What's Hogging All The Energy?

By Craig Bouk

With the right mix of expert consulting and financing, city officials can reap thousands of dollars in annual energy savings from community recreation centers with little or no up-front cost.

Because of their unique attributes and as large consumers of energy, recreation centers present the greatest opportunity for energy savings, even for centers built within the last decade.

But there’s more to this than just saving a buck. Building “green” and limiting our carbon footprint is vitally important for citizens throughout the country. Reducing energy use in recreation centers--the number-one energy hog among public buildings--honors a community’s environmental ethic, even during dismal economic times.

Another plus for recreation center managers is that the sizeable energy savings can be obtained without any diminishment of customers’ enjoyment.

Green Is Misunderstood
One of the biggest obstacles to increasing efficiency has traditionally been concern over the cost-benefit ratio. In a survey we conducted at Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture late last year of 220 recreation-center professionals across the country, nearly 75 percent said their communities considered “being green” “very important.” But 50 percent of the survey participants said the biggest obstacle to becoming greener was concern about the cost.

After designing more than 150 community recreation centers throughout the country, our firm has discovered the concern over cost-benefit ratio is often misplaced. Traditional financial metrics--such as return on investment--tend to undervalue the benefits of energy-saving strategies, particularly in a weak economy.

The energy savings, or the “benefit” in the cost-benefit ratio, are frequently greater than most people realize. Buildings consume more than three-quarters of all the electricity produced by American power plants. And among public buildings, recreation centers use more energy per-square-foot than schools, hospitals and even convention centers.

It is important to understand, however, that recreation centers are complex facilities providing a mix of activities in varied settings to many people at the same time. Spaces that distinguish a recreation center from other buildings include natatoriums, aerobics rooms, locker rooms and two-story open spaces that present complex ventilation, heating and humidification problems. They are also open long hours.

Because of these unique features, strategies that may save energy in other buildings don’t necessarily work for recreation centers.

A Balanced Diet
So, where do community officials and facility operators begin in their quest to wean recreation centers from an excessive diet of energy consumption? That question and others were asked of expert engineers, facility operators and city officials recently assembled for a two-day conference on saving energy.

These experts agreed the first step to saving energy is to find out how and where the energy is being consumed, and at what price per unit, by conducting a comprehensive energy audit or re-commissioning of the recreation center. The audit’s purpose is to discover if the facility’s various mechanical systems and equipment are performing as originally intended, as well as seeing if new technology is available to provide additional energy savings.

Mechanical systems account for approximately two-thirds of the total energy use in an average 60,000-square-foot recreation center. Lighting consumes roughly one-quarter of the annual energy use. Recreation centers with natatoriums can spend as much as a third of their energy dollars heating and sanitizing the swimming pool water, and providing warm, clean air in the indoor swimming environment.

Implementing the recommendations of a thorough energy audit can often reduce a recreation center’s annual energy bill by 30 percent or more.

Energy audits can be performed by in-house staff, outside contractors or a combination of the two. When it comes to recreation centers, it is essential your audit team has extensive knowledge of how these facilities are used, and how the varied and complex systems are integrated.

Audit teams with little specific understanding of recreation centers too frequently recommend the least-expensive alternative, ignoring the importance of long-term durability the centers require. As noted by an official with a recreation district, a re-commissioning done by the local utility was “very disappointing” because the contractor lacked creative ideas, and “did not understand the environment we wanted to provide our guests.”

The safety, comfort and enjoyment of the recreation center’s customers can’t be sacrificed in the name of energy efficiency. With an experienced audit team, they don’t have to be.

Paying The Bills
Finally, immersed in a recession, how do we pay for an energy audit and any energy-saving suggestions it may produce?

Perhaps the simplest way is to enter into a performance contract with a private energy-service company (ESCO). The ESCO will identify and implement energy-savings opportunities with the up-front cost paid for by the annual savings these suggestions produce, and will also assist in finding financing for the up-front costs. If the promised savings are not realized, the ESCO pays the difference, not the facility.

ESCOs usually work with facilities that have a minimum of 50,000 square feet of floor space and an annual energy bill of at least $60,000. Since ESCOs aren’t in the business to lose money, they prefer working with older facilities, where there are obvious and significant energy savings available. The contract term is generally for seven to 10 years.

There are other funding alternatives available. There is an ever-increasing array of federal and local incentive and subsidy programs aimed at funding energy efficiency in general, and green building in particular.

It’s also possible for communities to do what the ESCOs do without having to absorb a company’s profit margin--which can be as much as 25 percent--in the promised savings. This also allows you freedom to pick your own expert audit team.

The key here is the ability to convince city councils--and others who control the purse strings--that buying energy-efficient equipment is not the same as funding traditional capital projects.

The traditional evaluation of capital projects often ignores or undervalues the fact that energy-saving projects can be financed and paid for with saved operating-budget dollars. If the projects aren’t funded, the taxpayers will continue to pay the utility company for “wasted” energy.

As noted in a recent article by Neil Zobler of Catalyst Financial Group and Robert Sauchelli of U.S. EPA Energy Star, competition for capital money “is always fierce, especially in a down economy when capital projects are being cut. When traditional financial metrics are used to evaluate an energy-efficiency project against other capital projects, the utility budget savings (avoided costs) may not be given their due consideration.”

Zobler and Sauchelli discuss a number of tools and resources that can help sell energy-efficiency projects, and they make a compelling argument why the projects should not be delayed, especially in a sluggish economy. Their article and other valuable information can be found at www.energystar.gov.

Recreation centers, with their enormous consumption of energy, are prime sources for potentially significant taxpayer savings. An energy audit conducted by well-regarded experts should be high priority for every community. The alternative is to continue to pay higher utility bills at a time taxpayers can ill-afford to do so.

Craig Bouck is the president and CEO of Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture in Denver. In addition to his firm-wide duties, Craig manages several recreation-center projects locally and nationally. He is also a frequent speaker at national conventions on recreation-center design and future trends in recreation. For more information, visit www.brsarch.com.