Power to the people: Let city office workers turn up the heat

Fri, 2015-01-02 12:03 -- Kevin Ebi


When it comes to wasting energy, offices are among the biggest offenders. Just look around city hall or other public facilities for examples. Between lighting conference rooms no one is using and air conditioning offices where no one is working, a lot of power is wasted every day.

So it may come as a surprise that one way to cut power consumption is to actually give workers more control over the energy they use. In fact, one study suggests giving employees more control could cut energy use by a whopping 30-40%.

But perhaps even more surprisingly, for smart cities and building managers, this counterintuitive approach doesn’t eliminate building automation. It makes it smarter – and with an assist from Council members Microsoft and OSIsoft, disparate building system and controls can be unified.

Responsibility makes employees responsible
Since heating, cooling and lighting account for about half of all energy used in buildings, reducing their toll has been a major focus. The conservation efforts, however, have largely focused on taking control away from the people who work in the buildings by using rigid systems that regulate temperature and light levels. Overriding those settings either isn’t allowed or isn’t easy.

It was believed that if employees could adjust the lights and heat, they would waste more energy. But research led by an architecture professor at Carnegie Mellon University found the exact opposite to be true.

Vivian Loftness and her team built the Intelligent Workplace on campus. People who work there can not only control their environments, her team has made it really easy to do so. Staff can brighten or dim the lights or raise and lower the temperature with their smartphones.

She’s found that giving staff control over comfort levels also significantly reduced energy use. Her lab uses about 30% less energy than other campus offices.

More control equals less energy used
Her theory has also proven true off-campus. PNC Financial Group tested the concept in one of its offices, finding that the maximum savings came from employees who could see how much energy they were using and had the power to do something about it.

Its test involved four groups of employees. Employees who knew only that their energy use was being observed or who could see a dashboard of their usage used about 10% less power than they did before the test.

When employees were also given a switchboard to manually control specific devices, their savings jumped to 25%.  The group that could also automate when devices were on or off achieved energy savings of nearly 38%.

And quite telling, most of the energy savings vanished when the controls were removed at the end of the test.

Clear data, clear controls
When control is taken away from employees, they become disengaged in the conservation goal. The Carnegie Mellon researchers build digital dashboards to study the energy use in buildings they are working on. When staff don’t have access to easy-to-understand energy data or a sense of responsibility, power is invariably wasted.

“We ask people why they have the boiler on when the temperature outside is 85 degrees,” said senior research architect Azizan Aziz, who works with Loftness. “Turns out they didn’t know it was on.”

Even more common, people leave lights on even when bright sunlight is shining through the windows – because they don't think to turn them off.

Another time, Aziz discovered someone leaving a window open in the middle of winter when it was well below freezing outside. If too much heat is being pumped into their office, what else are they going to do?

Common standards, one dashboard
Conservation efforts, like those at Carnegie Mellon, only work if the building's environmental systems are truly unified. With a variety of building systems from a variety of vendors, tapping into them from a single source can be a struggle. Two council partners – Lead Partner Microsoft and Associate Partner OSIsoft – are working on this problem.

OSIsoft's PI System supports more than 400 interfaces that can connect to many different building systems and controls. And all of the data can feed into a Microsoft Azure machine learning platform for true optimization.

Giving employees a say doesn’t replace automation. It can greatly enhance it. At the Gates Center in Seattle, data from building sensors is combined with employee comfort data from surveys to help fine tune the environment.

Adding on weather data and machine learning, building managers have been able to develop computer models that allow them to heat each office to the ideal temperature each morning using a minimal amount of energy.

Technology can now provide a real-time, cohesive analysis of a building’s energy use. By giving employees more control over their environment, and using sophisticated data analysis to capitalize on opportunities, smart building managers can make significant progress with their conservation efforts.


Kevin Ebi is a staff writer and social media coordinator for the Council. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.

More on saving energy…
Video: Donald's Smart City with the PI System and MS Azure
Microsoft 'smart campus' makeover saving millions in energy costs
How Envision Charlotte "cracked the code" to energy savings for city businesses