Net Zero Carbon Buildings: How Energy & Sustainability Professionals Can Overcome Data Headaches
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Net Zero Carbon Buildings: How Energy & Sustainability Professionals Can Overcome Data Headaches

Jon Thompson
Author: Jon Thompson Head of Product Innovation October 09, 2020

The last blog in our Net Zero Carbon Buildings series covered five key energy analysis techniques — the ones we think you should all be using to start your journeys to net zero carbon. This time we’re moving on to talk about some of the data problems that often hamper progress, as well as ways you can overcome them.

Frankly, it always amazes us that in the 21st century, energy and sustainability professionals are still having to struggle with inconsistent and poor quality data. But sadly, this is the reality.

The technology has never been better: we live in an age of smart meters, sensors, IoT devices and Building Management Systems. Yet shockingly, in our experience, over 90% of building sensor data is never used. Why is that? Here are our thoughts.

Poor building handovers

With new buildings, the network of meters and sensors is usually planned out by enthusiastic specialist engineers. Unfortunately, the people who might want to see the data from these meters and sensors — the building operators — are rarely involved in these plans and so little thought is actually given to where the data will be sent and how it will be used. This means that once construction is complete and the building is handed over, the sophisticated network of meters and sensors often gets forgotten.

In one of the cases we came across, an energy-conscious tenant was given the go-ahead by the building operator to arrange the installation of a network of sub-meters. After the installation was complete, they discovered there had already been a series of sub-meters in place, which the operator knew nothing about!

Slow culture change

The energy and sustainability management industry has been slow to adopt a data-driven approach. Many energy consultants for example, still prefer to conduct on-site energy surveys and audits[MOU1] before even contemplating looking at the data. There is still a place for energy surveys but it shouldn’t be the very first thing you do. Looking at the data first will give you a good insight into where the issues are, and then you can conduct surveys at some of the problem sites to investigate further.

The key problem with energy surveys is that they rely on observations at a single moment in time and usually involve very limited data analysis. They can’t give you an accurate picture of energy consumption over the course of a typical month or year, and they rely on making theoretical assumptions and generalisations about how buildings perform. On top of that, they can be expensive and the outcome is usually a lengthy technical report which few managers have the time or inclination to wade through.

A fragmented industry with fragmented systems

We’re data enthusiasts but even we can understand why some energy and sustainability professionals are hesitant to embrace a data-driven approach. The energy data industry is quite honestly, a bit of a mess. There are too many players and too many systems, plus a woeful lack of regulation, customer focus and joined up thinking. Because of this, even getting reliable and consistent energy consumption data from the main fiscal meter is still a common problem.

It’s dependent on relationships between different providers who all have their own agenda. Utility suppliers hold the contracts with building operators but rely on meter operators (MOPs) to provide and maintain the meter, and data collectors (DCs) to collect, store and supply usage data.

Utility suppliers often just appoint an[MOU2] [LT3] MOP or DC of their choice which fulfil their needs (not yours) at competitive rates. All they need is a single meter reading so they can invoice the building operator. Why should they want to pay for storing high-resolution data in half-hourly format? To find out more about the issues with main fiscal meters, check out this blog: Industry Challenge — How to Approach Energy Data Acquisition?

Beyond the main fiscal meter, the problems continue. Sub-meters, which allow you to measure energy consumption in certain sections of a building, can be installed and maintained by a plethora of independent firms, which are poorly regulated. Likewise, there’s a multitude of companies supplying individual sensors, which are used to track more detailed metrics such as CO2 levels, occupancy, lighting levels and so on.

Each company will provide you with the sub-meter or sensor data within their own interface, in different formats, making it really difficult to combine all this data and analyse it effectively. The problem is, that’s exactly what you need to do to get a good overall picture of the efficiency of a building and identify ways to reduce its emissions.

If you do manage to combine all of that data and analyse it one month, maintaining those data feeds is your next challenge. Lost connections and sensor or meter failures can be a constant headache, particularly if you are responsible for a large portfolio of buildings. Unfortunately, suppliers are rarely proactive on this front and often slow to fix issues.

Wasted time and potential

All of these issues mean that often, most of an energy and sustainability professional’s time is spent trying to collect data, resolve problems with connections and data sources, and bring that data together to get a complete picture of what’s going on. By the time they’ve done that, there’s not much time left to actually analyse anything!

This shouldn’t be a situation we are happy with in the 2020s. The technology exists to make our lives easier but often, it’s making it much harder. It’s preventing sustainability and energy professionals from really adding value. And it’s a major barrier on the road to net zero carbon. We need to be freed up to spend much more time analysing data — so we can first understand how to make our buildings more efficient, and then can monitor the performance of any interventions we’ve put in place. If we can’t do this as standard in the next few years, then it looks unlikely that we’ll meet the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment’s 2050 target.


Overcoming the headaches

It doesn’t have to be this way. There’s a new breed of data-savvy energy and sustainability professionals and they are finding their own solutions to these challenges. So, what are they?

Have a clear strategy

Firstly, you should create a metering and data strategy which is based on:

  • What data you really need
  • How you are going to measure it, and
  • Where you are going to store it.

It’s tempting to get carried away with sub-meters, shiny new IoT devices and other sensors, but it can get extremely expensive and become a real nightmare trying to maintain and analyse them all. So focus on what’s essential as a starting point and ensure you have enough time to properly analyse the data before adding more. For more on creating a metering and data strategy, see this blog: 5 Key Steps Towards Data-Driven Energy Efficiency

Carefully assess any third parties

Once you’ve sorted your strategy, think carefully about which third parties are going to give you or your clients the best service. To ensure you get reliable main meter data, make sure the building manager directly appoints a data collector of their choice, rather than one chosen by the utility supplier. You need a data collector that understands the importance of reliable data at half-hourly resolution, and can provide it over a long period of time — we’d suggest a contract that lasts three to five years.

Similarly, when choosing a supplier for sub-meters or sensors, ensure you clarify in advance the detail about the data they will provide — its frequency, granularity, the format it will be sent in, whether it can be integrated with existing systems etc. We’d recommend establishing some Service Level Agreements (SLAs) and KPIs about the levels of uptime you can expect and how quickly issues will be resolved.

Choose a flexible data management platform

Energy data management platforms can help you bring gigabytes of data from multiple sources and sites into one interface. Those with advanced analytics features will also make it much easier to identify correlations and trends through dynamic charts, graphs and gauges. Functions such as regressions analysis, normalisations, year-on-year comparisons and rolling averages may be included as standard.

The key benefit of these platforms is that they enable you to spend less time collecting, reformatting and resolving issues with your data, and more time understanding and creating value from it.

Be careful though. There are a range of platforms out there but many are quite restrictive. Some will only accept data in certain formats or are only compatible with specific sensors or sub-meters. Others can’t provide analytics down to meter or asset level. Another thing to be mindful of is that some platforms are great at tracking core energy metrics — electricity, gas, water consumption — but can’t analyse data from a wider range of sensors e.g. humidity, air quality, temperatures, occupancy and so on. The danger here is that you only get part of the picture about what’s affecting your building’s performance. You might be able to see what’s happening but not necessarily why it’s happening.

If that’s the case, it might be time to look for another solution. The Fabriq data analytics platform is flexible and powerful. It centralizes all of your energy, sustainability and smart building data into a single platform and accepts automatic (or manual) feeds from almost any data source — meters, sub-meters, sensors and IoT devices maintained by any supplier. This means you’ll spend less time chasing data and more time generating actionable insights that will help you move towards net zero carbon.

Fabriq helps you track your buildings’ performance using over 100 energy, sustainability or smart building metrics, so you get a more complete picture of how your buildings are performing and what your key energy drivers are. And because we know how frustrating it is when automated data sources go wrong, we’ve built a unique Data Quality module that will keep track of them all for you. You’ll get alerted when a source or meter connection goes down, or when the platform hasn’t received the expected number of readings at the expected time. This is a huge time-saver and stress-reducer, particularly if you are managing a large portfolio.

How are companies using Fabriq to help with net zero carbon?

Both the Considerate Group and the Low Carbon Alliance have been using Fabriq to help their clients start journeys towards net zero carbon. The Considerate Group helps hospitality businesses operate more responsibly and it has been using the platform to capture and interrogate data from over 500 sources, across 450 sites. Metrics include electricity, heat, water, waste and outsourced laundry. Analysts then monitor performance against bespoke KPIs such as kWh per room per night. Using this approach, so far, the Group has managed to cut gas emissions by 22%, consume 14% less energy and reduce CO2 emissions by over 350 metric tons.

The Low Carbon Alliance (LCA) has just recently adopted the Fabriq platform and is using it to:

  • identify opportunities to reduce energy consumption for its clients — at an asset and portfolio level
  • forecast the performance of proposed interventions and then track that performance and verify that the intervention was successful
  • continually monitor building performance to help manage other stakeholders: occupiers, investors, managing agents
  • streamline mandatory and voluntary reporting (SECR, ESOS, GRESB).

In fact, you can find out more about how Fabriq helps the LCA do all of this and more in our webinar recording: Net zero carbon buildings: Is your data good enough? Watch it here.