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Construction Corner: Energy audits carried out by a Sensor Suitcase

Korky Koroluk
Construction Corner: Energy audits carried out by a Sensor Suitcase

Owners of small commercial buildings often don’t have the resources to hire an energy-efficiency professional to do an energy audit.

But now that can be done using a high-tech suitcase.

Some refer to it as an "expert in a suitcase," but it’s really called a Sensor Suitcase, and it contains everything needed to do an energy audit. It holds out the promise of energy savings for owners of small commercial buildings.

Developed by two public research laboratories of the U.S. Department of Energy — the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory — the suitcase promises the kind of building energy assessments that owners of smaller buildings often say they can’t afford.

The suitcase is simply a case that contains easy-to-use sensors and other equipment that just about anyone can use to identify energy-saving opportunities in small commercial buildings. The system is automated and reusable, and combines hardware and software in one package. Its developers say the suitcase can save small buildings about 10 per cent on energy bills.

"Most small commercial building owners believe it costs too much to make their facilities significantly more energy efficient," says Michael Brambley, one of the researchers. "But the Sensor Suitcase system can change that. It helps someone with minimal training collect and automatically process building data, which the system uses to generate specific recommendations to improve energy efficiency."

He says the U.S. could reduce its national energy costs for buildings by about $5.1 billion annually if all small building owners used the system.

Inside the suitcase are 16 pocket-sized sensors that can measure three things: temperature, whether lights are on or off and how a heating and cooling system is operating. Users follow instructions about where to install the sensors from the suitcase’s operations software, which runs on a separate tablet.

About a month later, users gather the sensors and return them to the suitcase, which is then connected to a personal computer to upload the collected data. The system’s analytical software automatically crunches the sensor data.

The final result is a report that identifies problems such as excessive lighting, and recommends low- and no-cost ways to fix problems. It might be something as simple as installing occupancy sensors that turn lights on only when a room is being used.

The suitcase system focuses on eight of the most common and cost-effective areas to improve energy efficiency.

As a result, it can help building owners save about two-thirds of the energy that can be saved with the traditional approach to what has come to be known as retro-commissioning, which requires the hands-on labour of several energy-efficiency professionals, who are often engineers.

A traditional retro-commissioning assessment takes six months or longer. Doing the same assessment with a Sensor Suitcase takes four to six weeks and costs about a third as much.

Sensing devices have become old-hat and most people no longer think of them as innovative.

But, says Jessica Granderson, a member of the development team, "the real innovation is in the streamlining.

"It’s sort of like the ‘for dummies’ version of how to identify improvements in your building."

Large commercial buildings often have the resources needed for retro-commissioning, she noted, while smaller buildings with 50,000 square feet or less, don’t. The Sensor Suitcase, she says, overcomes that hurdle.

Small-building owners may buy and use the Sensor Suitcase themselves, but it will likely be more practical to hire an outside company to provide the service.

At the moment, two companies are licensed to offer the suitcase both as a product and as a service.

GreenPath Energy Solutions, of Orlando, Fla., and Cultural Quotient, of Arlington, Va., have bought licenses to make and market the Sensor Suitcase technology. Both licenses are non-exclusive, which means the Sensor Suitcase technology is also available for other companies to license.

Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to

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