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The Impact of COVID-19 on Energy Efficiency

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the world in many ways. It has had an immeasurable impact on our habits and the way we live and work, making us adapt to a new way of life. One of the puzzling findings from the COVID-19 pandemic is that the energy consumption in office buildings was not observed to drop significantly even though people have been working from home for a while now.

While it is no surprise that energy consumption in residential buildings has increased, it is certainly perplexing that energy use in commercial buildings hasn’t dropped more considering the low occupancy rates in the offices. The energy consumption of the Empire State Building in New York was recorded to decrease only by 28%. Similar recordings have been observed all over the world.

So what was the impact of COVID-19 on energy efficiency? Let’s find out.

If there is no one using the commercial building, why is it still running?

The answer lies in unchanged building maintenance practices.

A well-designed and managed building can save energy if air conditioning and lights are managed at nights, weekends and holidays through centralized controls. The same approach should apply during pandemics. Instead, what we are seeing reveals to us the disadvantageous trends in building energy consumption.

Office buildings, even though nearly empty, still have the same levels of lighting and ventilation in place as they did before everyone started working from home. This is a practice that hasn’t changed even though the landscape for office work has. Working from home means that students and workers alike are plugged into the same energy server at home for long periods of time. That’s why the impact of COVID-19 on energy efficiency has remained more or less the same.

Transitioning out of lockdown has also been tricky for offices. It requires careful planning and coordination because naturally, the health and safety of the employees and customers is the utmost priority. Whether you work at a school, restaurant, mall or office building, there are many factors to consider when it comes to cleanliness and safety. In addition to tracking the employees in the office, measuring the temperatures or using masks and other safety equipment depending on the workplace, there is valuable guidance and recommendations provided by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).

How can you improve health and safety while still being energy efficient?

If energy efficiency has been a priority for your business, it can be seen that these recommendations advocate an approach that puts precedence on health and safety within the building. That means a temporary change in the approach to how you manage energy use in the building, since health and safety is of greater importance during a pandemic.

Alpin consultants are trained to find the most cost-efficient ways to ensure that in the long term that employees and customers are protected and secure, but that buildings remain as energy efficient as possible. Here are some of their tips:

  1. Optimized air filtration – Improving central air filtration using filters with a minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) of 13 or 14. These filters do a splendid job of keeping particulate matter out of the air and at 2.5 microns wide, they also filter out virus carriers and dehumidify the workplace more effectively. At the same time, these types of filters can significantly add resistance to the air flow, leading to increased energy usage in the system and pressure in the duct system. To offset this increase, consider setting a flexible work schedule that reduces the number of employees in the office at a given time.
  2. Air purifiers – Using portable high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters can help remove particles from indoor air that may cause allergies, such as pollen or dust. This improves employee comfort throughout the building. While this is an increased energy cost, there are energy efficient options available for portable air purifiers that can help to minimize the expense. For example, ENERGY STAR purifiers could be nearly 60 percent more efficient than traditional models, if the HEPA filters are maintained properly and replaced every three months.

Even though it can be a potentially costly investment during these challenging times, upgrading to an Energy Management System can transform the way you manage and consume energy across your facility. They integrate seamlessly with your existing building management systems and pay for themselves in just a few years by dramatically lowering your energy and equipment maintenance cost.

Simple energy saving tips

The pandemic has been a demanding time for businesses. You don’t need to invest significantly in energy efficiency to make a difference. There are much simpler ways to save:

  • Programmable thermostats – energy bills can reduce as much as 10% annually by turning thermostats back 7-10ºC for 8 hours a day from its normal setting. Installing a programmable thermostat that lowers the setting in an unoccupied space can make a big difference
  • Using LED bulbs and turn off lights – energy efficient LED bulbs use 25 to 80% less energy than traditional bulbs and last three to 25 times longer
  • Invest in insulation – insulation is an effective way to enhance workplace comfort. That’s because insulation makes it harder for the heat to escape and avoid drafts in the winter. It can also keep the workplace cooler in the summer and prevent condensation which later results in mold or moisture issues
  • Utilize advanced power strips – a high percentage of electricity could be used by electronic devices that are plugged in 24 hours a day, even when they are off. Computers, televisions, modems, cable boxes, printers, chargers and more consume a small volume of watts when plugged in but not in use. Advanced power strips have built-in features that are designed to reduce the amount of energy used by many consumer electronics. By replacing the standard power strip with an advanced power strip, you can significantly cut the amount of electricity used by your home office and entertainment center devices, and save money on the electric bill.
  • Re-commission electro-mechanical systems – Even though the re-commissioning of existing electrical and mechanical systems may be a rigorous process compared to the above tips, it will help us to identify the issues that may possibly be hindering the equipment’s to function in optimum condition and in turn result in improved energy efficiency of systems, reduced operating costs and improve thermal comfort and quality. Systems such as fresh air handling units are all the more important in current situation, as it directly impacts the quality of fresh air and occupant comfort inside the building

The complete process allows for in-depth analysis of the existing electro-mechanical systems installations and includes 4 clear-cut steps namely planning, assessment, investigation and implementation. The process is required to be supervised by an accredited commissioning agent.

Putting occupant health safety first doesn’t always mean having to put energy efficiency last. With the right investments in technology and simple hacks, we can improve both building safety and efficiency at the same time while making our facilities more flexible to respond to whatever comes next. Ultimately, these measures could have minimized the impact of COVID-19 on energy efficiency.

Want to read more about improving indoor air quality? Read more about the various green building rating systems available in the GCC.