Filling budget holes with energy savings through building automation technology

Many organizations are facing budget gaps now or will face them in the coming years. For the purposes of this article, I will use Schools as my example facility type; however, the challenges and solutions outlined apply to most types of facilities in all sectors, whether industrial, commercial or institutional.


There are three main budget challenges that schools will soon face:

  1. ESSER (Emergency Support for Primary and Secondary Schools) funds will be exhausted
  2. Teacher shortages and competition in the education labor market require increases in salaries and bonuses to attract and retain good employees
  3. Inflation of 8.6% in May 2022
  4. Short-term electricity costs (price per kWh) projected to increase 3% (US Energy Information Administration)

This will create problems for school districts in finding funding sources for new construction and renovations. You may even need to access emergency funds to see you through the year. It will be much weaker than previous years and will create gaps that will need to be filled. Districts may struggle to find the money they need to operate. The contractors will do the same.

What is the solution?

The energy gap filler: One of the best sources of “gap filler” is found in energy conservation. Energy management can help sustain a building program. It doesn’t have to come at the cost of sweltering classrooms. Some of the simplest designs and strategies can add up to a lot of savings. If energy can be the focus of attention in the areas of HVAC, lighting, building envelopes, etc., then both suppliers and school districts can take advantage and fill these gaps through energy savings.

There are always those non-LED lights, single pane windows, doors or an old roof unit that needs to be done. Contractors could offer free building inspections and help districts find areas for improvement, offering energy returns as a solution. One can find a project that has never been realized but is still waiting.

The Building Automation Gap Filler: One of the best tools for “filling energy gaps” is Building Automation Systems (BAS) or Energy Management Systems (EMS). They do a lot more than turn things on or off. There are a wide variety of things the right system can do that will save money filling these gaps. Updating a building automation system can result in big savings.

Using time can be a big payoff. A high school in SC, for example, only has to manage whole campus about 2,400 hours out of 8,760 per year. That’s 6,360 hours where savings can happen. An area can save up to 10% per year on heating and cooling by simply moving the set temperature back 7°-10°F for 8 hours per day from its occupied setting (US Department of Energy). This is a great source of revenue, especially since the average school district spends about $2 million a year.

Repair Time = Windshield Time: Windshield time can cost a lot. Hourly labor rates, high gas prices, and even higher vehicle maintenance are great second places to start looking for gap fillers. Avoiding one service call can save $40/hour. up to $50/hour. Remote access to BAS for HVAC, electrical or even water heaters can help determine if one is legitimate or not. This can also help identify and prioritize rooms “needed” that are urgent and others that are not so urgent.

Replacement vs Repair: South Carolina schools operate from two main budgets – general and capital. The best way to transfer money from capital to common is to save energy. Second best is deferred maintenance costs. With return-on-investment (ROI) studies, the district has a better chance of knowing which path to take when replacing or repairing. Life cycle cost analysis (LCCA) should include energy consumption and deferred maintenance costs.

Energy can be used to fill the budget holes that will be a challenge for schools in the near future. If they prepared now, the gaps would be fewer and farther between for both the contractor and the school district.

Tony Holcomb is an energy consultant at Harris Integrated Solutions. He is a retired Director of Maintenance and Operations for Georgetown Schools in South Carolina. He served three years as vice president of the South Carolina Energy Managers Association, won the South Carolina Energy Manager Award in 2016 and won the South Carolina Energy Project of the Year in 2013. For Holcomb, his greatest achievement in career was not to increase the Georgetown County School District’s energy budget for 14 years, helping teachers stay on the job and students learn.

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