by Nicole Imeson

In 2019, McKinstry’s national team joined forces with Generate Capital and the Hillsborough County Public School (HCPS) to commission 245 existing buildings in 18 months, focusing mainly on energy conservation measures. HCPS’s portfolio encompasses 29 million square feet, spending $35 million each year on energy and $77 million each year on MEP (mechanical, electrical, plumbing) related repairs. Generate Capital backed the project financially, and HCPS pays for these energy efficiency upgrades through a service payment that matches the identified savings.  This method offers a significant opportunity for school boards lacking the upfront capital to fund a project of this magnitude to implement energy-saving measures without disrupting their operating budget.

The Process

Economy of scale empowered the project team to achieve more with fewer resources. McKinstry, with a team of under 15 people, “used a waterfall project management approach where we split the schools into what we call Tasks of roughly 10 schools apiece. Each pair of team members would be responsible for one report at the end of a 3-week cycle. As soon as we had a grouping of 10 reports, we would drop those into RFPs, and send them out for pricing,” explained Justin Gibides, PE Operations Manager, Technical Services at McKinstry.

In the initial stages, two McKinstry team members were present on site, with one overseeing field observation and functional equipment testing, while the other managed the building automation system (BAS), commanding equipment functions for testing sequences and operations. That was until the pandemic hit in March 2020. 

With only a third of the McKinstry team in the Tampa area, they adapted their strategy to a hybrid team, within each pairing one person was on site and one person worked remotely. Operating in a three-week cycle, each pair systematically tackled one school at a time. During the first week, both the on-site and remote team members prepared for on-site work by going through documentation, reviewing floor plans, noting equipment for testing, and ensuring access to the BAS. The second week involved on-site activities, with most schools needing two to three days to assess all equipment, test systems, and explore every mechanical room. The remote team member signaled devices and sequences from the BAS. 

Since there were more remote team members than local ones, after the second week, the on-site person teamed up with another remote team member to prepare for another school. Meanwhile, the remote team member from the first school spent the third week modeling savings and developing the scope of work for implementing energy conservation measures.  Final Report writing and review of the EBCx report would often spill into the pre-site collection week for the next set of sites. This cycle repeated until all 245 sites were assessed. 

A separate McKinstry team extracted the implementation scope of work from each report and incorporated it into an RFP for local controls contractors to bid on. Generate Capital divided the district into 24 Tasks, each covering about ten schools. After compiling the RFP for one Task (ten schools), it was released for tender. Following this, Generate Capital collaborated with the HCPS board to finalize an agreement for those schools, considering the estimated energy savings and associated service payment. 

Implementing Measures

The implementation measures focused on controls, involving programming, repair, or upgrades. There were limitations due to the age of some BAS systems, and in some cases, there was no BAS. For schools lacking a BAS, existing thermostats on simple systems were upgraded to a model with Wi-Fi capability. This upgrade allowed data to be pulled into the central monitoring hub for HCPS. In cases where the system was more complex, a BAS system was added to enhance visibility and monitoring. However, this wasn’t a perfect, catch-all solution. “We had to really pare down what we were doing or how we were approaching things in a situation where we can't pass data back and forth with the frequency and do everything we wanted to on a capable building automation system” explained Gibides.

Approximately half the schools had electronic drawings, while most others had hard copies on-site. However, almost all schools lacked control shop drawings and systems sequences of operations. Relying on the experience and knowledge of the HCPS Facility Maintenance team, the EBCx team filled in documentation gaps. “We were fortunate to have a few staff members at the regional oversight level who had been there twenty, twenty-five, or thirty years, and knew everything about everything in most cases. And we were able to lean on that” explained Gibides.

Operating Schedules

Focusing on energy savings posed a challenge in 245 facilities with diverse after-school and weekend activities, team sports, and facility rentals. Before the commissioning project, fine-tuning the operating schedules to limit run times when buildings were occupied required manual programming by an operator for each request. The team was also dealing with five different controls systems of varying vintages. Testing and troubleshooting revealed hidden overrides, programming errors, or scheduling access issues.  

Before afterhours booking software could be layered into the BAS, “we had to find and destroy the gremlins within the programming because we found that when applying the technology on top of the existing BAS, the schedules that seemed to control air handling units were not the ones that control the air handling units” explained Gibides. 

Once the gremlins and hidden overrides were removed — a significant effort from the McKinstry and HCPS team — they successfully introduced the booking software system. This system allowed education staff to request after-hours access to specific parts of each school, automatically adjusting the HVAC schedule through the BAS for that part of the building.

Lessons Learned

The project’s scale highlights the importance of prioritizing upfront planning to streamline the process and communication, reducing downtime or inefficiencies. In the early days of the HCPS project, McKinstry targeted the 50 largest energy users within the portfolio based on energy use per square foot — the low-hanging fruit — to showcase success in the EBCx process to Generate Capital and HCPS. 

In commissioning, particularly EBCx, providers typically start with the low-hanging fruit to address the easy items early and justify potential savings. However, these 50 initial facilities were scattered across geography, Task (grouping of ten schools), operations team departments, and controls system types. Due to this, implementing and verifying measures in the initial 50 schools took longer than anticipated. Although the potential savings validated the project, inefficiencies in completing schools “out of order” caused time delays on the back end. 

Moving forward, by prioritizing planning for all buildings in the portfolio the team can group similar buildings together to streamline the process. It’s crucial to recognize that while there are similarities among the 245 HCPS sites, each is a distinct, custom building with its own intricacies and limitations. Planning is a vital part of the commissioning process, but in any EBCx project, unexpected challenges may arise. Therefore, the plan must remain flexible to allow for adjustments on the fly and in the field. 

During the early stages of the pandemic, McKinstry joined forces with Denver Public Schools and US Engineering to commission 177 facilities across 14.9 million square feet in Denver. Their goals were to assess and repair HVAC systems, improve ventilation as schools re-opened after lockdown, increase outdoor air volumes, and improve ventilation controls. Similar to the HCPS project, the Denver team found success in planning and collaborating with facility operators and contractors.

Not limited to schools, other portfolios that can benefit from EBCx on a large scale include hotel chains, data centers, and big box stores. Whether located nationally or regionally, when numerous similar buildings are owned and operated by a single group, there exists an opportunity for EBCx, leading to energy savings and facility improvements.