With energy prices rising and budgets tightening, energy-efficiency upgrades are one of few new expenditures being proposed these days. Using energy more efficiently is one of the only ways that schools can save money without scaling back educational programs. Capturing the benefits of this low-hanging fruit starts with metering, which provides the backbone of knowledge about where resources are being used.

Why Submetering?

Tracking energy use on campuses, especially higher-education facilities, has traditionally been accomplished with only one meter to match large-scale billing arrangements with local utilities. Using a single meter to track a whole group of buildings paid by one organization simplifies payments and allows multiple building use ebbs and flows to balance each other out. Unfortunately, the trade-off for this simplified reporting structure is a lack of real usage information.

Facilities managers need to know where, when, and how much energy or water is being used before any realistic judgments about where improvements can be made. “Without building metering we would be flying blind,” says Greg Smith, Oregon State University’s Sustainable Program Assistant who has led campus-wide building metering efforts since 2007. A joint 2009 study by the University of California San Diego and CB Richard Ellis, “Do Green Buildings Make Dollars and Sense?”, showed that individually metered tenant spaces averaged 21 percent lower utility bills than those without.

Metering Options

Building-metering options run the gamut from basic whole-building meters to submetering of major uses to comprehensive addressable systems that can report back on each light fixture and piece of equipment. With the growth of the green-building movement, including LEED-certified buildings, and increasing calls for energy efficiency, the market is also being flooded with new and changing options for smart, Web-based reporting. All these options can make adding building meters to a campus seem like an overwhelming and confusing task.

It’s important to take a step back and analyze what approach fits your campus. A comprehensive campus-metering effort begins with an inventory of existing systems. A list should include all utilities that serve campus, including electricity, water, and potentially gas and steam, and which buildings on campus already meter these sources. Next, it is important to understand the strengths and constraints of personnel on campus, likely the facilities group, who will be working to gather and analyze the information. Most importantly, take the time to discuss your options as a group to determine what amount of metering makes sense for your campus. Then you can knowledgeably assess where and which types of meters need to be added to buildings to set your campus up for metering success.

If your campus is just getting into the metering game, an electric meter on every building is an excellent place to start. Electrical use is typically a very large chunk of a campus utility bill and thus can generate a good return on investment. Electrical meters are also the simplest and least expensive (typically around $2,000 to $3,000) to install. Gas or steam meters will run you two to three times this cost. When you initially install meters, you will also want to add a campus Data Acquisition System (DAS) if you don’t already have one. Make sure that your chosen DAS is flexible enough to add future system meters to it.

There is a careful balance in the metering game between gathering enough information to aid in real money-saving campus improvements and overwhelming your staff with too much data to be useful. Dan Harris, the New Buildings Institute’s metering expert, recommends starting with collecting data in monthly chunks. Conceptually, building metering has three levels including the building meters themselves, the DAS, which collects all of the building data to one location, and a Web-based analysis program added to aid in the digestion of building data. To be useful, these metrics need to be normalized for time and square footage, and plotted against average outdoor dry bulb temperatures for the same reporting period.

Reaping Metering’s Informational Rewards

Campus metering benefits begin almost immediately according to Hannah Friedman, technical research director at PECI, a conservation group that promotes the benefits of responsible energy. The first step is to compare the energy use intensity (EUI), in kBtu per square foot, for your entire portfolio of buildings against each other and against typical data for your region and building types. Using the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Portfolio Manager program can put more real-life data into the pool for future comparison. You may also pursue Energy Star Building ratings for your best-performing structures. An initial analysis of detailed daily and hourly data can help facilities note data patterns, abnormal usage spikes, and unexpected energy use during unoccupied periods.

Once you have logged a year or two of building-usage metrics, you will have enough information to start noticing when things are off-trend within each building. At Oregon State University, individual building meters have helped identify and fix steam system leaks and wasteful water system problems where water was dumping straight into drains. It is useful to regularly track usage information at some regular interval like every month. Your chosen data system should also allow you to delve deeper into daily and hourly data when the monthly snapshot warrants further investigation.

Next Steps

To get the full benefit of the information gathered, there also needs to be an on-campus will to act. Important additional steps should include careful analysis of energy hogs on campus and prioritization of improvements. Re-commissioning buildings at regular intervals is an ideal equivalent to regular automobile maintenance. The addition of real-time and Web-based usage information is evolving in the current market at warp speed with the hope that occupant education and influence on user behavior can be achieved more effectively with transparent information.

Building meters are an important basic component to a campus efficiency strategy. Armed with the right information, building meters can help you improve efficiency at all levels from your utility bills to your campus planning. Knowledge is power, and knowing your consumption rates will provide the tools and motivation to make the best decisions for your campus.

Lona Rerick, AIA, is an associate and project architect at Yost Grube Hall Architecture (YGH). She is a former chair of the AIA Portland Chapter's Committee on the Environment (COTE) and has served as the head of YGH's Sustainability Committee since 2002, helping to lead the firm through the Natural Step planning process and the AIA 2030 Commitment. She is an Executive Board member of the Vancouver Watersheds Council.

This article previously appeared in APPA's Facility Manager Magazine.