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Utilizing digitized assets to quickly adapt to changes in retail building functionality during COVID

By Ronak Shah


With the social distancing measures being relaxed in many states, retail businesses are gearing up to start again and are exploring ways to reoccupy their workspace. The fluctuations in occupancy rendered by the workers and customers coming back under the new norms could cause a challenge to the operators of these retail spaces to quickly adapt to the evolving situation. Things can get more demanding as operators also need to ensure a perfect balance of building health - to reduce the risk of virus transmission - and optimal operation of the building.

As Justin Lee explained in his latest blog post, digitally-enabled assets play a key role in helping operators to quickly adapt in this time of transition. Having system-level visibility helps bring the facilities back to operation faster and take swift actions in maintaining building health and tenant comfort. Moreover, once we move to the other side of the pandemic, these strategies can be refocused on optimizing operations and managing operational spending.

Portfolio Trend

While many commercial facilities witnessed low occupancies in the past few weeks, many essential businesses have been functional trying to constantly respond to changes in operation caused by the pandemic. Figure 1 details how digitally enabled assets helped more than a dozen liquor stores respond and navigate to fluctuations in operation during the early weeks of the pandemic.

Figure.1 – Daily Electric Use (Watt/Sq.Ft)*

*Watt/Sq.Ft metrics normalizes the daily kWh use per area of facility

With the Stay at Home orders starting to get implemented in mid-March, the following strategies were deployed using the digital assets to run the stores optimally-

  • Remotely adjusting HVAC and Lighting schedules as per store’s requirements

  • Relaxing setpoints for certain RTUs with lesser requirement and

  • Adjusting dimming level for lightings

These strategies contributed towards maintaining an average of 20% reduction compared to March-2019, highlighting the overall effectiveness of these efforts.

Stepping into April, when COVID cases were on a rise, digitally-enabled assets played a vital role in implementing following system-level measures recommended by ASHRAE to ensure a better Indoor Environment Quality (IEQ) -

  • Increase in ventilation rate

  • Keeping the humidity level between 40-60%

  • Keeping a check on filter status based on pressure variance

The digital tool snapshot of the Building Health Dashboard in Figure 2 summarizes these important IEQ parameters on a store level. The ventilation rate, temperature and humidity levels, along with filter status are tracked on a system level and alerts are received every time a unit is reporting numbers out of range rendering engineers to quickly make the necessary changes

Figure.2 – Building Health Dashboard

With an increase in customer demand at liquor stores, some stores were also scheduled to operate extended hours in April. Another change in operation was resetting the corporate standards in the last week of April by relaxing the cooling setpoint standards to ensure the comfort of staff members wearing PPE on a daily basis.

The monthly electric use in April as compared to March increased by about 2.5% at these stores, however, just like March, April-2020 reported an average of 20% reduction in electricity use compared to April-2019.

Store trend - Example

Figure.3 shows 15-minute use trends for a single store and its response to the changes in operations between March- April. The second half of March realized about 11% reduction in average daily use as compared to the first two weeks after nighttime lighting load and HVAC setpoints were remotely altered to optimize the loads. Also, year over year March electricity use reported a reduction of 42%.

Figure.3 – 15-minute interval trend March-April

The store started operating extended hours in April with an increase in nighttime load rendering an increase in the average daily use by 15% compared to March. Despite this increase, the year over year electric use realized a 36% reduction in April.

Operational anomaly - Example

Apart from quickly adapting to various operational situations, digitally-enabled assets are also quite effective at visualizing operational anomalies. Figure.4 details an example of how the digital algorithm quickly picked the occurrence of simultaneous heating and cooling at one of the stores.

Figure.4 – Algorithm alerted a case of simultaneous heating and cooling

A group of RTUs highlighted in Figure.4 was triggering the high severity hot space alert conveying that the store was running warmer, causing the other units in the store to deliver a constant supply of cold air to bring down the space temperature. Upon further investigation, it was found that these RTUs were overwritten into Heating Mode during the winter rather than left in Auto Mode. The units were remotely reset and immediately the space temperatures were seen to cool back down and the load on the RTUs reduced significantly.

Digitally connected facilities can utilize the tools at their disposal to quickly adapt to changes in building functionality. More importantly, it helps operators navigate through operational and maintenance issues to get better clarity on both systems and building-level anomalies and address them quickly. Adding to that, it provides remote capabilities to optimize the building operations making these tools a complete package to operate a building efficiently.

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