Work smarter, not harder

With roughly 300 buildings across campus, the University of Utah’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are massive. Miles worth of ductwork, countless coils and compressors and considerable amounts of controls work together to make our facilities habitable and productive.

An ongoing project in Facilities Management is ensuring that these systems are as efficient as possible. With large energy-usage savings, emissions reductions and energy-cost savings, it is making a tangible difference.

The Energy-Efficiency Initiatives (EEI) projects are the result of a very detailed evaluation of many potential energy-saving opportunities for the University of Utah, led by Chris Benson, associate director of sustainability and energy in Facilities Management.

“Energy usage gets a lot of attention because it accounts for the majority of the university’s carbon footprint and potential cost savings are high,” Benson said. “Efficiency projects often have a lot of bang-for-the-buck. I’ve always found it exciting to find these hidden pots of energy efficiency gold where it’s possible to both save a lot of money and significantly reduce emissions.”

Simply put, our buildings are now working smarter, saving energy and money. This improvement benefits the university and our neighbors. The university’s sheer size—around 50,000 people on campus and 17 million square feet of floor area—makes these savings even more impactful.

“The University of Utah alone makes up about 1% of the entire state’s electricity and gas use,” said Steven Klekas, engineering manager in Facilities Management. “Projects like this that tackle efforts at the campus-wide scale have the ability to make a significant impact, not just at the university, but also in our local community.”

The high-level results of the EEI project are impressive. This year’s project is expected to provide roughly $3 million of cost savings per year, lowering the university’s carbon footprint and improving control of our critical spaces. The benefits go deeper than just that, though; the project has a snowball effect. Cost savings will be reinvested back into additional projects each year through a revolving fund to achieve even more energy and financial savings. Greater system knowledge, space-use documentation and reduced wear-and-tear on equipment, and even improved comfort are all additional byproducts of the project.

One of the main measures chosen for the EEI project are control optimizations for HVAC systems. Prior to this project, many of our HVAC systems were not able to respond to reductions in load or to differentiate between critical and non-critical spaces. Now, they will. When occupancy is low in a building, or when all spaces are satisfied for temperature and airflow, the system will be able to ramp down to a lower energy state while still maintaining acceptable performance. New ways of organizing controls also make system management easier and more standardized.

This project impacts the entire campus. Implementation of the EEI project is expected to be completed in the coming months. It will soon be expanded to the university hospital, clinics and auxiliary partners. To tackle things as a portfolio, this project impacts hundreds of buildings on campus. The scale and complexity of the EEI project makes management and implementation very difficult. The different needs of different districts across campus must be addressed, along with different building automation systems, unique HVAC systems, protection of critical spaces and diverse functions.

With Benson and Klekas leading the EEI project, teams across Facilities Management have joined up to achieve this large goal. District managers, facility coordinators, project managers, engineers and sustainability and energy team members have all contributed in the spirit of One U. Steve Laraway of University Planning, Design and Construction served as project manager. McKinstry did an excellent job as the selected design-build contractor, with DJ Hubler serving as project director. Project stakeholders can be found in all six districts on campus as well as 36 different auxiliary partners.

“This project requires a lot of skilled project management and engaged staff,” Klekas said. “With so many different stakeholders, over a hundred buildings and different district representatives, it is a constant test to keep it all straight.”

True commitment to sustainability goals from university leadership has made it all possible. University Chief Facilities Officer Robin Burr and University Chief Financial Officer Cathy Anderson have provided unwavering support to accelerate campus progress with significant reinvestment of savings to these projects.

Supply air temperature setpoint reset

Air handling units (AHUs) are a common HVAC system cooling air to many rooms at the same time. Loads are uneven and a large portion of downstream equipment must use coils to reheat air before it enters a room to prevent over-cooling. The higher the temperature from the AHU, the less simultaneous heating and cooling occurs. With ongoing feedback and temperature adjustment, systems can ensure cooling needs remain satisfied for the smallest amount of energy necessary.

This control optimization allows the air handler to raise its supply air temperature setpoint when it is acceptable. This minimizes simultaneous heating and cooling and lowers the overall energy use of the system.

Supply duct pressure setpoint reset

Air handling units (AHUs) are a common HVAC system that use large fans to pressurize air ducts and deliver conditioned air to many rooms at the same time. Loads are uneven and a large portion of downstream equipment must use air dampers to limit airflow to reach desired setpoints and prevent system imbalances. The lower the pressure from AHU fans, the less motor energy is used to deliver the air. With ongoing feedback and pressure adjustment, systems can ensure airflow needs remain satisfied for the smallest amount of fan energy necessary. This control optimization allows the air handler to lower its duct static pressure setpoint when the system is completely satisfied. In effect, this allows the air-handler fan to ramp down, save energy, and reduce wear-and-tear.

Pumping differential pressure setpoint reset

This is very similar to other control measures, except that it addresses building pumping systems. This allows the primary circulation pumps to ramp down when the load is low and the spaces are satisfied.

Advance rooftop control upgrades

This strategy adds control modules to existing packaged rooftop units (RTUs) and expands functionality and feedback. This allows the RTUs to modulate and respond to demand as needed and reduce energy when acceptable.

Operational process for the CoGen Plant

This measure adjusted when the turbine of the cogeneration system in the University’s main heating plant is operated, which significantly reduces our local emissions, our overall carbon footprint, and utility costs.

Steam trap audits and replacements

This measure conducted campus-wide steam trap audits, improved documentation and asset tracking of steam traps, repaired failed steam traps. This process significantly improved the function and operation of our steam systems.

The university has committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. The EEI projects are a step on this journey towards a long-term goal. As the state of Utah’s flagship institution, which is currently getting national attention for recent improvements in green energy purchasing, the university is constantly finding new ways to save energy and build a sustainable foundation for the future.