Harrowing Hospitality: Hotels Need Heaps of HVAC Help
Under constant pressure, hotel operators can benefit from a professional contractor’s advice
When you’re traveling and check into a hotel, you do so with certain expectations. You expect the room will be clean, reasonably quiet, and — most of all — comfortable. That means a properly functioning HVAC system.
Now, multiply those expectations by the millions of travelers staying in hotel rooms across the country each day, and you can see why the hospitality industry faces some unique challenges. Add in social media, and those “challenges” might be better referred to as “perils.”
PEOPLE WILL TALK
Hotels differ from other commercial clients in that they live under constant pressure from social media, noted Jaimi Lomas, vice president of service and general manager of San Diego-based A.O. Reed & Co. If guests aren’t comfortable or have a bad experience with a hotel’s HVAC system, they can immediately post a bad review on social media sites such as Yelp or TripAdvisor.
“More so than other commercial building owners and operators, hotel administrators are under tremendous pressure from end users,” Lomas said.
That pressure, in turn, falls on the shoulders of an on-site maintenance staff that may or may not be able to handle every issue that arises.
“It’s difficult even for professional companies in the HVAC industry to find top technicians, so imagine how hard it must be for hotels,” Lomas said. “By the time they call our team for service, it’s generally a red-hot emergency.”
Martin Naranjo, A.O. Reed’s operations manager, said communication can be the key to working effectively with hotel clients.
“Hotels can now use inexpensive Web-based technology to track temperature, occupancy, open windows, and more from a tablet,” he noted. “If management chooses to do so, they can save an enormous amount of energy and money by monitoring rooms remotely.”
Naranjo added that, although building automation systems can be a great energy saver for hotels, they can end up falling short of their potential if they’re not properly maintained.
“Ironically, automation systems can be one of the biggest causes of excess energy consumption,” Naranjo said. “In many cases, sensors aren’t being calibrated because the hotel’s management doesn’t want to pay someone to do it, and professional contractors aren’t being brought in to conduct periodic inspections of the system to ensure it’s functioning properly.
“Some hotels do have us out periodically, and when we’re there, we focus on training their staff on how to properly maintain their controls systems,” he added. “In those cases, we do a lot of hand-holding to make sure that once an energy-management system is in place, it’s used to its full potential.”
That brings it back to communication, but Lomas noted that communication is changing in ways that can make building relationships with hospitality clients difficult.
“Communication is very different than it used to be,” Lomas said. “No one seems to have time anymore. Remember when people used to talk on the phone or in person? Now, it’s all emails and texts, and some of the relationship is lost. The success we’ve had in the hospitality business is based on communication, but you have to be committed to achieving it.”
OFFER YOUR SERVICES
An additional challenge in the hospitality industry is that hotel owners and operators can be their own worst enemies when it comes to their HVAC systems.
Dave Galbreath, operations manager of Seamans Mechanical in Grand Rapids, Michigan, noted many hotels use their own maintenance people to take care of their HVAC systems, and the results can be uneven. He’s seen well-maintained hotel systems as well as others in shambles.
“My suggestion would be to offer your services to hotels as a professional,” Galbreath said. “Get them on a good maintenance schedule and conduct an inventory of their equipment. Explain to them the benefits of newer, more energy-efficient equipment, and help them put together a five- or 10-year plan so they can budget for facility upgrades. Start by replacing their worst piece of equipment and continue improving their systems slowly, but surely, over time.”
Many contractors already follow this strategy to serve other commercial customers, but hotels are often the outliers, Galbreath added. “This is not only because hotels tend to use their own maintenance people, but also because of the nature of the hotel business.
“Hotel managers want their equipment to work properly so they can fill their rooms with happy customers,” he said. “But, in many cases, their salaries are tied to the profitability of their hotels. Large expenditures cut into that profitability, so HVAC repairs and system upgrades get put off or never get done at all. The less money they spend, the more they make, and it becomes a vicious circle that can be very hard to overcome.”
HELP HOTELS CUT ENERGY COSTS
Joe Schmutzler, director of global utility relations, Transformative Wave, said contractors can help hotel owners and operators reduce their HVAC-related energy costs by installing individual room controls and more. Such systems, which have grown in popularity, automatically shut down or set back a room’s HVAC system when the room is unoccupied.
“There are a number of companies that offer hotel room key cards that must be present in the room for the HVAC system to operate, or other energy-saving systems based on occupancy sensors,” Schmutzler said. “These can address the problem of guests leaving systems running when they leave the room and can help save energy regardless whether the hotel’s using packaged terminal air conditioning (PTAC) units or built-up systems.”
The key to success, he added, is to ensure such systems function well so guests don’t complain. Guest complaints may eventually lead to the hotel disabling the system. Look for a reasonably sophisticated system that knows when people are still occupying the room, even when they’re not moving around a lot (for example, when they’re sleeping).
Other tips from Schmutzler for built-up systems include making sure the hotel’s boiler or chiller is well-maintained and installing variable-speed controls to match system flow to the usage of the space. And, don’t focus solely on space heating. Remember, a good portion of the hotel’s hot water will go to the restaurant and laundry operations, so look for energy-saving opportunities in those areas, too.
He also added that rebate programs can pique a customer’s interest in working with you to upgrade their systems.
“In most good-sized markets, the utilities are going to have hospitality programs where they’ll offer a rebate for certain types of equipment or custom programs for room controls,” Schmutzler said.
SIDEBAR: EASY TUNEUP OPPORTUNITIES
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), through its Energy Star program, offers some easy tuneup measures that can reduce energy use in various areas of hotels:
• Peripheral and back rooms — Make sure HVAC settings in lobbies, offices, and other such peripheral rooms are at minimum settings during hours of low use.
• Laundry — Set laundry hot water to 120°F. This is a good temperature for all hot water uses outside of the kitchen, where codes are specific about water temperature.
• Pools and hot tubs — Make sure all pools and hot tubs are covered after hours to diminish heat loss.
• Housekeeping procedures — Encourage housekeepers to turn off all lights and set temperatures to minimum levels after cleaning each room. Closing drapes when a room is unoccupied will reduce heat gain in the summer and heat loss in the winter.
• Front desk — Teach registration staff that they can help save energy costs by booking rooms in clusters so that only occupied building areas or wings need to be heated or cooled to guest comfort levels. Rooms on top floors, at building corners, and facing west (in summer) or north (in winter) can be the most energy-intensive to heat or cool; therefore, consider renting them last.
Hotel operators and contractors can use Energy Star’s Hospitality Benchmarking Starter Kit to assess their properties’ energy performance with Energy Star’s Portfolio Manager. This starter kit is intended to help users get started benchmarking, take the next steps, and assist in data collection.
For more information, visit: http://bit.ly/BenchmarkingStarterKit
Publication date: 11/2/2015