Monitor Tracks Utility Consumption at U.Va. in Real Time

October 23, 2009

October 23, 2009 — Knowledge is power.

Sustainability officials at the University of Virginia believe that supplying people with information can change their habits. Their latest tool is a "building dashboard," a kiosk that publicly displays utility consumption numbers in Newcomb Hall in real time, drawn directly from the building's own meters.

A flat, touch-screen monitor on the third floor of Newcomb gives passersby hourly measurements of how much electricity and water is being consumed in the building and what it is expending for heating and cooling, and compare those figures to earlier readings from that day or previous days. The screen also displays up-to-the-minute weather and a calendar of events. The same information is available online.

The system is designed not only as a practical monitor, but also as a teaching tool.

"It makes people more aware of the energy and water being used," said Cheryl Gomez, U.Va.'s director of energy and utilities. "They can literally see the energy use profile."

While most of the people using Newcomb Hall are just passing through for a meal or a meeting or to use the many services on the ground floor, Gomez believes if they become more aware of a building's daily utility consumption, it will help bring about changes in their own lives.

"I am a proponent of energy awareness," said Andrew Greene, sustainability planner in the Office of the University Architect. "Raising awareness leads to conservation."

In a building such as Newcomb, Greene said, much of the energy consumption is not obvious and is more than what is required to keep the lights on.

While transients may feel they have little effect on the energy use, Greene believes that those with offices in Newcomb can monitor daily consumption and take steps to reduce it.

"This puts it in a common language and lets the occupants see something that is invisible or intangible," Greene said. "The University values information and this holds to the principle of putting more information out there."

The energy and utilities department has accumulated several years' worth of data on how buildings use utilities, but this lets the public track energy use.

"There is a proven axiom that if you don't measure it, you can't determine how to make it better," said Armando deLeon, sustainability programs manager for Facilities Management. "This provides people a baseline in real time."

Other dashboards are planned, the next one for Campbell Hall, home of U.Va.'s School of Architecture, deLeon said. Dashboards also will be installed in each building worked on by Delta Force," an interdisciplinary team of experts developing energy-saving systems upgrades in existing buildings. Residence halls will eventually get dashboards as well, he said.

Dashboards are also being included in new construction. The University has adopted Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards for new construction; installing some form of energy use reporting improves the LEED score, deLeon said.

Gomez said the dashboard is "one more tool that will help people calculate and measure so they will think twice."

"The idea is to take every opportunity to remind ourselves that our behavior has an impact and that we need to engage ourselves, individually and collectively," she said.

People get more complacent if they don't get frequent reminders about how they use resources, Gomez said. Hang tags on shower heads reminding people to take shorter showers are very effective, she said.

"It shows how, when and where," Gomez said. "It helps people reduce use and understand the impact of their actions. They can learn to turn off lights when not in use, not let the water run."

Having the dashboard online also helps Facilities Management personnel monitor the building from afar. They can see at a glance of the computer screen if there is an anomaly in any of the building's systems.

— By Matt Kelly