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Article - October 2003
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ENDING THE BLACKOUT BLUES

 

Thomas Hartman, P E
The Hartman Company

 

 

We need (REALLY need) to improve the way our industry delivers more advanced technologies to our building construction projects. 

Anyone who endured the recent eastern electrical blackout knows the enormity of the social and human toll this event caused. While the economic cost can be put into numbers, the so called "soft" costs were in many places much greater and certainly more devastating to those who experienced them. For better or for worse, electricity, and energy in general has grown in just several generations from a luxury to a necessity. In some places and to some people it is every bit as necessary to their lives as the air they breathe.

The simple but tragic sequence of events that led up to the largest blackout ever in North America could have easily been avoided. This fact has been cited by experts as proof that the outdated structure and practices of the electric utility industry caused the needless event. So, most experts conclude, the blackout constitutes a wake up call to the utility industry for fundamental changes in industry practices to ensure such an event is not repeated.

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The experts are only half right. What they are missing is the second and equally important cause of this tragic event. The truth is, the same type of outdated industry structure and practices plague the energy conversion industry that operates on the building side of the electric meter - our HVAC industry. And our industry's failure to come to grips with it has resulted in HVAC electric energy use to be about double what is easily achievable, making our industry every bit as responsible for this tragedy as the utilities. That we have not yet had to bear the blame is a gift, and should be seen as a wakeup call of our own - that we need (REALLY need) to improve the way our industry delivers more advanced technologies to our building construction projects. And perhaps we can do so if we can avoid the glare of publicity while we work to more efficiently utilize the increasingly precious energy resources available. It won't be a simple process, but I'd like to cite here two simple things all of us can do right now that will most certainly move us in the direction of real improvement.

First, take responsibility for our designs. I was recently listening to an engineer discuss problems with a central cooling plant he had designed. It seems at startup, the operators began overriding the controls thus disabling his carefully designed optimization controls. I was astonished that this designer seemed to assume no responsibility whatsoever for this resulting failure of his design to meet its projected level of performance. Had I been the Owner, I would be most unhappy with a designer who charges me for developing a design with high performance operational goals, but takes no responsibility for meeting them! Making certain operators are properly trained and supported for effective operation is every bit an important design responsibility as ensuring all the other special site conditions associated with a plant design are accommodated.

The underlying problem in this project was a lack of communication between the designer and operations staff and/or operations management. Such communication is always difficult because it is hindered by the disconnected nature of the design - construction - startup processes. But it is up to the designer to understand and accommodate the elements of each of these processes that are critical to the success of the design. If the operator does not fully understand the operational intent of the system, and the designer does not understand the maintenance procedures and other constraints on system operation, this type of unhappy result is almost automatic. Designers should be encouraged to think of their role as similar to conductors in an orchestra. This orchestra is composed of many disciplines and trades. Simply having the right score in front of everyone won't guarantee that the music comes out right. As the conductor, the designer needs to take the time to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each element of the entire process. In doing so problem areas can be identified and special attention directed to them. Accepting leadership responsibility can be difficult for engineers in this era of litigation, but my personal experience (and that of many of my successful colleagues) is that the more interest and responsibility the design engineer takes during the design process, the less vulnerable he or she will be to problems that result from factors beyond his or her immediate control. As one of my colleagues put it. "Taking responsibility for the performance of your design is not just the right thing to do, it's the only way to really protect yourself today!"

Designers who back away from taking responsibility for their designs are not only contributing to our industry's failure to implement newer technologies effectively in order to keep pace with higher and more efficient system performance capabilities, but they are shooting themselves in the foot in terms of liability protection as well! Reversing this situation is a win-win situation. Today's owners are sophisticated enough to know that there is a difference between the designer's taking responsibility and a guarantee of optimum results. Not all orchestras are the New York Philharmonic, but a great many can play Beethoven or Mozart well enough to earn the audience's gratitude and appreciation.

Reliable Controls The second most important point of advice for today's design engineer is to be open to new ideas and approaches. In another recent conversation - this one with a controls manufacturer's software developer, I was amazed how satisfied this individual was with the current control technologies we use - this in spite of the fact that he readily conceded control systems today are very much underutilized and systems generally operate much less efficiently than is possible. I found myself thinking to myself during the conversation that this shows how deeply stuck in the mud our industry is. Closing our minds to new approaches even while acknowledging a potential for improvement is the sign of an industry in great crisis. Very few in this industry would suggest that our overall performance is adequate, but surprisingly few are actually willing to accept new approaches in order to improve the situation.

Developing project documents that mandate competitive procurement is a very good process, but doing so using the principle of equal products and services is a foolish concept that simply does not work. How can a design succeed that is based on a newer technology if the procurement process mandates that the only products or services that can be considered are those for which at least two or three other identical ones already exist? As silly and outdated as this procurement procedure is, very few designers will do the work required to use a performance based or one of the many other alternative procurement processes that are available to nearly every project. As a result designs cannot readily incorporate new technologies, or if they do, those new technologies are often lost in the procurement process. For too many of our profession, this dumb but widely employed procurement constraint is actually a relief, making the design job much easier by seemingly forcing them into doing things the old way.

Actually being open to new approaches and technologies requires much more than a passive acceptance of new ideas, concepts or products that are shown to be effective. When asked, nearly all engineers say they are open to such new things. But to really be so, also means we have to be ready to put forth the effort required to find out how these new products and services really work and to be sure we have adequately accommodated them, not just in the design, but also in the procurement and the startup/turnover processes.

To summarize, these two simple steps of taking more responsibility for our designs and being more open to new technologies often actually requires significant effort on the part of the designer and cooperation among other members of the design, construction and operations team. Ultimately organizing the design, construction and startup/turnover processes to accommodate new technologies must be done by the designer as the conductor of the overall implementation process. However, the effort can be enormously beneficial. Not only does the designer and client benefit, but the huge reductions in energy use that can accrue from such improved designs will make it far less likely anyone will have to endure the blackout blues in the future!


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