The Limitations of Remote Building Audits

remote audits
Ryan Pollin for Zondits, January 26, 2016. Image credit: Skitterphoto

Last month I wrote an article titled The Potential of Remote Building Audits, which outlined some inventive methods for deciphering building energy consumption patterns and identifying energy efficiency measures without entering the building. Like autonomous vehicles, remote audits are being used today in simple and predictable circumstances. Remote auditing services have been employed by the Depart of Defense and state agencies to prioritize energy efficiency efforts and identify measures in large populations of buildings. But unlike autonomous vehicles, which may be destined to replace the human driver, there is probably no chance that remote audits will take over the building auditing space and become standard fare.

An Incomplete View

The remote auditing that is being employed uses a series of algorithms to split up the total building load seen at the meter into end uses and assess how “correct” the profiles of the end uses seem to be operating. This is great for understanding some types of efficiency measures where buildings operate predictably.

Are the lights on in the office on the weekend? Does the restaurant’s walk-in cooler compressor short cycle? Is the lighting power density in the building too high? Yes, yes, and yes, software can find those measures every time, because they follow obvious patterns that can be isolated.

Will it recognize that the lights are on too long in a 24-hour facility like a hospital? Can it tell that one wing of your office is unoccupied and should not be heated? Does it see the shop floor being cleaned using compressed air? Does it know that the windows in the dormitory room are habitually left open? No, no, no, and no, these common occurrences are all hidden to a remote auditor but stick out like a sore thumb on a walk-through.

Path to Adoption

A major pitfall to the automated approach is literally a lack of human interaction. Identifying efficiency measures is only half of the job – and it’s almost always selling the value of the work that is more difficult. If we took the assumption that software could perfectly ascertain all of the EEMs in a building and deliver a polished report to the building owner, would you want it to? Building the relationship between the building owner and an auditor is a key part of actually implementing the improvements that a building needs. A human auditor in your building demonstrates the hard work of looking behind every locked door, builds trust in the efficacy of the work, and makes connections among humans. In the same way that I might scrutinize opinions rendered on an online forum, I will likely have less trust in a faceless software company telling me to make capital improvements without being able to connect and “feel them out.” Losing that face time with your customer is an inherent part of the remote auditing path, and it may or may not be worth the trade-off.

A Way Forward

The toughest part of an auditor’s job is developing realistic and achievable savings estimates for the efficiency measures they have identified, and this is where inaccuracies have the greatest potential to erode trust. Fortunately, the easier and more reliable part of remote auditing is quantifying annual energy uses and developing an end-use breakdown, a critical point of comparison for realistic savings estimates. In that way, it is quite complimentary to the on-site auditor. Using remote auditing techniques might allow for a quicker way to get to the full picture of a building’s energy use, but it does not replace the depth and flexibility of an on-site auditor.

I have respect for the power of software analytics, and I cheer it on as its ability to utilize gobs of data enables new ways of tackling our urgent energy problems. The remote building audit process is an innovation that may well speed up adoption of EEMs in some market segments. For prioritizing in a commercial property portfolio, or for facilities that cannot otherwise afford a detailed energy audit, remote audits would be enlightening. For the rest of the building stock, remote auditing is best used as a supplement to on-site investigations.