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Controlling Energy Efficiency in Student Housing

Controlling Energy Efficiency

By Brad Dockser, CEO, Green Generation Solutions

Whether you own a hotel, an office building, or a student housing property, you strive to achieve the same outcome: happy and satisfied residents, users, and stakeholders.

As is typical when operating a property, your team works tirelessly to ensure that the space is clean, comfortably conditioned, and well lit. This formula, however, fails to address one major issue: this work needs only to benefit the customers who are physically present in the space.

From an energy efficiency perspective, this is a critical issue. Owners are willing to spend money on heating, cooling, and lighting, but this only provides a return when the guest, resident, or tenant is physically in the building, not when they are absent.

The implications for operating student housing are even more pronounced than a typical office building. If you were to plot out the use of electricity in a student housing asset over 24 hours, it might look like this: 

Student Housing Hourly Electric Consumption

This pattern is correlated to physical occupancy and use, and after a morning peak, consumption decreases throughout the day until the next morning’s peak as students wake up and go to class.

Now let’s expand this idea to a full year. What would the pattern look like? Is the building operating optimally? Does it consume excess energy during periods of low occupancy?

Student housing assets have a unique usage pattern that may have as many as 100 days of low or no occupancy. Think about it. Students have holidays, fall and spring breaks, and days or weeks between semesters and, in many cases, are not occupying the unit during the summer months. How do owners get the building to operate optimally when students are present while minimizing utility costs when they are not?

Controls

Whether considering students’ daily patterns or over a 12-month lease, using controls to better utilize and operate equipment provides a solution to accommodate even extreme variances. But what does the ideal controls schematic entail?

Controls can be limited to simply controlling devices or expanded to manage entire systems. On the more basic end, lights should have occupancy sensors that turn off or dim in physically unoccupied spaces while still being mindful of security requirements. Once occupancy is detected, the lights will return to normal levels and functionality. Ensuring that light levels meet life safety requirements and that the occupancy sensors are properly located to immediately detect someone’s presence are key aspects to an effective implementation strategy. This strategy can be applied to resident rooms, corridors, elevators, common or recreation areas, and garages. A well-designed controls platform means energy usage positively correlates with physical occupancy; however, from the residents’ perspective, the lights are always on when and where they are physically present. Device controls can be simply and quickly rolled out and designed to function with most any fixtures to take advantage of nearly immediate savings.

Systems controls can also be a human challenge. The onsite engineering team must be aware of the university’s schedule and the advantages and limitations of the particular HVAC systems. Using this knowledge and the building management system, if one exists, the onsite team can effectively manage the energy consumption during periods of low occupancy as well as ensure a comfortable environment upon entry to space. Questions to consider: Does the HVAC system have separate heating and cooling zones throughout the property? Can individual temperature zones be created with a one-click omnibus controls setting? Or will temperature setbacks or comparable controls strategies be too onerous with the existing system, deterring the onsite teams and resulting in missed savings opportunities?

These questions aren’t only about operations. Low occupancy and intermittent demand can have a significant impact on the design and equipment specifications for student housing properties. With such unusual daily and weekly patterns, technologies such as on-demand water heaters can reduce standby losses while still ensuring student comfort. Additionally, in lieu of traditional HVAC equipment such as split systems, PTACs, or RTUs, specifying high-efficiency variable refrigerant flow (VRF) systems with occupancy-based controls gives facilities’ owners and operators more control over energy savings while allowing residents to devise their ideal comfort conditions.

Harrison Street Real Estate is doing exactly this. By designing energy efficiency projects that have paybacks of less than five years, they are driving EBITDA and asset values for themselves and their investors. As they strive to optimize the operational performance of more than 40,000 beds of student housing, the effective use of high-efficiency equipment and strong control platforms is a key component of this effort. Harrison Street sees this as a strong value-add investment in the portfolio, as well as a potential driver of occupancy as the measures improve sustainability, which is important to the students who lease their properties.

Technology coupled with operational best practices provide the ability to simultaneously maximize comfort and minimize operating costs. Tailoring the system parameters to the individual property allows for smarter and more efficient building operations. When properly implemented, this increases EBITDA and asset value, and improves sustainability, enabling student housing owners to operate in the green—a trend that will continue to gain momentum.