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Finding a Balance: COVID Protocols vs. Energy Efficiency

Written by: Joe Schmeits

In early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic rocked the world. In the United States all but 7 states issued mandatory lockdowns and stay-at-home orders for everyone except essential workers between March and April. This unprecedented move caused offices, restaurants, and retail locations around the country to temporarily close. Now, in the United States lockdowns have been lifted; however, we can hardly say things are “back to normal”.

As people were sent back to work, the CDC, OSHA and other state and local health authorities issued updated guidelines, requirements, and recommendations to minimize the spread of the deadly virus. Restaurant owners had to ensure that their food was safe to eat. Hotels and apartments had to convince guests and tenants that their rooms were sanitized. Office buildings had to not only provide a healthy and safe environment to work in but also figure out what to do about the growing number of vacant offices.

In many instances, these health & safety measures decreased energy efficiency in buildings. For example, some of the mitigation tools the CDC recommends include:

  • Keeping outdoor air dampers open beyond minimum settings

  • Turning off demand-controlled ventilation

  • Opening doors and windows to reduce or eliminate HVAC air recirculation

  • Reducing touch points by installing contactless doors

  • Increasing cleaning/sanitization requirements

So how does an efficiency-minded building or business owner keep energy usage down without sacrificing safety during a global pandemic? There are a few options, and fortunately not all options require large capital expenditures. Some low-cost and no-cost solutions include:

  • Turning lights and computer monitors off when not in use

  • Installing LEDs in place of less efficient lighting

  • Adding smart lighting controls

  • Updating temperature setpoints for vacant offices

Building owners and managers can also adopt Strategic Energy Management (SEM), which helps building management create long-term energy plans. Companies can appoint a point person or team to make sure all employees are buying in and creating good habits. There may even be incentives available from utility companies and/or local or state governments for adopting and following SEM programs.

If there is budget to be spent on capital improvements, there are several options to help buildings decrease their energy use without sacrificing tenant health & safety:

  • Controls systems can be modernized and/or commissioned to provide better command over which spaces are conditioned and when.

  • Building automation systems (BAS) can combine control of multiple systems as well as track energy use so discrepancies can be observed and analyzed.

  • Smart thermostats can sense when rooms are occupied or not, adjusting temperatures accordingly.

  • Many pumps and fans can be retrofitted with Variable Frequency Drives (VFDs) to regulate water and air flow based on schedules.

  • Large HVAC equipment such as chillers and air-handling units can be replaced with more efficient models.

Whether COVID ever fully goes away or not remains to be seen, as does the extent to which the workforce moves back to a full-time office setting. Office building owners need to develop long-term plans to deal with enhanced cleaning procedures, additional HVAC ventilation, and ongoing vacancies. In the meantime, it is possible to provide comfort and safety to existing tenants while keeping a focus on energy efficiency. And most importantly, investments in energy efficiency now will ease the financial burden during the transition phase regardless what the future holds.


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