Filling budget gaps with energy savings through building automation technology

Many organizations are facing gaps in their budgets now or will in the coming years. For the purposes of this article, I will use Schools as my object type example; however, the challenges and solutions noted apply to most facility types across all sectors, whether industrial, commercial or institutional.


There are three main budget challenges that schools will soon face:

  1. ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funds will be depleted
  2. Teacher shortages and competition in the education labor market require an increase in salaries and bonuses to attract and retain good employees
  3. Inflation rate of 8.6% in May 2022
  4. Short-term electricity costs (cost per kWh) projected to rise 3% (US Energy Information Administration)

This will cause school districts problems in finding funding sources for new construction and renovations. Even emergency funds may need to be accessed to finish the year. It will be much weaker than in previous years and will create gaps that will need to be filled. Districts can try to find the money needed for work. So will the contractors.

What is the solution?

Energy Gap Filler: One of the best sources of “filling the gaps” is found in energy conservation. Energy management can help sustain a building program. It doesn’t have to come at the cost of crowded classrooms. Some of the simplest projects and strategies can equal a lot of savings. If energy can be the focus in the areas of HVAC, lighting, building envelope, etc., then both vendors and school districts can take advantage and fill those gaps using energy savings.

There are always those non-LED lights, single-glazed windows, doors or old roof units that need to be done. Contractors can offer free building inspections and help districts find areas of improvement by offering energy returns as a solution. One can find a project that has never been achieved and is still pending.

Building Automation Gap Filler: One of the best tools for “deploying energy gap filler” is building automation systems (BAS) or energy management systems (EMS). They do much more than turn things on or off. There are a wide variety of things the right system can do that will save money by filling in those gaps. Updating a building automation system can lead to big savings.

The use of time can be a big payoff. The middle school in SC, for example, only needs to run one all campus about 2,400 hours out of 8,760 per year. That’s 6,360 hours where savings can occur. An area can save up to 10% per year on heating and cooling simply by turning the set point temperature back 7°-10°F for 8 hours per day from its occupied environment (US Department of Energy) . That’s a huge source of revenue, especially since the average school district spends about $2 million a year.

Repair Time = Glass Time: Glass time can cost a lot. Hourly labor rates, high gas prices, and even higher vehicle maintenance are a great second place to start looking for gap fillers. Avoiding a service call can save $40/hour. up to $50 an hour. Remote access to the BAS for HVAC, electrical or even water heater calls can help determine if one is legitimate or not. This can also help identify and prioritize rooms “in need of” that are urgent and others that are not so urgent.

Replacement vs Repair: South Carolina schools operate from two main budgets – general and capital. The best way to transfer money from capital in general is to save energy. Second best is deferred maintenance costs. With return on investment (ROI) studies, a district has a better chance of knowing which way to go for replacement or repair. Life cycle cost analysis (LCCA) should include energy use and deferred maintenance cost as well.

Energy can be used to help fill budget gaps that will challenge schools in the near future. If they were prepared now, the gaps would be smaller and smaller for both the contractor and the school district.

Tony Holcomb is an energy consultant with Harris Integrated Solutions. He is the retired Director of Maintenance and Operations for Georgetown County Schools in South Carolina. He served three years as Vice Chairman for the South Carolina Energy Managers Association, won South Carolina Energy Manager of the Year in 2016 and won South Carolina Project of the Year in 2013. For Holcomb, the greatest achievement his career achievement was not having to increase the Georgetown County School District’s energy budget for 14 years, helping keep teachers employed and students learning.

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