Don't forget about the machinery - the energy systems

Feb. 13, 2014

If the Energy Systems (or "Machinery") in a building aren't operated properly, the utility costs could be 20% or 30% higher than they should be.

Holmes: Watson, did you see the 1966 film, “The Sand Pebbles”, starring Steve McQueen and Candice Bergen that was nominated for eight Academy Awards? I saw it that year at a drive-in movie with a date. I was driving my dad’s red and white, four-door hardtop ’55 Olds and for some reason, I don’t remember much about the movie.

Watson: Me see it? Get serious Holmes. That was 96 generations ago in my family. Why do you mention it?

Holmes: The book that it was based upon contains some of the best explanations of many of the problems I have encountered during my career working with Energy Systems in buildings. McQueen played Jake Holman, a machinist’s mate on the USS San Pablo, a gunboat on the Yangtze River in China during the 1920’s. Jake had never succeeded at much in his life but after joining the Navy at 18 to avoid jail, found that he had a gift for machinery.

In spite of a tough time getting along with others, he had learned that ships “could not get along without the machinery. If it did not run, the ship would be a cold, dark, dead bulk in the water. And it did not work with engines to order them to run and to send down the marines to shoot them if they did not run. No admiral could court-martial an engine. All machinery cared about a man was what he knew and what he could do with his two hands, and nobody could fool it on those things. Machinery always obeyed its own rules and if you broke the rules it didn’t matter how important or charming or pure in heart you were, you couldn’t get away with it. Machinery was fair and honest and it could force people to be fair and honest. Jake Holman began to love machinery.” (1)

Watson: Didn’t you tell me you got court martialed when you were in the Air Force?

Holmes: Of course not. What I said was “nearly”.

Back to the book, Jake said, “… military stuff, drills and inspections … in the end, somebody gives you a mark on it…. It’s always in somebody’s head … But machinery runs good or bad or it doesn’t run at all. You can’t fool yourself or anybody else about it. It’s just there. The same for everybody.” Lastly Holman says, “Men are responsible for machinery, and you can find out who.” (2)

Because he personally enjoyed taking care of ships' engines, Holman asks his Captain to allow him to run the engine room properly, to oversee the operation of the power plant himself, antagonizing not only the chief engine room coolie, but his shipmates as well. When he discovers a serious defect that the coolies have not fixed, most of the other crew members see his attitude as a threat to their cushy arrangement.

Watson: Sounds like what you have encountered in buildings.

Holmes: I can’t begin to tell you how many people have expressed their frustration to me at understanding the “machinery” and knowing what needs to be done to run their Energy Systems efficiently but are not allowed to because of barriers within their organization. One email I received from a 33 year Energy Manager in a $5 billion dollar company expresses it best:

He wrote, “I just read your “Sacred Cow” article in Sustainable Plant and I am elated to find out that there is another living, thinking being on this planet! For the 33 years that I have been working here, it has been a battle against “The Establishment” to try to change tradition within operations.

I HATE waste of any sort, and that includes our utilities. The “low-hanging fruit” was so obvious to me when I started here that, at one frustrated point, I offered to give up my salary in exchange for a percentage of the savings that I knew were possible! A couple of projects required a modest investment. Harder nuts to crack involved cultural changes such as peak load scheduling to eliminate the “stacking effect” of multiple high-kW loads which often had the nasty habit of all peaking during the same 15-minute demand period, literally DOUBLING the electric bill for the month. It took the equivalent of a Master’s Thesis to finally convince all concerned that a simple scheduling change would save ten kilobucks per month - and it continues to do so – with ZERO cost!”

Watson: Seems like common sense to focus on the “machinery” that actually uses the energy.

Holmes: You’re right. In spite of all of people, meetings, PR campaigns, DOE and EPA programs, titles, products, guarantees, claims and other efforts to promote Energy Conservation, from my experience in the field with hundreds of facilities during the past 40 years, I have seen little change in terms of how the energy systems, the “machinery” are operated. Most of the 3rd or 4th generation of employees since the Energy Crisis of 1973-74 that started it all, know little if anything about how to run their energy systems and facilities more efficiently. Most don’t have the academic background or Real World experience.

One of my closest friends who has been in the building energy systems business for nearly 40 years experienced one approach. As he was walking around one of the largest printing plants in the U.S. with the Plant Engineer, the person responsible for all of the utilities, he noticed posters everywhere touting what their Green Teams had accomplished in terms of reductions in energy use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions. He was impressed and asked the engineer what they had done. The Plant engineer’s answer was, “as far as I know, the only thing we have done is put up those posters.”

Today many corporations are setting goals for reducing solid waste, water and energy consumption and employees are scrambling trying to figure out what to do. Unfortunately, many either are not aware of or ignore the one aspect that cannot be ignored – the machinery.

Watson: What do you see as the solution?

Holmes: In my mind the solution always involves the need for education, training and actual field experience combined with valid scientific methods based on actual data. Even more important than those factors however, is incentive. I learned early in my career that Technology is Only a Tool, People are the Key. But don’t confuse me with those promoting the occupants as the key. While their support and cooperation is a factor, the people I am talking about are the owners and top managers, the ones who establish policies, set priorities and approve funding. The people who design the buildings and the people who design, install, operate, control and maintain the energy systems, the “Machinery”. Those are the “people” who make the difference between success and failure. As in a ship, if the “Machinery” in a building doesn’t run, it too will be cold, dark and dead. And if the machinery isn’t run properly the utility costs could be 20% or 30% higher than they should be, wasting both energy and money and impacting the health of the planet.

You might want to read my article, “Don’t Forget About the Systems that Actually Use the Energy" 

Tell us about your experiences, both good and bad with energy professionals, what has worked and what hasn’t. Send us your comments, thoughts and suggestions on how to improve our profession so we can all continue to learn from each other. Thanks – Holmes & Watson.

(1) McKenna, Richard, The Sand Pebbles, Harper & Row, New York and Evanston, 1962, p 47
(2) McKenna, Richard, The Sand Pebbles, Harper & Row, New York and Evanston, 1962, p 60

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