HVAC recommissioning aims to make thermostats work like new

Is your office too hot or cold? Does the thermostat work?

An ongoing effort to recommission heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in select campus facilities is intended to fix those issues, though it will take a long time to get to every building.  

Since FY16, a two-person team with facilities planning and management (FPM) has been recommissioning a handful of buildings per year, restoring HVAC systems to their original operating condition, said Robert Milbrandt, FPM's interim manager of energy management.

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It's an emerging best practice many universities are trying in hopes of reducing energy usage by 10 to 30 percent, Milbrandt said. At Iowa State, the main impetus for correcting heating and cooling issues is improved working conditions.

"We're looking at it more for occupant comfort, making people's lives better. That's our primary goal," he said. "We're on the maintenance side. We get all the hot and cold calls."

In the first year, the team tackled Jischke Honors Building, Hixson-Lied Student Success Center, and Catt and Sweeney halls. Black Engineering, Durham Center, Howe Hall and the Seed Science Building were addressed in FY17. Since July, the new targets are the college of Design and Veterinary Medicine, Parks Library, Gerdin Business Building and the Livestock Infectious Disease Isolation Facility.

Milbrandt said it's too soon to tell whether the recommissioning efforts have reduced energy usage or maintenance calls about room temperatures, given the small sample size and the variations in weather year-to-year.

"I think if you give it time, some of that will shake out," he said. "The sentiment we're getting from people, in Catt for example, is it's much better. But it's hard to quantify."

The process begins at the heart of each building, as the technicians put the major mechanical systems through their paces and check to make sure valves and dampers operate normally. They work their way out to a building's individual rooms, where they calibrate thermostats.

Minor issues are fixed when they're found, and most of them seem to be in individual rooms, Milbrandt said. More expensive fixes are added to the university's list of deferred maintenance projects. Buildings are selected based on their age and complexity, as well as their history of room temperature complaints.

Though the focus is on heating and cooling, other issues are discovered sometimes. In Black Engineering, for example, the recommissioning team corrected a pressurization problem that sometimes made it difficult to open doors and caused ventilation issues in some of the building's labs.

As the team moves on to bigger buildings, it's exploring ways to streamline its process, such as only inspecting individual rooms if an occupant responds to a survey asking if temperature control has been a problem. But with an annual budget of $200,000, reaching every building on campus will be a lengthy process, Milbrandt said.

"If you're only doing four buildings a year, and we have over 100 on campus, it'll be 25 years before we get done, and by then we'll have to start over," he said.