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Graduate Student Birk Jones Searches for New Solutions to Old Problem

October 8, 2012

birk jones10-08-12 – Find an easy way to diagnose the energy ills of old commercial buildings, and catch the golden ring of energy savings. That’s why UNM graduate engineering student Birk Jones spends so much time in the Mechanical Engineering Building. 

Jones’ dissertation research focuses on upgrading and testing improvements in heating and cooling systems in the Mechanical Engineering Building. Testing the results of new equipment will help quantify the effects so he can accurately predict how much each improvement is likely to save in energy costs.

He also works part time for Yearout Mechanical, which buys the equipment and supports the research effort. Jones shares the information he develops with the company. Yearout Mechanical would like to be able to offer solutions backed by research data to correct problems in commercial buildings. But the solution seems to be maddeningly complicated.

A report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2009 estimated energy savings of 10-20 percent in commercial buildings if lighting, refrigeration, rooftop chiller equipment and office equipment are managed efficiently and an additional 5-20 percent savings if building sensors and controls work properly. That kind of savings amounts to thousands of dollars a year in large commercial buildings, which makes it worthwhile to search hard for solutions.
The Mechanical Engineering Building, like many aging commercial buildings in the U.S., was built in the 1980s. The complex heating and cooling system uses solar thermal hot water from the solar array on the roof to heat the building in the winter. In the summer the system uses an evaporative cooler for the atrium and routes hot water from the solar array to an absorption chiller that creates chilled water to cool the building’s classrooms, labs and offices.

Jones installed thermostats, air handling boxes and sensors that allow him to track temperatures in individual offices and movement of air through ducts. Losses such as outside air infiltration can be calculated in real time and have been observed to add up to about three tons of cooling, equivalent to a medium-sized house in Albuquerque, to the building load on a hot summer day.

Jones is implementing advanced energy models and comparing the outputs with actual results. He knows that most offices on the fourth floor are now a comfortable 72 degrees during the day, except the office of his advisor, Professor Andrea Mammoli, which continues to bake at 76 degrees during the day. He hopes one day to run the energy models real time with the building to identify the cause.

He is building his own tools to better gauge air flow through vents because tools on the market are expensive and cannot be easily retrofitted. It’s slow, hard work to build better measuring tools, then find ways to use them precisely.

Issues like these have haunted generations of mechanical engineers. When new buildings are built, they usually go through a test and balance system to assure that air moves efficiently through all parts of the building and that all areas are appropriately heated or cooled to fit with their function. But as buildings age, parts fail and are not replaced, or remodeling for a different use throws air handling out of balance, causing hot and cold spots. Jones said the best way to keep buildings energy efficient is to monitor them regularly and make adjustments as they age, but he knows that is usually not the way owners do things.  So he spends his time looking for the most efficient ways to diagnose and solve the problems.