Submeters: The Best-kept Secret - School Construction News Magazine

Submeters: The Best-Kept Secret

Faced with fixed budgets, increasing operating costs and rising student enrollment, today's schools and universities are seeking fresh ideas for controlling costs without jeopardizing education quality. One often-overlooked cost-cutting opportunity is energy consumption.

Energy is often the second highest expense behind salaries for educational facilities. And although energy costs can be managed, they have historically been viewed as fixed costs. However, in the process of providing safe environments, housing, dining, offices, research facilities, classrooms and other education-related resources, educational facilities have a significant demand for energy.

To effectively manage energy, it is necessary to understand how it is used throughout campuses. The majority of K-12 schools, typically single-unit structures, have one utility meter that records energy and demand consumption for the entire facility. Universities also tend to have one main meter for the entire campus. This setup does not allow facilities to understand specifically where or by whom the majority of energy is being used, nor does it allow facilities to identify areas of waste or opportunities for conservation and cost savings.

Submetering technology provides a solution for cost savings. Submetering involves installing separate meters next to the utility company's meter, as well as tying the submeters to internal systems or processes for detailed energy data. The installation does not require a power interruption and is conducted with low-voltage equipment. The submeters then monitor the proportionate energy use of specific buildings, systems or departments. Within those facilities, lighting, HVAC and energy-intensive equipment can also be monitored for inefficient energy use by individual tenants or processes. Combining submeters with a sophisticated energy intelligence system allows users to better understand when, where and how energy is being used within their organizations. with this information, facility managers can better control costs and improve operational efficiencies by identifying inefficient processes and equipment, generating customizable billing based on each monitored system and developing measurable energy conservation initiatives.

One of the primary cost-saving measures resulting from submetering is the ability to allocate energy costs to the actual energy users. Allocating energy costs this way rather than on a square footage basis is also more equitable since a high-tech lab is likely to use far more energy than the neighboring English department.

Furthermore, a majority of schools must deal with aging buildings that use energy inefficiently and are expensive to maintain. For instance, student housing and recreation facilities require 24-hour cooling, heating and power. Without cost accountability, many students and on-campus vendors waste energy. however, through submetering technology, facilities can generate a "mock" monthly bill for various users to sensitize them to the costs of their activities. In fact, industry studies have shown that submetering and cost allocation alone can reduce energy consumption anywhere from 5-18 percent. Other facility managers may actually allocate energy costs to these users, enabling better management of maintenance and capital improvement activities, and directing resources to the areas that can offer the biggest return on investment.

In addition to encouraging personal conservation and directing capital improvements to conserve energy, submetering can help schools and universities in deregulated energy markets understand their energy use and negotiate more competitive utility rates. Today, over 25 states have deregulated electric utilities to some extent. This has created an opportunity for schools and universities to take their energy usage data and load patterns to utilities and energy service providers for the best deal on their utility rates. Schools and universities with multi-site or multi-state facilities can find additional leverage in negotiations by combining all of their facilities, which is called energy aggregation. This aggregated energy data positions the school or university as a larger, more attractive customer for whose business utilities and energy service providers will aggressively compete.

At one metropolitan university, the student housing department implemented a submetering program in 32 older campus dormitories that had never had any type of metering system installed. For the previous 35 years, the university included an estimate of electricity costs in each tenant's rent. Although the university was aware of the high-energy demands these buildings required, it had no way of making residents accountable for the electricity they actually consumed. The university's goal was to make student residents aware of the exact amount of electricity they were using and to encourage them to make informed choices to conserve energy.

By installing submeters, the university allocated and billed residents directly and accurately for the electrical services used by each unit. School administrators expect the submetering technology to enable the student-housing department to recuperate its costs more efficiently. In fact, preliminary estimates indicate that the resulting cost savings could equal the capital investment in the submetering equipment in as little as three or four years. This time frame can be accelerated with additional conservation measures.

Energy needs differ dramatically depending on the type, size and use of a particular facility. Because of these variances, it is important to select a vendor who understands the unique energy usage needs and challenges of a particular type of facility. An experienced energy intelligence provider will be able to design a comprehensive and flexible submetering program that addresses the specific needs of any facility. A well-designed submetering system will encompass all aspects of cost reduction, cost allocation and energy conservation (including electricity, gas and water resources, as appropriate), while at the same time allowing for future system modifications as energy needs grow and change.

The first step in implementing a submetering system is to define the project scope. A submeter provider should conduct a thorough "walk through" of the entire campus or facility, evaluating the school's or university's total energy use and then the energy consumption at each department or building. Together, the facility manager and the submetering provider will closely examine areas/buildings that are suspected to have high energy consumption, older buildings that may demonstrate energy inefficiencies, and current methods used by the facility to allocate energy costs between residents, departments, tenants and individual buildings.

Through a comprehensive evaluation of a school's energy use, the energy intelligence provider will e able to determine the most effective submetering system to meet the needs, goals and objectives of the facility. The vendor then will work with facility management to design and select a customized submetering system.

With many schools today facing record budget deficits and increasing demand for their services, finding new ways to control bottom-line costs is key to maintaining current programs and ensuring that education remains affordable. Managing energy costs can help mitigate other rising costs that may be more difficult to control. With this in mind, energy management provides a relatively easy-to-implement, cost-effective means to conserve energy and save money.

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