COVID-19 and Commercial Energy: Realizing and Sustaining Savings

Most of the content generated the past few months has centered around the health issues with building capacities and COVID-19. One aspect that has gotten limited discussion is the reduction in energy usage and real-time data collection.  

In the three months since shelter in place orders were mandated, commercial clients have pivoted and begun to analyze how much less energy they are using compared to normal operations. Yardi’s commercial client base includes a wide variety of office and retail (mall) space. Here is what we have learned. 

Less usage, more savings?

Most of our commercial clients who have conducted full COVID-19 shutdowns reduced energy consumption by 40% on average compared to normal operation. Many are surprised to learn that it is not more. Clients who have seen the best results with their energy management strategy are achieving savings of around 50%. This raises two questions. First, why is there only a 40% savings for the average office building or mall? Second, what do the best in class energy managers do to achieve an additional 10% savings? 

To address the first question, many commercial building managers tend to overlook the fact that most of these buildings are occupied 50% of the time or less, due to nights, weekends and holidays.  During these times, many buildings still operate what is called base load, which runs 24/7. Examples include emergency lights, telecom and data systems, refrigeration and HVAC to prevent freezing and humidity problems. When a building is vacant, including now due to the pandemic, these all still operate. As a result, a commercial building cannot go to zero energy use. This base load will continue to grow as tenants expand operations such as data centers that run 24/7 which also need air conditioning to stay cool. 

What do best-in-class energy managers do to achieve more savings? Most importantly, they identify loads that are not necessary when buildings are not occupied and turn these loads off. Some of these are referred to as “vampire loads” because they consume energy with no benefit. Examples of these vampire loads include equipment such as copiers, vending machines, coffee pots, personal items plugged into cubicles, stairway lights, small heaters under desks and so on.  

The best-in-class energy managers conduct energy audits or surveys to identify these loads and find ways to make sure they are off when the building is unoccupied. One process now recommended by the USEPA and ENERGY STAR is to conduct “treasure hunts” to find these loads to make sure they are off when a building is unoccupied, regardless of whether it is a weekend, holiday or a sustained shut down like the one prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Simply put, the best energy managers are really good at sniffing out energy wasters and turning these off when not needed. 

Many commercial building operators are now becoming more profitable by reducing wasted energy use regardless of whether they are operating under normal conditions or in a special case like COVID-19. The use of dashboards and analytics to drive in-depth solutions for energy management are becoming more and more prevalent. COVID-19 has caused building operators to become more aggressive at reducing wasted energy consumption. 

The value of timing 

Utilities are one of the highest controllable expenses in real estate. Accounting processes and more intelligent data systems are driving the ability to increase savings. But just as important as the access to more information is the timing of the data. Monitoring real-time performance of your building and addressing performance issues as they occur will save money, keep systems working at optimal levels and improve tenant comfort. By only accessing data from utility invoices, it would take months to reflect any changes in consumption due to the pandemic. Real-time data gives you the ability to measure the specific impact of energy improvements and use those metrics to make long-term energy goals and plan future projects. 

Energy efficiency has increased in significance as businesses seek ways to cut costs and future-proof their operations. Because savings potential is largely determined by how effectively you collect data from each building in your portfolio, you need to assess each building’s unique needs. Energy Information Systems (EIS) are affordable tools consisting of a combination of software, data acquisition hardware and communication systems that collect, analyze and deliver real-time energy data to your management team. Facility managers, engineers and even occupants themselves are able to make decisions based off this analysis. An EIS makes baseline comparisons using sophisticated consumption modeling to predict how much energy any load should consume. Weather, occupancy, humidity and other factors are drivers incorporated into these baselines. 

By comparing consumption data to established baselines, facility managers can identify cost control measures and monitor performance issues proactively instead of after they become more expensive or impact tenant comfort. 

Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things are a driving force behind the improved timing of energy data decisions. Smart utility meters, smart thermostats, automated lighting, entry point occupancy sensors and other revolutionary equipment has greatly improved the accuracy and timing of data collection. The gradual return to workplace settings will see other intelligent tools, such as the pre-heating or cooling of conference rooms and predictive data, reflecting changed occupancy levels. These will in turn determine how to save energy while keeping tenants comfortable. 

As the use of enhanced technologies continues to expand, it is incumbent on facility managers to use the data at their disposal to make decisions that impact cost savings in the near and long terms. Systems will continue to learn and predict more efficiently as data from standard building usage and reduced occupancy continues to evolve. 

This article was written by Ray Segars, Consultant, Energy & Sustainability at Yardi Systems.

About the author

A consultant with Yardi Systems, Ray Segars is a professional with over three decades of experience in the energy industry. Prior to working with Yardi, he worked for a regional energy utility and consulted independently. His education includes a BS from Georgia Tech and an MBA from Georgia State University. Ray earned the Certified Energy Manager (CEM) certification awarded by the Association of Energy Engineers (AEE) in 2010. In addition to the CEM, he has submitted papers and presented at AEE conferences and is vice president elect for AEE Region 2 for the 2020-2022 term. He also earned the LEED Green Associate accreditation from the USGBC and Fitwel Ambassador accreditation from Fitwel in 2019.

About Yardi Systems, Inc.

Yardi® develops and supports industry-leading investment and property management software for all types and sizes of real estate companies. Established in 1984, Yardi is based in Santa Barbara, Calif., and serves clients worldwide. For more information on how Yardi is Energized for Tomorrow, visit