Interior of modern empty office building

Office building vacant or only partially occupied? You can still save energy.

Here’s how property managers can keep buildings energy efficient while many occupants work from home.

As the pandemic continues and many Ontarians are working from home, a number of office buildings across the province are closed or mostly vacant. Despite being largely unoccupied, these buildings still use energy. 

From data servers that remote employees depend on to elevators for essential staff, even vacant buildings have electricity requirements. It’s also important to keep certain systems, such as emergency lighting, running for safety reasons.

Here’s how to boost energy-efficiency practices while buildings are vacant, and how to prepare for when more occupants return.

Know your needs

“Every building is different, so you need to understand the specific requirements of your facility, its occupants and system capabilities,” says independent energy consultant Stephen Dixon. 

Dixon recommends reviewing your building’s operational needs. These range from operating hours to ventilation and filtration requirements. Your requirements may need to change to reflect COVID-related best practices as well. For example, you may need to ventilate your building for more or less time, depending on how many people are using the building. To do this effectively – and to save energy – you need to know when a building is actually in use, which is where scheduling becomes extremely important.

Check-in with your building occupants regularly about their occupancy plans. Some companies may have a small number of employees coming into work either full-time or for reduced hours, while other companies’ employees may be working exclusively from home. Building occupants also may have their own ways to save energy now and in the coming months. For example, they may be able to unplug unused electronics, such as printers and other office equipment or appliances, in some office spaces.

Throughout your building, you may find opportunities to reduce how much lighting is used as well. For example, some floors of the building may be able to move to partial lighting, while elsewhere motion sensors can help to ensure lights are only on as needed. Upgrading to LED lighting indoors and outdoors will also help to save energy and maintenance costs in the long term.

Make the necessary upgrades

Given that many property owners and managers will have to adjust their operations for COVID-related health protocols, such as increased ventilation, now is a good time to engage a recommissioning expert (RCx agent) and consider existing building commissioning. When looking for an RCx agent, there are two primary methods to acquire a provider - a Request for Proposal (RFP) or a Request for Qualifications (RFQ).1 When selecting a provider, be sure to not only check for general qualifications such as years of experience, but also ensure that the agent understands and has the skills required for your specific building type.2 Your team also plays an important role in the process, working alongside your RCx agent every step of the way. 

Commissioning starts with an RCx agent gathering data about your building, including heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) and lighting needs. The expert will then make recommendations for changes to operations that can improve your building’s performance and save energy, while also reducing its operational costs. “Existing building commissioning can help you make operational changes that meet current facility requirements,” Dixon says. “Operational adjustments and upgrades can help you save energy and potentially reduce costs over time as well.”

Even if you aren’t undertaking a broader existing building commissioning project, work with a qualified HVAC expert to determine what changes you might need to make to meet best practices for operating during the pandemic, now and when your building occupancy increases again. Organizations such as the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) and the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) offer recommendations. Based on those, and a qualified professional’s assessment, you may need to make upgrades to ageing equipment, implement new ventilation controls, or conduct other maintenance to improve your system, all of which may help save energy. 

As an example, demand control ventilation – where an HVAC system generally responds to how many occupants are inside and ventilates accordingly – may no longer be considered acceptable or safe, based on recommendations from ASHRAE.3

Instead, you may need to change your ventilation system to meet new COVID-specific best practices (in other words, to ventilate longer). The Public Health Agency of Canada and BOMA Toronto, for example, recommend using as much outside air as possible for ventilation and running ventilation systems two hours before and after periods of occupancy.4,5

Natural Resources Canada has developed a self-evaluation tool and guide for HVAC systems that will provide feedback on the impact of your HVAC strategies during and after the pandemic. It highlights key areas and best practices for efficient HVAC operation during these times and will help your operations team respond with greater confidence.

Whatever projects you decide to implement, remember to put safety first. Work with qualified professionals, including when you’re replacing or maintaining ventilation equipment, and ensure anyone conducting building walkthroughs or doing maintenance has the required personal protective equipment.

When it’s time to get started, remember that Save on Energy incentive programs can help reduce the costs of qualifying energy-efficiency projects, from lighting improvements to HVAC system upgrades.

See how you can get started today.