Due diligence must dos when replacing building systems

Replacing the HVAC and refrigeration equipment in commercial buildings involves significant capital expenditure. By carrying out thorough due diligence when scoping out these replacements, building owners can not only ensure their assets function as intended, but save themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars over the lifecycle of the equipment too. Whether your building equipment is reaching the natural end of its life, usually between 12 and 20 years, you’re planning an expansion or major renovation, or you have a longstanding problem with it that needs rectifying, it pays to get the due diligence right. The following must-dos are all part of the e2s due diligence process, which we have delivered thousands of times, with significant benefits for our clients.

Look beyond make, model and serial number

The first step is to survey and evaluate the existing equipment inventory.  Often MEP firms will simply take a superficial look at the exterior cabinet, note the make, model, serial number, and age and use that as the basis for their report.

In many cases, though, the outside and inside do not correlate. We learn so much more by opening the panels of the machine, taking photographs of the condition of the wiring cabinet, the interior coils, the condensate pans and other components. We have the commissioning knowhow to run that machine through its paces, so we can properly check its performance.

This level of examination can be completed in a day for a typical 50,000 sq.ft. property, or perhaps two days if you’re going to cycle equipment through its stages.

Make plans based on accurate calculations

Whether the survey flags recommendations for maintenance or replacement, the survey process informs next level detailed and accurate cost estimates. The estimating process enables you to plan how to phase required work in line with the available budget. When cost initially exceeds available budget, a common outcome is to execute half of the work in year one and the other half in year two.

Prioritizing what gets paid for first comes down to the client’s core mission. For example, if it’s grocery retail, the priorities will be customer comfort in the sales area and the refrigeration systems to keep the food cold. You may sacrifice optimal comfort in vestibules and offices and peripheral areas that are nice to have but not essential initially. The same philosophy applies in any building type.

Understand the current building pressurization

For mechanical systems, one of the first things we do is conduct pre-test and balance (TAB) measurements of all outside intake and exhaust, as building pressurization can often drift to negative over time. When that happens, every opening in the building pulls in raw, unconditioned air, which can cause catastrophic effects, like condensation on tiled floors, resulting in people slipping and falling.

Untreated air is terrible for a building; it causes mold issues, messes with electronics, and creates uncomfortable conditions for occupants. It can also compromise the whole building management system, fooling sensors into triggering a vicious circle of overheating or overcooling.

Therefore, it’s essential we check the building pressurization balance so we can really gauge the performance of the system.

Don’t overlook the controls

When replacing equipment, we also assess the current controls and consider upgrading to maximize efficiency. Advances like variable fan speed controls can yield significant savings in power consumption.

Connected IoT systems and data analysis are facilitating big advances, enabling efficiencies to be quickly pinpointed and rolled out across entire building portfolios. Any control systems that are 5-10 years old will not be able to provide that but adding sensors to legacy systems may be a cost-effective way to provide data for action. There are ways to virtually sub-meter equipment and end use systems too, to provide necessary data for optimizing efficiency. These advances also ensure there is a proper baseline for operation of end uses and savings resulting from operational adjustments or enhanced maintenance are sustained.

Talk to people

Talking to the people who use the building gives an additional layer of insight that helps to inform decision making. For example, an HVAC unit could be running perfectly according to its spec, but if the building occupants are having to wear hats and coats, it’s not doing what it needs to do.

Gathering user feedback gives us clues as to whether a system is having the intended and desired effects.

Evaluate the client’s core use of the conditioned space, now and for the future

When tenants change the use of a building space, or plan to change it, the capacity of the system often needs to be modified to match. A system that’s under-capacity can result in humidity issues like mold, curling paper, electronic faults, and unhappy occupants. This also results in low productivity and may even culminate in legal complaints and actions.

Over-capacity systems can be just as harmful, causing humidity when cooling because they act and react too fast, not running for long enough to pull moisture out of the air. Buildings end up as a cold, clammy and uncomfortable space for their occupants. This also wreaks havoc with electronics, and both contribute to lower productivity.

We solved this problem for a consumer electronics client. A room set up for racks of electronic hardware had been repurposed to house just a handful of people working on benches. The cooling was still set for the original intent of the space – five times more than required for the new space needs. They didn’t believe this could be the case when we told them. They sent the information to their corporate engineers, who confirmed we were right.

Check with local utilities for equipment renewal incentives

Specifying higher efficiency equipment can earn significant financial incentives. These differ from state to state, so we probe deeper than the utilities’ published prescriptive incentives.

Before they’ll give their maximum incentive, utilities have to trust you as a partner, and because we have built relationships with utilities across the US, we are able to help access that funding. The average cash incentive level is in the range of 10-20% of project cost, and some utilities will actually finance part of the project cost at 0% interest, so it really matters.

Weigh in structural considerations

Some efficiency jumps come with significantly increased unit weights. If that means bringing in steel to reinforce the structure, the cost can outweigh any efficiency gains.

We find the balance point.

Consider additional protection

For a couple of hundred dollars on the bill of a $20,000 piece of equipment, we save our clients thousands by specifying small upgrades that make a big difference. For example, hinged access panels instead of removable ones prevent the risk of sharp metal corners puncturing holes in the roof.

Consider climatic conditions too. If the building is near the coast, coated coils will resist the corrosive effect of sea air; if it’s in the mountains, raising equipment higher off the deck will keep it accessible after heavy snowfall.

A stitch in time

When the time comes to evaluate your building systems for replacement, you can realize significant benefits by working with us and other partners who move beyond the make, model, and serial number approach. This is a long-term investment you’re making – a little extra time and care spent looking at your building’s maintenance history, staff feedback, controls, performance, purpose and location will release added value that exceeds the up front cost by as much as 15 times.

And that’s before you take into account improvements in occupant well-being and productivity, optimization of space utilization, and increased asset preservation that result from setting your buildings up just right for the people who use them.

Talk to e2s about your building systems

Give Kathy a call at 617.513.2073 to learn more