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Microsoft: Software puts kibosh on energy waste

Microsoft project finds that software provided as good a bang for the buck as upgrading physical infrastructure in commercial building energy retrofits.

Before hauling new equipment to their boiler rooms, companies would do well installing software to improve building efficiency, a Microsoft pilot test found.

Microsoft is expected to publish a paper on a test done at its Redmond, Wash., campus geared at lowering the corporate energy usage with information technology. The premise of the project was straight-forward: does it make more sense to upgrade mechanical equipment, such as HVAC systems, or use software?

Coming from a giant software company, the results are perhaps not surprising. But the tests help validate the notion that information systems are an important ingredient to reducing wasted energy and saving money with better maintenance.

Making sense of building data, the Microsoft way. Microsoft

"We're basically putting software and information on equal ground with all sorts of energy-efficiency initiatives people are talking about," said Rob Benard, chief environmental strategist at Microsoft. Unlike competitor IBM and many building IT startups, Microsoft is not developing a product in this area, he added.

The company found that it made back its investment in 18 months on energy savings alone and resulted in 6 percent to 10 percent reduction across three separate projects. The project came out of a corporate environmental sustainability initiative.

The key was making sense of the copious amounts of data that building management systems already generate. Across Microsoft's large campus, there are about 2 million connected points, such as thermostats, chillers, and air handlers, said Darrell Smith, senior facilities manager at Microsoft. "We have the information. We're just not leveraging it at all," he said. "Nothing spoke to each other."

Microsoft took data from different building management systems and collected them in a single data warehouse. That normalized information was combined with outside data sources, including weather data, and then presented as an application to building managers.

Having a consolidated dashboard proves to be very valuable to building owners because they can optimize settings, such as lighting and temperature, and get clues on how to better operate buildings, Smith said. For example, an air handler sensor indicated a setting problem with the cooling system which would have required manually inspecting the equipment, he said. Now, managers can spot problems and prioritize maintenance plans based on data from the building management systems, he said.

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One of the challenges of technology in buildings is that building professionals aren't used to working with smartphones and computers to manage facilities. Also, there are organizational challenges since facilities and IT are separate and building management data isn't always connected to corporate networks.

There are many companies working on technology to better improve commercial building efficiency, which is considered ripe for improvement. Commercial buildings and industrial facilities consume about half of the energy in the U.S., according to the EPA.