Are Small Commercial Facilities the Redheaded Stepchildren of Energy Efficiency?

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Any amount of searching on the web these days for commercial energy efficiency programs shows that the bulk of efforts are focused around mid- to large-sized commercial facilities: big box retail, office buildings, municipal buildings, etc.

energy-hog-257x300.pngIn many ways, this makes perfect sense. Big facilities offer big potential efficiency gains within the scope of a single project. Big facilities tend to have staff focused on managing a few pieces of critical equipment (e.g., HVAC) and energy consumption. It’s not to say efficiency gains in large facilities are easy; projects can be long and complex. But focus and effort can yield very compelling results, so the perceived risk-return equation typically pushes efficiency projects to the larger facilities.

But what about smaller commercial facilities?

The problem with energy efficiency projects in small facilities is fundamentally wrapped in the nature of these buildings – they’re small and use less energy. Also, if a company owns a portfolio of many small facilities, the buildings are distributed. Spread out. These two attributes can make things a little trickier.

On an absolute scale, small buildings obviously have a much lower energy spend than their larger brethren. Distribution of small facilities eliminates the possibility of having a single person focused on a single facility, so they are often maintained on an intermittent basis. It also precludes a single large project in a single facility yielding large results, which means more boots on the ground to do more and smaller energy efficiency projects, extending project payback.

So, are small facilities doomed to forever squander energy?

Not necessarily.

The default approach to energy efficiency in these types of facilities just needs a little innovation. While large commercial buildings can support expensive and complex energy efficiency projects, small and distributed commercial facilities require solutions that are low-cost, “enterprise-ready”, and “light-touch”. Energy efficiency projects and technologies that share these attributes can succeed where others have failed in small commercial facilities.

For example, take convenience stores. They’re relatively simple operations – typically just a few thousand square feet – with lighting, HVAC, and refrigeration loads, and really not much else that uses a great deal of energy. Monthly energy costs can typically range from $1,000 to $3,000 for these facilities. With relatively low energy costs on a per-location basis and simple operations, the upfront investment in a convenience store efficiency measure needs to be low enough to achieve a simple payback in well under 2 years.

Basic efficiency projects for convenience stores, such as retrofitting with high-efficiency lighting and replacing old refrigeration compressor motors with new high-efficiency motors, can make a lot of sense.

Taking efficiency to the next step by adding energy and asset management systems into these stores can also make sense – but only if the system shares the same key attributes – low-cost, light touch, enterprise-ready.

In the case of convenience stores, many are owned by companies that manage dozens, and in some cases hundreds or thousands of locations. Each store won’t have its own facility manager, but there probably is someone within the organization whose responsibilities include facilities and/or energy costs. This person needs a tool that enables “light-touch” enterprise-wide control of critical loads such as heating and cooling, while delivering a payback in under 2 years.

food-safety-748x800.pngWhen evaluating technologies such as energy management systems, one other consideration should be whether or not these systems help address other business challenges. Controls and analytics around energy management now have to deliver more than energy savings. Analytics can also be used to reduce the costs of managing assets by highlighting under-performing equipment. For those in the food services industry, energy analytics might include data from temperature sensors, which support food safety initiatives by tracking temperature compliance of critical refrigeration assets across the enterprise.

We’re starting to see an encouraging awakening of the importance of energy efficiency among companies managing these types of enterprises. With a focus on technologies that accommodate the nature of energy spend in small distributed facilities – and potentially technologies that solve problems beyond just cost of energy – we will see a greater acceleration of energy efficiency initiatives in small commercial facilities.