A building energy audit is one of the most tried and true ways to find out whether or not a building is operating efficiently.

Depending on the size of the facility, an organization’s level of investment in energy management, and the projects that’ve been completed in the past, an energy audit can identify anywhere from energy-bill savings of 10 percent to 40 percent. And if that isn’t a compelling enough reason to put audits at the top of the organizational to-do list, laws and regulations are popping up all over the world requiring buildings with a certain footprint to audit their facilities at regular intervals (e.g., New York’s LL87,Boston’s Building Energy Reporting and Disclosure Ordinance, and San Francisco’s Existing Commercial Building Energy Performance).

But let’s face it: you’re busy, audits take time, and imply boots on the ground and hours spent collecting information. And at the end of the day, you get a report of recommendations that mean more work for you and your team. This approach can be even more daunting if you own a portfolio of buildings.

We get it. It sounds hard, and truthfully, it can be. So are virtual energy audits one way to streamline the process? 

First, let’s start with the definition of a traditional energy audit.

The goal of any energy audit is to identify savings by analyzing data, determining how and where a building is using energy, and then providing operational and capital energy-efficiency measures that improve overall performance.

A traditional ASHRAE Level II Audit includes a manual inspection of data related to a facility’s building envelope, lighting, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC), domestic hot water (DHW), plug loads, and compressed air and process uses (for manufacturing, service, or processing facilities). Analysis is conducted to quantify baseloads and account for seasonal variation. A Level II Audit will also include an evaluation of lighting, air quality, temperature, ventilation, humidity, and other conditions that may affect energy performance and occupant comfort.

The process also includes detailed discussions with the building owners, managers, and tenants -- there is a lot you can learn just by talking to people about what they think is working and not, what the financial objectives of the organization are, and how that should feed into the recommendations. (There are quintillions of pages written about energy audits, but ASHRAE is the definitive source -- so if you want to learn more, check out the ASHRAE website.)

So then, what’s a virtual energy audit?

Essentially, a virtual energy audit is much like a traditional audit: the goal is to synthesize a whole bunch of data and come up with a list of recommendations that are going to deliver you the biggest bang for your buck. Unlike a detailed ASHRAE Level II audit, it’s better to think of virtual audits as delivering against the 80/20 rule. For a lot less physical effort, it’s going to get you about 80 percent of the detailed insights that a traditional ASHRAE Level II energy audit would deliver. And for many organizations, that’s OK, because their biggest, most obvious energy hogs are the ones driving the biggest bills at the end of the month.

Instead of putting boots on the ground at each and every one of your facilities, virtual audits use software to collect meter data, weather information, GIS mapping, information about similar buildings, and other publicly available information. Then, all of that data is pushed through fancy algorithms written by smart people that likely went to MIT or CalTech or other schools where super-geniuses go to do interesting things. Once that is complete, you get a bunch of insights about your portfolio’s performance and recommendations for where to focus on implementing energy-efficiency measures that will deliver the greatest impact.

In theory, we like this approach a lot. Why?

  1. Because it’s super-scalable.
  2. It uses data, and in case we didn’t beat on that drum loud enough, we love data. We can’t get enough of it. But we’re also committed to making it actionable. Data for data's sake is a waste of everyone’s time. 
  3. It’s cheaper than traditional auditing services.
  4. It’s a gateway to more energy efficiency. Once building owners see how much money is just laying around waiting to be scooped up, the business case for doing ongoing analytics using real-time energy data, like our EfficiencySMART Insight software, gets even easier to make.

The downside?

If you’re a pessimist, you’d say that this mile-high view doesn’t go far enough. Sure, it’s useful to gauge which are your best-performing facilities versus which are your worst, or to compare yourself to national averages, but really, is that enough? The answer depends on what you do next.

If you do the virtual audit, and then nothing else, then of course it isn’t enough. But, when used as one tool in your toolbox to execute against a well-thought-out energy management strategy that takes into account the full spectrum of the energy efficiency lifecycle (1. plan and prioritize, 2. implement and manage, and 3. measure and verify), then you’ve given yourself a shot in the arm that can keep those initiatives moving forward, identifying big wins that gain momentum along the way, and set you up for success down the road.

We think there’s a lot to be excited about, but we like "tried and true" as much as the next guy, which is why we’re running a pilot program to offer virtual energy audits to our customers. We think virtual auditing could be an innovation that sparks a wave of more positive momentum for energy efficiency.

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Sarah McAuley is director of marketing and communications at EnerNOC. This piece was originally published at EnerNOC's EnergySMART blog and was reprinted with permission.

Tags: energy efficiency audits, energy management, enernoc, virtual auditing