customers begin to see the value of having us perform a full retrocommissioning later on.”

At Shambaugh and Son an EMCOR Company with locations in Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio — and the 1989 ContractingBusiness.com Commercial Contractor of the Year —president and CEO Mark Shambaugh says there are two keys to his company’s ability to sell retrocommissioning.

One Source Improves Building Owner ROI

The first is its ability to provide “single source” in-house capability by combining mechanical, electrical, and temperature controls capabilities. “Being a single source provider allows you to eliminate double markups and become more competitive in improving your customer’s return on investment,” Shambaugh says. “You also gain a much stronger degree of control on scheduling, mitigating change orders from subcontractors, and reducing overall owner risks for successful delivery on the project.”

The second key, Shambaugh says, is to demonstrate to the building owner that your retrocommissioning delivers on its promise of energy savings and an improved indoor environment. This may mean upgrading the measurement and verification software that your company uses to track its energy conservation measures.

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“You need sophisticated software but one with factual, easy-to-read reports that are understood by the users,” Shambaugh says. “This software should be flexible enough that it can accommodate administrative/procedure changes that the owners may make after you implement energy conservation measures so that you can calculate a new baseline, and not take “false” advantage of energy savings above and beyond your plans.

“Your measurement and verification system must be able to be easily tracked with clear and frequent reports by both parties if desired. And, of course, your tracking system must collaborate with the “real meter savings” so there is no confusion about real energy savings,” he says.

Equipment Integrity Checks Add Value
Shambaugh adds that another way to sell retrocommissioning is to explain to building owners how your technicians will go “above and beyond” the implementation of energy conservation measures by doing a “point-to-point” checkout of mechanical systems and equipment integrity. “It really doesn’t cost that much more. And, it strengthens equipment reliability guarantees when you perform the audit and replace parts of equipment in the process,” he says. “Simple steps, such as using an infrared gun to detect a motor problem; or vibration analysis to check compressor alignment, create a win-win for the customer and contractor in the long run.”

Bill Dillard, founder and CEO of EMCOR Mechanical Services of Central Florida, Inc., Orlando, — the 1997 ContractingBusiness.com Commercial Contractor of the Year — says not to overlook the role your local utility can play in helping you sell retrocommissioning.

“One of the ways we’ve had success is by partnering with and co-developing retrocommissioning projects together with our utilities. They have a nice rebate program. We worked with a developer recently who completed a large retrocommissioning project and received a check for $41,000 from the utility. That kind of ‘instant gratification’ makes it easy to sell,” Dillard says.

However, he acknowledges that “easy sales” aren’t the norm, given that the commercial real estate market is struggling, and will likely continue to do so in the near-term. “The caveat right now is that the commercial real estate industry is probably in the worst shape that I’ve ever seen it, or will be within the next 12 months,” Dillard says. “The financing issues are going to put a huge hurt on people who would be candidates to invest in energy upgrades. They’re going to be focused on making the mortgage payment.”

New Generation on the Way
Despite that grim caveat, Dillard thinks the long-term outlook for retrocommissioning and other energy conservation measures is bright. He expects the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers’ (ASHRAE’s) building labeling program, which focuses strictly on building energy use, to become a national driver in the retrocommissioning and energy update market. Dillard also believes the market will get a boost from a new generation of building owners.

“The energy game in the future is not going to be played by people who own property now; it’s going to be people who have bought and are holding onto distressed properties,” he says. “They’re just waiting for the right time to get those building back on the market to produce cash flow. Sooner or later, they’ll drive retrocommissioning and energy retrofits.”

A Father’s Perspective: Women in the Workforce Drive Retrocommissioning
As the father of four daughters, Dick Starr, president of The Enterprise Corporation, Twinsburg, OH, has a unique insight into a primary driver for the retrocommissioning marketplace: women entering the workforce.

“My oldest daughter graduated from high school in 1989, and wanted to enroll at Notre Dame University in South Bend, IN. Although Tricia graduated as the #1 female in her high school class, Notre Dame rejected her, because girls needed an SAT score 100 points higher than the score that would have gotten a boy admitted. If Tricia had been a boy, she would have been accepted; as a girl, she was rejected. So, she chose to go across the street to St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, where, in 1993, she graduated Magna Cum Laude.

“Tricia’s story manifests an imbalance and lack of sensitivity that existed in the workforce at that time. On the other hand, when young ladies and “stay at home” moms began to change the workforce, their female values also started changing our business culture.

“How does this tie into retrocommissioning? Females bring a nurturing outlook to the business place. It’s a holistic mentality that chooses to nourish and protect, with safety and health paramount. Women are more sensitive to odors, pollutants, and poor ventilation. These things interfere with good health, which is counter to their feminine nature.

“So, you can thank females for their influence on today’s indoor air quality (IAQ) culture. If a building fails to create an environment conducive to productivity, safety, and good health, energy savings don’t mean a thing. The female influence has placed more demands on balancing energy savings with a healthy workplace: enter retrocommissioning.” — Dick Starr