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We Do Bad, Bigger, Faster

October 18, 2010
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Ellis G. Guiles Jr.

Are we really building more energy-efficient buildings? This particular question has plagued me for several years mostly because, on a day-to-day basis, as a mechanical contractor, I see the results of value engineering, low bids, little or no maintenance, minimal energy code enforcement, etc., in the built environment. In the spring of this year, ASHRAE put out a call for papers to be presented at their 2011 meeting in Las Vegas. On a whim I submitted an abstract, which asked a very simple, yet perhaps far more complex question than I realized, “With the increasing number of building professional certifications, improved energy codes and standards, are we really getting better buildings?” The abstract and paper were accepted by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) for presentation at their meeting.


RESEARCH

Fast forward six months, I’ve completed my research and much to my surprise, many of my assumptions had been confirmed, some have been debunked, and perhaps more importantly, far more questions had been raised than I had answered (at least for me). In a nutshell, what I discovered was:

• Energy use intensity in commercial buildings increased 12 percent between 1985 and 2005, while energy codes and standards theoretically should have produced buildings that were 30 percent more efficient today than in 1985.

• Plug loads, as a percentage of the total energy use intensity in buildings, had remained relatively “stable” over the same time frame.

• Code officials are overworked, short staffed, and have left energy code compliance in the hands of the “professionals.”

• Very few municipalities actually perform inspections designed to determine if buildings are complying with energy codes.

• HVAC systems, the largest single percentage of energy usage in most buildings, are oversized, poorly installed, poorly commissioned, poorly maintained and operated.

This last fact, as an HVAC industry professional for over 30 years, disturbed me greatly; yet more than one research report supports these assertions so it’s difficult to argue with the facts. More importantly, as our company has evolved over the last 5-6 years, we’ve worked hard to do things better and differently than in our past; and we still have much to do in our business to ensure that every HVAC system we’re involved with is designed, installed, and maintained properly. Perhaps our single largest challenge is getting owners (commercial and residential) to properly value our services.

Is it any wonder, when HVAC systems perform the way they do (i.e., too hot, too cold, use too much energy, move too much air, don’t move enough air, etc.) that our customers only means for valuing what we do is low price. We haven’t delivered a product to the marketplace that anyone could possibly rave about. What if we guaranteed comfort, guaranteed operating costs, guaranteed a better indoor environment, guaranteed higher levels of employee productivity, guaranteed lower levels of employee absences, guaranteed students would have better grades; would our customers listen to us? Would they think we’d lost our minds?

We need to change how we approach the game. For a long time many people wrote off Apple. Its market share for computers and operating systems wasn’t anything Microsoft, IBM, or Dell gave much thought to. Elegant software, too expensive, but not a threat. Then the iPod happened. Then the iPhone. Next thing you know, whose market valuation is the highest in the tech world - Apple. Why? Because it thought about what it was customers really wanted, not what they were getting - and it delivered that and did so in a way which the customer fell in love with, to the point of paying, in many cases, a premium.

We need to do the same in the HVAC industry. We know what the customer wants - comfort, low energy costs, a quality indoor environment, greater employee productivity, better student grades, lower levels of absenteeism - so let’s start delivering it! I bet they’d even pay us to do it!

As I shared my paper with Steve Saunders, CEO of Texenergy and Tempo Mechanical last week, at the end of our conversation he said, “So we, commercial mechanical contractors, do bad, bigger, faster.” I certainly hope, over the next several decades, this changes, so that when I look back over my career I can say, “We did good, bigger, faster.”

Publication date: 10/18/2010
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