Communication and Finesse Crucial to Successful Temperature Setbacks

If you’re not going to be there, turn the heat down. That’s the essence of a temperature setback program. Institution-wide temperature setback programs effectively conserve energy and reduce the carbon footprint of a campus.

The Amherst campus of SUNY-Buffalo reduced electrical consumption by over three million kilowatt-hours (kWh) and natural gas consumption by over 100,000 hundred cubit feet (ccf) during its twenty-one day Christmas recess last year. According to an EPA calculator, this is the equivalent of reducing carbon emissions by 2648 metric tons of carbon dioxide, or eliminating the annual greenhouse gas emissions of 485 passenger cars. The savings came from an effective temperature setback program in development since the late 1970s.

Temperature setback programs continue to improve, realizing even greater energy savings. “We previously set our buildings back later in the evening. We have since bumped them back to as early as 4:30 or 5:00 in the afternoon,” says Tom Fennessey, director of facilities management at University of Wisconsin-Superior.

Using 2005 as a threshold, the UW-Superior campus estimates it has reduced its total carbon dioxide emissions by approximately 4,300 metric tons in 2006 and 2,500 in 2007 through its various energy saving efforts, which include improving the timing of setback cycles, gradually computerizing control of heating and cooling systems, and upgrading older buildings.

Implementing a campus-wide temperature setback program, whether during holidays or at night, is more complicated than adjusting the heat or air conditioning. Universities typically have functions that require constant temperatures, ventilation or humidity levels, making communication between facility users and managers key to the success of the program. “If you know what the people need, you understand what they don’t need. If they don’t need it, you can turn it off or turn it down,” says Albert Gilewicz, assistant director of utility operations at SUNY-Buffalo. “The most successful setback program is the one the occupants don’t feel.”

Those setting the controls for air handlers need to know the schedule for each part of every building. “Al (Gilewicz) and I meet maybe quarterly. We look at what’s going on for the next six months and what else we can possibly reduce without affecting the function of anything.” says Jerry Kegler, facilities director for Center for the Arts at SUNY-Buffalo Amherst campus. “We ask ourselves, is everything working the way it should be? Are there any complaints from the occupants? That would indicate something’s not working right. We get very few complaints about any of these setbacks that we do,” he continues.

The way buildings are used can also be an obstacle. “A big barrier for us is the diffusion of IT systems across campuses. When departments each have their own IT, they tend to have it in rooms and closets throughout the building,” says Anna Prizzia, Coordinator for the Office of Sustainability at the University of Florida. UF is working to centralize its IT needs as part of its program to reduce energy consumption, she adds.

“Research never shuts down. We also have file server areas where we have to keep the equipment cool,” says John Lawson, energy coordinator at the University of Florida. For UF and other universities in warmer climates, temperature setbacks can actually mean an increase in temperature as it’s the air-conditioning unit that’s adjusted. Humidity as much as temperature determines when AC units need to run.

But the greatest challenges to setback programs are structural in nature. Many universities have at least some buildings that were built at a time when energy conservation was not a concern. These buildings often rely on antiquated technology that is difficult to work with, which means some buildings still are not on a setback program of any kind. In addition, some institutions are still transitioning their decentralized and manual systems into more centralized, computerized systems. Computerized energy management systems make setback implementation much easier.

“Before, we would have to do the work right in the mechanical rooms of each building.  Now we are able to monitor and control through an energy management system.  One computer does it all.  We can see what fans are on, the temperature of heat coming in, a lot of things that we can watch for,” Fennessey says.

Despite the challenges to effectively saving energy through temperature setbacks, many staffers believe it is well worth the effort. “We just need to do this because we are using way too many resources. Energy saved on utilities can be used to improve the campus. If we can do it on a campus with thirty thousand people, it’s a good thing that we should be doing,” says Kegler.

See More:

The Day of Energy Policy: Greening the Campus

Justifying Energy-Savings Projects as Prices Tumble: The Chronicle of Higher Education

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Published: February 10, 2009