Want to Tune Up Your City’s Buildings? First, Tune Up Your Approach.

April 6, 2021 | Rory Gahagan

I like to think of audit and tune-up policies as the unsung heroes of the building energy policy world. In cases where a jurisdiction wants to reduce its building stock’s greenhouse gas emissions, these policies build upon the process of benchmarking to include action-oriented recommendations. And where a jurisdiction might lack the resources or momentum required for Building Performance Standards (BPS), audits and tune-ups are viable stepping stones to improving energy usage.

An energy audit is a comprehensive assessment of factors driving building energy consumption, including systems, envelope, operational characteristics, and other elements. Energy audits help building owners and operators understand energy costs, recommend energy performance improvements, and project capital costs and energy savings of said improvements. An audit policy requires owners of covered buildings to complete periodic energy audits of their facilities, typically once every 10 years, unless they meet certain performance exemptions such as an ENERGY STAR score above a specified level. ASHRAE Level I and Level II energy audits are two standards that are often-specified in audit policies.

Like an audit policy, a tune-up policy requires building owners and operators to complete, on a periodic basis that is usually every five years, an assessment of their buildings’ energy systems and controls, resulting in recommended energy conservation measures (ECMs). In contrast to audit policies that identify investments in equipment and system upgrades, however, tune-up requirements focus almost exclusively on identifying opportunities to improve a building’s operations and maintenance to achieve energy savings. These opportunities often include measures such as changing thermostat set points, equipment scheduling, calibrating critical control sensors, optimizing outside air use for economizer cooling, or adjusting lighting or irrigation schedules. In addition to focusing on operational inefficiencies, tune-ups also require low- and no- cost repairs and adjustments that often result in immediate energy savings (see IMT’s report on data-driven energy policymaking).

Recognizing the potential impact of both of these policy types, over the past year IMT collaborated with a collective action group of the Urban Sustainability Directors Network to understand how a jurisdiction might most effectively create and implement audit and tune-up policies. Through monthly calls, we identified five key lessons any city can deploy to tune up their approach to produce successful policies.

Lesson 1: Talk to other cities.

Before investing time and resources to craft a policy from scratch, look at other local governments’ efforts to pass the same or similar policies. While creating its recent tune-up policy, the City of Philadelphia looked to the resources and experiences of Seattle’s tune-up policy and program. These lessons undoubtedly saved city staff time and effort that was better-spent working with key stakeholders. Contacting other sustainability directors directly, reviewing resources such as IMT’s new report, Implementing Energy Audit and Tune-Up Policies, or browsing other city websites for information are all ways to understand past efforts. Understanding the paths others have followed can help your city learn from past experiences and build upon their successes.

Lesson 2: Talk to your city.

In addition to looking outwards to their peers, city staff should also collaborate with their own communities. While building owners and operators are critical stakeholders for successful policy development and implementation, cities must also broaden engagement efforts to include additional voices.

Energy service providers (ESPs) are essential to engage because they identify, recommend, and help implement the energy efficiency improvements that result from an audit or tune-up. Thus, the quality of their work is directly related to an audit or tune-up policy’s success. In turn, the policy’s passage will drive business for ESPs, as owners seek out service providers who can help them meet mandated energy assessments and improvements.

Community-based organizations (CBOs) are typically overlooked in the writing of building energy policies. Community perspectives, especially those of BIPOC communities and low-income communities, are vital to ensuring that whatever policy is written reflects the needs and priorities of all people it is written for. Beyond policy development, local governments can create equitable contracting and procurement opportunities, and when possible encourage hiring provisions such as those for disadvantaged business enterprises, to ensure that employment opportunities from the policy are equally-accessible to all communities and identities.

Lesson 3: Know the data you want…

After doing the homework on policy best practices and obtaining local input, a city should determine what kind of data it wants to get out of a policy. For example, Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) can measure the success or weakness of a policy once it’s implemented. Using KPIs such as response rate and tracking which efficiency measures are implemented following an audit or tune-up, a city can determine whether to shift its outreach tactics, increase ESP training, or create a supplementary program for different building types.

Data collection presents an opportunity to create better, more-informed policies and programs in the future. Collecting contact information for building owners and operators helps a city to notify constituents who are required to make buildings performance improvements. This same information, if kept up to date, can be used in similar or more-aggressive building performance policies down the road, such as a building performance standard that requires performance improvements. Additionally, data on equipment and building systems can help to accurately depict the city’s building stock, particularly if this dataset includes the equipment’s end of life information. By understanding what equipment will be retired when in various buildings throughout a jurisdiction, a city can tailor future policies, programs, and outreach to ensuring that it is replaced with greener, more-efficient technology.

Lesson 4: …and make sure the data is good.

No matter what data is collected, if the quality of the information is inaccurate or spotty, the results will be the same. This is commonly cautioned as “garbage in, garbage, out.” In a best-case scenario, poor-quality data leads to no insight. However, false insights could also point policy administrators in the wrong direction. For instance, low compliance rates might be because building owners don’t know how they’re supposed to comply with the policy, or they might not be aware of the policy at all. Without additional data that specifies one case or the other, policy administrators may correct for one scenario when low compliance rates are caused by the other.

A city can and should control for data quality by offering training to whoever must collect the data. Here, again, collaboration with ESPs is essential. Not only can a city clearly communicate what data should be collected from audits or tune-up assessments, but it can also set up trainings or information sessions for ESPs to explicitly learn how and why to do so. Furthermore, requiring these trainings for any ESP planning to conduct an energy assessment ensures that all professionals get the instruction they need to collect high-quality information from building owners while delivering consistent instructions for building owners to make building improvements.

Lesson 5: Keep the conversation going.

With collected data and open lines of communication with stakeholders, a city sets itself up with tools to consistently evaluate the success and stumbling blocks of its policy as it rolls out. Questions to explore during implementation should spark continued improvement, such as:

Are response rates lower than expected? How can the city improve its outreach?

How many optional building upgrades do building owners choose to do as a result of an audit or tune-up? Which upgrades are these? Which upgrades are building owners avoiding / not choosing, and would these have a decent impact on energy usage? Can the city form another policy or program around these upgrades?

By iteratively evaluating success and areas for improvement, a city can “tune up” its own policies to make sure its building stock performs as well as it can. Want to learn more? To get started, check out our full report, Implementing Energy Audit and Tune-Up Policies.

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Meet the Author

Rory Gahagan
Former Program Associate

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