Occupant engagement program helps to save energy, money

Jacob Roibal installs a smart power strip in an office at WSU.
Jacob Roibal installing a smart power strip in a WSU office.

In the office sat four computer monitors, three space heaters, a refrigerator, and coffee machine. The space heaters were running continuously, but the WSU employee was still freezing. So, they often worked remotely. The energy use in the 160-square-foot office was astounding — equal to that used by a family of four in a 2600 square-foot home.

Many people like to look for high-tech and sophisticated solutions for solving global climate change and environmental challenges, but sometimes they’re missing what can be at least one easy first step: changing their behavior.

That’s the idea behind the Energy and Comfort at WSU program. The program, run through Washington State University’s Integrated Design and Construction Laboratory (ID+CL), aims to reduce WSU’s energy costs, normalize energy-saving behavior, and increase people’s comfort and wellbeing.  It began in late 2020 with a system-wide survey of over 2000 WSU employees and interviews with about 80 individuals in selected Pullman campus buildings. In partnership with WSU’s Facilities Services, the program was developed to complement ongoing initiatives centered around improved building performance, energy conservation and deferred maintenance reduction.  This program is sponsored by WSU’s Revolving Energy Fund. 

“This is an energy and comfort campaign, but we’re engaging with occupants and tenants through some strategies and interventions that we’ve learned along the way that help maximize occupant comfort while also minimizing energy use,” said Julia Day, ID+CL director and an associate professor in WSU’s School of Design and Construction who leads the program.

Buildings use about 40% of all energy consumed in the US., with much of that powered by fossil fuels, according to the Energy Information Administration. The state of Washington’s 2019 Clean Buildings Act, signed into law in 2019, requires that larger commercial buildings meet certain energy standards. Another law, the Climate Commitment Act, calls for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from Washington’s largest sources and industries. The goal of new standards is to lower costs and pollution from commercial buildings’ fossil fuel consumption and to improve their energy performance. 

“These new laws will have significant impacts across all campuses,” said Day. “A lot needs to happen, and it’s difficult to make a lot of the needed capital improvements. It’s why we’re doing a low-cost, low-impact, behavior-based program. These measures will be important to meet those goals.”

Julia Day, Zachary Colligan, Anna Post, and Shelby Ruiz at the GPSA Showcase.

The program started with three buildings on the Pullman campus and has grown to six. The buildings were chosen because they use a lot of energy, and the employees there are mostly administrators with consistent schedules and regular hours, allowing the researchers to more easily measure their success.

While it’s challenging to measure in many buildings, social and behavioral interventions have been shown to reduce energy use up to 20%, said Day. While the WSU program is pursuing behavioral efforts, the researchers also have provided about 300 energy-saving, smart power strips that automatically turn off power during non-office hours. Since the program started, they have seen a 40% reduction in energy use from plug-in uses, such as computers and monitors, in those offices. 

“It’s a win-win for all of us,” said Day. “The strips and our program pay for themselves and compound savings over time. If we install 200 strips every year, we can get over $1 million in compounded savings just from installing smart surge protectors. The impact is huge over time.” 

WSU’s program is different from many utility-based behavior programs because the researchers aim to develop relationships with the building occupants. Improving understanding of the occupants’ behavior, needs, and preferences can then lead to positive changes, said Day. Most people don’t want to be told they have to save energy, but they do care about their health and comfort. 

In the case of the employee with three space heaters, one problem is that they were caught in a negative comfort loop. With one space heater directly underneath the office’s temperature sensor, the sensor was recording the room temperature at 90 degrees, so the building’s automatic thermal controls kept lowering the temperature, blowing in air conditioning. The more that the employee tried to warm the room with energy-sucking space heaters, the more the system tried to cool it. Sometimes those comfort traps also ensnare neighboring co-workers as the heating system for one group of offices might get competing messages from individual offices.

“It wasn’t efficient and it also wasn’t achieving what they wanted it to,” said Shelby Ruiz, research project manager in the IDCL. “They were stuck in this comfort loop, and all the while we’re spending more and more energy because people don’t understand how that system works. It’s not their fault, but that’s why we are here on the ground to help.”

The WSU team is working to expand the program, hoping to add three additional buildings next year. They have enlisted the help of volunteers to support energy efficiency efforts, and they offer energy and comfort training through WSU’s Percipio training platform

To bring energy savings together with comfort for people has been the focus of Day’s work for much of her career, including through the establishment of the ID+CL. 

“The idea is about building buildings for people but also finding ways to make them as sustainable as possible,” she said. “I don’t think that has to be mutually exclusive. Just because a building is energy efficient doesn’t mean you have to be uncomfortable.” 

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