In my opinion: Why do building owners settle for less?
It’s an all-too-common story with building retrofits that owners opt for a litany of bandaid solutions rather than a holistic approach. One instance comes to mind late last year where a substantial office building in Sydney wanted its cooling towers replaced. After some preliminary research, I proposed a full level-3 audit and NABERS assessment. I also stated that we could replace the HVAC system throughout the building, provide much better insulation to the windows and roof, and provide a complete holistic energy-efficient solution that would save 50 to 75% of their energy bill, guaranteed. Solutions for capex constraints could be achieved with the use of various EUA facilities. Guess what? They opted for the bandaid and just replaced the two cooling towers and some of the lighting.
We look at new technologies virtually every day of the week. Rather than rule them out if they haven’t been installed in Australia, we are happy to consider them if they have been proven in Asia, Europe or the USA and if they are fully supportable by reputable organisations here.
Before exploring the internals of a building, we look to the insulation fabric of the building. Most buildings have large windows that could easily be coated with excellent insulative film with around a two-year ROI. There are some excellent roof coatings available that can well assist in insulating the building. Then we look at the kitchens, which quite often have the old heating elements to heat the hot water. We replace all these with a central heat pump that uses reverse refrigeration to heat the water at a greatly reduced cost. We then look at lighting and then HVAC systems. Rather than looking at just one item such as fan coil units or just chillers, we look at the system as a whole and then analyse the merits of the old system versus a total system-wide replacement.
More often than not, the system-wide replacement comes with a much better ROI. On top of that, we look at intelligent software to manage the various mechanical systems and pumps so that they operate as a well-integrated team delivering the most effective heating and cooling for the lowest cost. Of course, EMS and BMS systems are critical along with the elevators. There are new systems that can dramatically improve the efficiency of elevators too.
Then, we have the old server rooms which pervade our built environment landscape. With NABERS for data centre (10 kW heat load) infrastructure introduced this month, big changes are afoot.
After all that, we establish the possibility of using renewables such as solar panels, tri- or quad-generation systems, hydrogen fuel cells and geothermal cooling. There are so many ways to skin that cat.
It is not uncommon to see a 5- to 6-year ROI on building or data centre retrofits that have been designed in traditional ways. From a business perspective, I find these ROIs unacceptable. Without renewables, I believe it’s not worth proceeding unless there is a carrot of a minimum of a 3-year ROI, with renewables a maximum of 5 years. If the incentives aren’t there for business, it makes it extremely difficult in the current climate to move ahead with such major projects.
Many promises on numbers, efficiencies and so forth can be made, but how many of those promised numbers actually come into fruition? I must admit, I cannot answer that question. One thing I do know is that with a bit of customer care, a well-designed retrofit and ongoing monitoring, performance guarantees can be achieved.
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