In recent months there has been a wave of attention around the so-called "virtual building audit."  Companies promise to solve the energy efficiency woes of building operators with just a few pieces of information. In truth, this tactic is a brilliant innovation: the ability to get a high-level view of your portfolio's performance quickly and inexpensively. But in practice, it's not all that it seems.

It's worth exploring why.

The virtual audit typically uses two pieces of customer-supplied information: the addresses and utility data from a portfolio of buildings. In some cases, just the monthly kilowatt usage will suffice; in others an incremental breakdown is required, sometimes as detailed as hourly electricity consumption over a year. The supplier of the audit then plugs this information into some type of modeler, whether that be a fully automated analytics engine or a souped-up spreadsheet. In the better models, the data is married with weather, utility cost, and building operation data from the corresponding time frame and injected with a little expertise from energy analysts. This system spits out a sky-high view of how those buildings have been performing compared to one another, national averages, or similar buildings in the same region. That's the brilliant part.

With very little investment of resources, customers receive a map of their entire portfolio's performance. For holders of diverse or far-reaching building portfolios, this is an invaluable advantage. This audit affords them the opportunity to compare apples to apples, placing buildings of varying sizes and uses, from across a region, country, or around the world, onto a relative scale. This level of visibility makes it possible for a property manager to see that her data center in Boston is actually performing relatively well compared to her high-rise office building in Denver. Or on a slightly smaller scale, a facility manager in the D.C. area can now see that his company's newly acquired office space is performing far below its headquarters across town. That facility manager now knows exactly where to focus his energy performance improvements. 

But that's where the limits of virtual audits become clear.

The virtual portfolio audit is a starting point, a resource with which to devise the most cost-effective investment strategy. It's an impetus to spur the next, and smartest, move to cut energy costs and reduce environmental impact. That's what many providers of virtual audits seem to miss. It's not enough to spin up an analysis of performance over the past year and then provide a dashboard of interval energy use data going forward. The long-term goal of these customers is not simply to understand their buildings' energy consumption story, but rather to improve upon that performance, thereby drastically reducing both operating costs and impact on the environment. That initial understanding should only be treated as a means to a very powerful end. 

So how do holders of building portfolios make sure they're not shortchanged? By not settling for a simple virtual audit, by demanding a path forward to define and execute a successful energy management strategy that's dynamic, customizable, and constantly improving.

Use the results of the virtual audit to celebrate your successes as well as to identify improvement areas. Pick one or two of your lowest-performing buildings and send an auditor on site to get the rich performance data that only an onsite visit can provide. This step is crucial, and no, a long-winded PDF of the audit report is not enough. Your building’s energy performance is not static, your energy management tools shouldn’t be either.

The data from this audit should live in a dynamic, cloud-based application that empowers you to explore and manipulate energy strategies, modeling the impact of potential improvements. This application should allow you to work with your IT and facility teams to devise and implement the best strategy for your building. But don't stop there. If your budget allows, install sub-metering on your building so you can track the impact of your improvement strategy and make adjustments as needed. Settle for nothing less than continuous feedback about your successes and a system whose guidance improves over time. As savings pile up, continue to reinvest in energy performance, and continue to see the payback. When you're well on your way to that 20 percent energy savings goal, move on to the next building.

A virtual portfolio audit as an energy management tactic isn't enough. Only when used in conjunction with onsite audits, custom energy conservation measures, and live data feeds as a comprehensive energy management strategy does it amount to the brilliant tactic needed to make a meaningful impact.

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Jeff Beck is Product Development Manager of SPARC520, an energy analysis and strategy platform built to empower decision-makers to explore, implement, and optimize a meaningful energy management strategy for their buildings. 

Tags: building efficiency, energy audit, energy management, software