Audit Levels 1, 2 and 3 Are Changing; Here’s What You Need to Know to Maximize the Success of Your Next Retrofit

ASHRAE 211 Standard

Energy audits are a cornerstone of retrofit practice and an important first step for assessing potential energy and cost savings in your building. The quality of an audit is vital to identifying useful and practical retrofits. With the release of ASHRAE’s Standard 211, Standard for Commercial Building Energy Audits, which has updated ASHRAE Audit Levels 1, 2 and 3, getting the most valuable work product for your next energy retrofit just got easier.

Value of an audit

Reasons for the Update

With mandatory energy audit programs increasing around the country, audits are in the spotlight, including their benefits and pitfalls. In cities, like New York and San Francisco, that have adopted these ordinances, there has been an influx of audit requests and many new contractors offering audit services. This has created price pressure on energy audits, resulting in highly variable audit quality.

The decline of audit quality and price pressure is a growing concern resulting,
in part, from vendors who have different interpretations of the scope of work. “What is an energy audit?” becomes a critical question. The answer needs to be clearly defined. Otherwise owners can be left comparing prices from very experienced vendors who have led lots of retrofit proj- ects and deliver the entire scope of work versus an inexperienced, low-cost team that spends a short time onsite and delivers a less credible, less complete product.

The idea of three audit levels, originally defined in ASHRAE’s Procedures for Commercial Building Energy Audits, has been a victim of its own success. Building owners and regulators have used the concept of ASHRAE Audit Levels 1, 2 and 3. However, few dove into the exact scope of work implied by each level.

The intention behind defining different audit levels was to agree on standardized scopes of varying depths. The problem was that the original publication wasn’t written as a standard and left a lot of room for interpretation. That “wiggle room” created a lot of variation among vendors and their work products.

The release of ASHRAE Standard 211 – 2018 was intended to bring order to the chaos of the energy audit market by giving building owners and policymakers firm guidelines about what to expect from an audit and who should conduct them, eliminating ambiguity. For industry members, it’s a means of protection, so our entire field doesn’t suffer from a lack of trust rooted in the shoddy workmanship of a few. As a result, the standard defines, in code-enforceable language, exactly what each level entails in terms of procedures and reporting.

Here’s a summary of what you need to know whether you’re contracting for energy audits or conducting them:

Level 1 is all about determining savings potential at the facility. It identifies how a building performs compared to its peers; what savings potential one can address in a quick, low-level effort; and where there are likely energy-saving opportunities to investigate further. It’s considered a low-cost first step or sometimes all that is appropriate for a small facility.

Level 1 now is largely qualitative. This level always has been tricky because the prior guidance asked for energy-saving numbers for no- and low-cost measures. It’s very hard to maintain the intended limited scope and cost if you start doing calculations. So the standard has made it clear that energy-efficiency recommendations for Level 1 are purely qualitative. Auditors are only required to assign “high”, “medium” and “low” to the measure savings, cost and priority.

The only analysis that is required under the new Level 1 definition is to sum up historical energy consumption and benchmark the site. That includes reporting the Energy Use Intensity (EUI in kBTU per square foot per year or MJ per square meter per year) of your building and a peer group of your choosing. This avoids the potential complication (and cost) of assigning numbers to savings, costs and paybacks.

Level 2 is what most people expect when they ask for an energy audit. It requires site-specific recommendations, costs, savings and economics. It also includes important background details that help the owner determine that the auditor:

  • 1) Understands the building.
  • 2) Understands the energy costs at the site.
  • 3) Provides a solid description of recommended measures.

In short, the audit should provide the owner the guidance he or she expects from an energy assessment.

Level 2 now has a quality-control step built in. The reporting forms require the auditor report energy savings as a percent of the base-case energy use of the primary fuel the measure impacts. Essentially, it requires the most basic level of quality control: How do my savings numbers compare to the base-case energy use?

Most well-qualified energy auditors already do some version of this check. This requirement eliminates the worst-offending energy-savings estimates—where the recommendation saves more than the base case uses. The approach also “flags” measures with very high savings estimates as something to double check.

About the Author

Jim Kelsey, P.E., BEAP
Jim Kelsey, P.E., BEAP, is president of kW Engineering, Oakland, Calif., and chairman of the ASHRAE 211 Committee, which recently oversaw the changes to and release of ASHRAE’s Standard 211, Standard for Commercial Building Energy Audits.

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