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Retrofit Solutions Must Be Painless

Posted November 15th 2010

At least 60 billion square feet, or 70%, of commercial facilities in the United States do not have communicating, programmable thermostats for HVAC zone control.  Without digital controls to optimize energy use at the zone level, these buildings waste significant energy and incur unnecessary maintenance expense on an ongoing basis.  The total cost of lost energy and labor can range between $0.25-$0.70/ft2 per year, or $15 billion-$42 billion per year for the entire country.  Direct digital control (DDC) retrofit solutions for thermostats have been on the market for over 15 years and can avoid these losses if deployed. So why do building owners and managers continue to let so much money be wasted?

The reason these buildings have not been retrofitted is because traditional DDC retrofit solutions have too many barriers to make adoption feasible for most facilities.  They are costly, invasive and disruptive.  A DDC project can cost up to $3,000 per thermostat, require the cutting open of walls, projects can last months, and tenants have to be moved around.  For a retrofit technology to achieve widespread adoption, the choice must be a “no brainer” for the decision maker.  Every excuse not to move forward with a project must be understood and overcome.

Core to our company’s strategy is to only develop retrofit solutions that are non-invasive, install in minutes and pay back in 18 months.  For HVAC zone control, we developed the Wireless Pneumatic Thermostat (WPT), which can be installed in 20 minutes without disturbing tenants, and costs 80% less than traditional DDC solutions.  By developing a solution with these attributes, we have made it possible for the majority of buildings to have intelligence at the zone level for the first time.

We have found that many of our customers have wanted to retrofit their controls since well before the WPT came onto the market.  However, each potential retrofit ran into roadblocks that made the projects untenable.  Surprisingly, the high cost of retrofitting to DDC wasn’t always a main factor.  For instance, commercial property owners found the invasiveness and disruption meant they could only do retrofits between tenant leases.  However, this meant the current tenants had to endure poor HVAC performance, high costs and comfort issues.  Universities found that the faster installation time enabled by the WPT meant they could retrofit more buildings during their limited project times, accelerating their retrofit plans by several years in many cases.  Hospitals have told us that increased performance for their HVAC systems has long been a need, but they could not afford to close patient rooms for traditional retrofits.

The factors that feed into the decision to proceed with a project are complex and each customer weighs these factors differently.  In existing buildings, the unique nature of each project amplifies these complexities to make otherwise straightforward projects challenging. Since a generally attractive project can be rejected due to a single element not meeting requirements, it is a necessity for new retrofit technologies to make adoption easy in order to be successful.  For green building advocates, it is essential to understand that energy savings alone are not always enough.  The experiences that we have had in introducing the WPT to our clients illustrate that in addition to energy savings, requirements such as high performance, minimal disruption, non-invasiveness, fast payback period and many others must be satisfied to be broadly accepted by the market.

Harry Sim