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Building data tracking beyond energy

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You saw AB 1103 coming, and your buildings are now benchmarking their energy use in ENERGY STAR. And, even though AB 1103 has been postponed yet again, hopefully you have been able to make improvements in building operations via your increased understanding of your building’s energy spending. Now, you want to extend the same idea to other areas in your portfolio. But where do you start? This article will provide best practices for tracking beyond energy to improve your buildings’ sustainability performance on a variety of metrics.

What should I track?

After energy, waste is the next sector of building performance that’s easiest to track. This is because your hauler, if your trash and recycling are serviced by the same vendor, should be able to give you this information immediately. As such, knowing what you divert should be as easy as sending an email.

If your recycling is picked up by a different vendor than your trash hauler, your trash is likely to be billed by volume and your recycling is likely to be reported by weight. In this instance, industry averages are available that will enable you to convert the trash volumes listed on your invoices to tons from cubic yards — a good rule of thumb is about 100 pounds of trash per cubic yard, though this number will vary significantly depending on the composition of the building’s waste stream.

Consider trying to calculate a more accurate number by determining the relative percentages of your building’s trash that come from different sources. Then, use the Environmental Protection Agency’s conversion table to determine the likely weight of an average container of trash in your building, which can be downloaded at: epa.gov/epawaste/partnerships/wastewise/pubs/conversions.pdf.

Also, if your hauler cannot or will not provide diversion information, consider switching haulers. All responsible haulers should be able to provide accurate diversion information every month.

Janitorial purchasing is also very easy to track because materials purchased seldom change. Janitorial products used in your building can be determined from invoices, and then these products can be checked against sites such as GreenSeal (greenseal.org) and EcoLogo (ecologo.org) to see if they meet green cleaning standards. Given that sustainable cleaning products are available at no increased cost or decreased performance, switching from traditional to green cleaning products is straightforward — changing paper products is more difficult because of potential tenant complaints.

An annual audit of janitorial purchasing will ensure that your green cleaning program is being maintained. In addition, tracking how much your building spends on paper towels per year may provide the impetus needed to cut down on their usage. Paper towel dispenser inserts are an inexpensive way to save hundreds of dollars a year in wasted paper towels without generating tenant complaints.

Water is significantly more difficult to track than waste or energy. Because Automated Benchmarking does not exist for water usage, this data must either be pulled manually from invoices or go through a third party’s tracking software, which can be cost prohibitive. Further complicating matters is the fact that every water district’s bills are unique.

A good way to benchmark water is to record the actual usage and the usage charges off the bills, as opposed to including the base charges or fire line charges. Including non-usage charges will inflate the cost per hundred cubic feet (hcf or ccf) you are paying for water, which will in turn inflate the attractiveness of water efficiency projects. An additional best practice, if individual property managers will be asked to maintain the water data for their buildings for the first time, is to have the historical benchmarking complete before the handover. (Hint: this is a good project for an intern.) That way, the property managers are only being asked to benchmark water use going forward, rather than requiring them to dig through old bills to get a year’s worth of data.

Even though benchmarking water is time consuming, water efficiency projects can have some of the quickest paybacks of any efficiency projects in the portfolio. The benchmarking data is essential to determine what these paybacks will be. A good idea for where to start water benchmarking is to figure out where in your portfolio your irrigation systems are watering the asphalt. This is an obvious waste of water, and an irrigation retrofit is likely to pay itself back quickly without compromising the landscape.

Thus, you can use your benchmarking data immediately in a property like this to get an irrigation project off the ground. A word of caution: adding faucet aerators is another popular water efficiency project because of its low cost and quick payback, but your tenants will complain more than your plants if they think they are getting less water, so proceed carefully with an aerator project.

Getting more sophisticated

For large portfolios and portfolios that wish to track a variety of different consumption streams, an investment in third party software designed for this purpose can be worthwhile. This can be especially helpful for sustainability reporting requirements, such as annual Corporate Sustainability Reports or award applications. Some of these software providers have the ability to pull energy and water data directly off of a bill and push that data into ENERGY STAR, eliminating the need for monthly manual uploads. While there are a variety of software options available, CarbonSystems and the data tracking tool provided by the Greenprint Foundation upon joining are popular options.

If you are considering investing in third party tracking software, it is a good idea to make sure that you are not paying for more than you need. Many software packages can track everything under the sun, which can lead to confusing interfaces and a difficult-to-navigate organizational system. Look for a software package that would be easy for anyone on your team to use with minimal training, as this will make it more likely that everyone entering data into the system uses it correctly and regularly.

Also, if you have used your data to implement sustainability projects, remember to let your tenants know about the building’s successes using your data. Tenants appreciate learning about how a revitalized recycling program is increasing diversion rates, and are interested to see the energy reduction that results from a lighting retrofit. Sharing your data regularly with tenants communicates that they are in a building that focuses on sustainability, which can be an important factor in leasing decisions.

From tracking to LEED

There is not much regulation driving tracking currently beyond AB 1103, which is now set to take effect in January 2013. This means that those companies that do provide tracking are better able to differentiate themselves without a large investment in time or dollars. It is true that tracking recycling diversion data will be required eventually, and under AB 32, even low-emitting companies will have to report their carbon emissions eventually, but those requirements are years away. This is why now is a good time to get your buildings in the habit of tracking their consumption streams, as doing so provides a good marketing tool and will eventually be compulsory.

Another reason to start tracking areas like water, trash and janitorial purchasing is to see if a building would be a good candidate for LEED certification under the Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance rating system.

This LEED rating system has many credits that reward buildings and portfolios that track these waste streams (though water needs to be metered weekly, not monthly), as well as other metrics such as the sustainability merits of materials used in tenant improvements. Making tracking a habit in the short term can make the LEED process much easier in the future, and, post-certification, will make recertification a smoother process.

Data tracking is the foundation of any building’s sustainability programs, and though energy is where most buildings start tracking, there are great opportunities to use building data to make improvements elsewhere in your building. Tracking waste, janitorial purchasing, and water can help a building launch efficiency projects, communicate sustainability successes to tenants, and streamline LEED certifications, which will justify the additional effort.

-Neff is the director of sustainability programs at Kilroy Realty Corporation.

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