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Grand Forks County Office Building

Grand Forks County will save about $120,000 annually in energy costs at the courthouse and correctional center by fine-tuning the buildings' healing and air conditioning systems. County officials are confident the potential savings are real because they've seen results.

The county has saved about $250,000 in total energy costs since a similar project was completed at the decade-old County Office Building in 2002.

It's called retro-commissioning, a process designed to conserve both energy and money, as well as provide a more comfortable working environment for employees and visitors.

"It's not smoke and mirrors. It's real, quantified energy savings," said Dave McFarlane, president of McFarlane Sheet Metal and its subsidiary, Environmental Engineering, which the county hired to do the work.

Here's how it works: Environmental engineers review - or audit - all building heating and cooling systems, to determine inefficiencies, especially in air flow. Then, they reconfigure the systems to provide consistent air flow at a constant temperature - within one-half degree, plus or minus, of the temperature setting.

"It's like tuning a car; bul we're tuning the ventilation system," McFarlane said.

Retro-commissioning is a fairly new process.

Computer-controlled

UND retro-commissioned its buildings, converting to computer-controlled heating and cooling systems several years ago. UND estimates it is saving about $500,000 annually in energy costs, according to President Charles Kupchella.

It's an industry that is likely to grow, as the cost of energy continues to rise and energy-conservation measures increase.

Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown also has initialed his own environmental program, Green3, which focuses on three areas - cleaning the environment, increasing energy efficiency and saving money.

McFarlane said his company is working with other governments and large businesses on retro-commissioning plans. The company soon will expand to small businesses and residential property.

"It's just a natural fit, a natural progression, to move into small businesses and residential property, because of higher energy costs and the green movement," McFarlane said.

The county originally hired McFar1ane in 2002 to audit the County Office Building's energy use because the cost of healing and cooling the six-story, 140,000 square-fool building was exceeding projections by nearly 40 percent, according to Grand Forks County Commissioner Arvin Kvasager.

"Money saved on heating and cooling costs can be invested in repairing roads, bridges and improving public safely - services the taxpayers really want." Kvasager said.

County employees also were complaining about being too hot or too cold. Officials learned that it was common to see temperature swings of 5 degrees in rooms throughout the building. Many employees used supplemental electric space heaters to keep warm.

Retro-commissioning the Grand Forks County Office Building involved three steps, beginning with a series of meetings with the County Commissioners' building committee, the design engineer, architect and building maintenance personnel to understand their concerns.

McFarlane and his team spent three months adjusting airflow, tuning thermostat controls, calibrating thermostats and implementing the control sequence improvements.

"It's labor-intensive," McFarlane said. "It's getting the right air flow at the right temperature."

The team then spent time inside the building monitoring the mechanical and electrical systems and also reviewed building plans and system specifications with the design engineers. McFarlane also compared the original architectural and electrical data and specifications with the information his team collected to determine why the building wasn't operating efficiently.

"The building's operating costs were nearly 140,000 BTUs, or $1 .25 per square foot, compared to the 90 cents per square foot originally projected," McFarlane said. "We developed a plan to correct these operating deficiencies and submitted it for review."

The county paid about S100,000 to retro-commission the County Office Building. The courthouse project will cost about $65,000.

He estimates retro-commission projects typically pay for themselves within two years in reduced energy use and costs.

Kvasager said the county expects to save an additional $40,000 per year at the courthouse, where the retro-commissioning was completed last week.

Preliminary stages

While the County Correctional Center is in the preliminary stages of the retro-commissioning process, anticipated savings for this building are expected to exceed $80,000 per year.

The retro-commissioning process is a necessary step to balance and fine-tune systems following construction and is not an indication that the owners or builders made mistakes in the design or construction process, according to McFarlane.

"It would be cheaper if it was designed and incorporated into the construction plans, but that's not the way it's been done in the past," he said. "This retro-commissioning goes beyond normal building parameters."