July 2011
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Plugging Into Automation
Plug-loads typically comprises one quarter to one third of a
commercial building’s electricity consumption.
Annette Bellafiore
Annette Bellafiore, LEED AP
Communications & Marketing Manager
ThinkEco, Inc. 

  

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The phrase “automated buildings” conjures up images of sophisticated monitoring and control systems working around the clock to balance occupant comfort and energy consumption and to keep mechanical and lighting systems functioning optimally. Building automation systems (BAS) can improve building performance by 20%.  But there is a key aspect of the building’s performance that is typically missing from this picture, an element that typically comprises one quarter to one third of a commercial building’s electricity consumption: plug-loads.

While the energy efficiency of individual appliances and electronic devices has improved significantly over the past 30 years, the number of devices in homes and commercial offices has more than tripled in the same time. Standby power from plugged-in equipment accounts for more than 100 billion kilowatt hours of annual U.S. electricity consumption and more than $10 billion in annual energy costs, and these numbers will keep growing if we do not collectively take control of the situation.

In a typical office environment, there are a myriad of plugged-in devices – from printers to computers to water coolers and coffee makers – that consume energy 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, even though offices are only occupied for about one-third of the time. So even after employees have left for the evening or weekend, most equipment sits idle, using power and wasting money and electricity.

Manually tackling plug-load energy waste can seem challenging since it occurs throughout the building at each individual plug. The good news is that there are now technological options that help simplify and automate these savings.

Modlet Quantifying the Waste

The first step in solving the plug-load energy waste problem is to quantify the scope of the waste and then identify the biggest energy offenders. ThinkEco, Inc., a New York-based company focused on plug-load energy management solutions, launched its Eco Empowered Initiative in 2010 to help businesses do just this.  The initiative included a diverse set of participants – 112 sites across 82 organizations ranging from schools to offices to financial institutions – and monitored over 460 electric devices.

To monitor energy consumption, ThinkEco used its patent-pending modlet® and proprietary web application. The modlet (for modern outlet), plugs directly into existing outlets and monitors the real-time energy consumed by plugged-in equipment. This data is then wirelessly communicated to the user’s computer and viewed through the ThinkEco Power Manager, instantly shedding light on the energy waste that was once hidden.

 Energy Usage 1 day
The results of the Initiative showed that printers, multifunction devices and desktop computers waste the most energy in the office environment.  Taking printers as an example, the source of energy waste is multi-fold, which may seem surprising given that most printers are equipped with a low power-consuming sleep mode. To begin with, the Initiative revealed that sleep power consumption is not one-size-fits-all – in fact, it ranges from 3 – 100 watts depending on the size, functionality and brand of printer. Monitoring also revealed that printers don’t always behave as they should - low toner, a paper jam or some other warning can prevent a printer from sleeping for many days. Finally, many printers are simply underutilized: over 40% of printers in the Eco Empowered Initiative performed just 5 – 15 print jobs per day, and 30% performed less than 5 print jobs per day.


Printer power profile

Desktop

Energy waste is not limited to traditional office equipment either.  Vending machines, coffee makers and water dispensers are also major sources of energy waste in the break room. To quench employee’s thirst, these beverage machines run cooling or heating cycles 24 hours a day to constantly keep beverages cold or hot. Cold beverage vending machines use the most energy of all plugged-in equipment in a typical office – using 128 – 350 watts at all times and costing up to $450 per year. Single brew coffee makers are typically well-utilized during the morning and then again in the afternoon, but consume an average of 52 watts at all times to keep water hot just in case someone wants another cup. Hot and cold water dispensers work double duty, consuming 64 watts on average to maintain water at two different temperatures.

Curbing the Waste

After uncovering these varied sources of energy waste in the office, users in the Eco Empowered Initiative created schedules that allowed the modlets to automatically turn their electronic devices on or off. From pre-programmed to custom schedules, the modlet system allowed both large and small-scale participants to save energy in a set-it and forget-it manner.

By utilizing the modlet system, participants saved between 6 – 10% on their electricity bills. On an appliance level, this translated into 35 – 80% per device.  Participants typically scheduled their devices to turn off for 12 hours on each week night and for the whole 48 hour period during the weekend.

Savings Potential

Since modlet scheduling automatically turns devices back on in the morning before employees arrive, participating companies were able to save money without the employees even knowing that their printer or favorite beverage machine was turned off for the night.

Helping Building Occupants in More Ways Than One

The advantages of a complete plug-load management system go beyond energy monitoring and control. Since plug-loads are so localized, employees can monitor their personal energy consumption and become an active partner in reducing it. In this way, the modlet system has been used by corporations to engage individual employees in corporate social responsibility efforts. 

Plug-load management systems like the modlet also help in equipment purchasing decisions for facilities managers. The power consumption profiles for each device help managers compare the efficiency of different printers, for example. In addition, the modlet provides insight into how frequently the equipment is used, which can help managers determine the optimal number and distribution of devices within an office.

In summary, plug-load management systems not only complement traditional BAS to provide total building energy monitoring and control, but provide other value-added benefits to tenants while boosting overall building energy efficiency.  Together, lights, HVAC systems and now individual electronic devices can be managed optimally, painting a brighter picture for sustainable building automation.


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