Technical building systems: An overview
The 2010 Energy Performance of Buildings directive (EPBD) introduced new policies to cut wasteful energy use across European homes, commercial buildings and offices. It required all new buildings built after end 2020 to be “nearly zero-energy” – meaning they have very high energy performance and use most of their energy from renewable sources.
Ensuring optimum use of energy in existing buildings is considered essential in order to reach this point. But it also often means overhauling the way energy is managed across a whole range of equipment – such as heating, hot water, ventilation or air conditioning – that consumes most of the energy in private homes and commercial buildings.
And cash-strapped homeowners and small business usually prefer delaying such kinds of investments, because they don't always see an immediate benefit.
The energy savings potential of modernising those systems could be “significant” however, according to the European Commission. And down the line, they will translate into lower energy bills for consumers and businesses.
A study contracted by the Commission shows for instance the primary energy savings and CO2 emissions reductions that can be expected from the application of Ecodesign and energy labelling measures linked to space heating, hot water, cooling and large ventilation systems in domestic and commercial buildings. By 2030, these could reach 122 Million tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe) and 240 Mt of CO2 across the EU every year, the study found.
Moreover, some investments in new technical building systems can be easily recouped. A recent study by Ecofys, a consultancy, found that upgrading some TBS comes with a payback time of 2-5 years on average, without any lock-in effect. And some are really cheap and easy, like replacing a thermostatic valve on a domestic heater, which can have a great impact on energy savings.
The European Union has agreed a headline objective of cutting energy consumption by 30% under a broader climate and energy policy for 2030.
But ironically, in the next five years, progress in getting self-driving cars on the road is expected to be faster than taking advantage of efficiency technologies that already exist – such as Technical Building Systems.
The current Energy Performance of Buildings Directive has a number of provisions aimed at cutting energy use from TBS, which are listed under Article 8. In particular, EU countries are requested to “set system requirements” to ensure the overall energy performance of equipment installed in the existing building stock. These are defined as: 1) Heating systems; 2) Hot water systems; 3) Air-conditioning systems; 4) Large ventilation systems.
EU member states are encouraged to do this through “the installation of active control systems such as automation, control and monitoring systems that aim to save energy”. These are increasingly managed digitally, with lights or heating switching on and off depending on the usage of the building or where the occupants are.
EPBD revision: Focus on e-mobility
More generally, the European Commission told EURACTIV that TBS “have an important role in the performance of buildings”. To optimise their energy use, Article 8 of the current EPBD requires EU member states to ensure their “appropriate dimensioning, adjustment and control, as well as obligations on the regular inspection of heating and cooling systems”.
These provisions were updated in the revised EPBD, tabled by the Commission in November 2016 as part of a wider package of laws on the clean energy transition. Except this time, the ambition is much higher, with a flagship objective to completely decarbonise the EU’s building stock by 2050.
So what about the role of TBS in meeting this objective? In the case of large installations, the revised text promotes electronic monitoring and building automation as a replacement for inspections, the Commission told EURACTIV in e-mailed comments. It also includes measures for documenting upgrades of technical building systems.
But other provisions related to technical building systems (Article 8) remained largely unchanged.
The most significant amendments are related to the promotion of e-mobility, by boosting the installation of recharging points for electric vehicles in private buildings. The draft text of the revised directive says that whenever a building with more than ten parking spaces undergoes major renovation, at least one of them should be equipped with a recharging point.
Vast untapped potential
As a result, most of the discussion around the revision of Article 8 has revolved around electric vehicles. And some experts believe this has diverted attention from other improvements in TBS, where the energy savings potential is still vast.
A recent study by Ecofys, a consultancy, has evaluated the annual primary energy savings potential in 2030 linked to the optimisation of Technical Building Systems. It consists of:
- 27 Mtoe (and 61 Mt CO2) in the case of consistent basic optimisation of TBS; and
- 58 Mtoe (and 126 Mt CO2) with additional advanced building automation and control systems (BACS).
Danish energy firm Danfoss, which contracted the study, says there is an enormous potential there waiting to be tapped. According to Ecofys, this would amount to €67 billion savings on energy bills for citizens annually by 2030 – or the equivalent of taking 82 million cars off the road.
“It’s time to wake up a sleeping giant,” Danfoss said about the study. “We are talking about no-regret measures that can quickly deliver very significant reductions of energy consumption, energy bills and CO2 emissions.”
The Ecofys study underlined the “little attention” paid by EU member states to Article 8, saying implementation at national level is “far from complete” and often related to “trivialities” about product certification.
In particular, the study highlighted “a serious lack of awareness” among national authorities that energy performance needs to be examined “whenever TBS in existing buildings are newly installed, replaced or upgraded”, not just when major renovation takes place.
In addition, authorities seem to confuse overall “system” requirements with the efficiency of separate components taken individually, such as boilers and pipes, without looking at the “combination” of those.
The result is a collection of “scattered requirements” for individual components without any real attempt to look at energy efficiency of technical building systems as a whole. “Building automation, which has the potential to optimise this interaction, is addressed even less,” the report says, pointing to “a severe lack of guidance on how to interpret and implement Article 8”, which could be addressed in the upcoming EPBD revision.
The study concludes on the more positive note, however, that final energy savings “of up to 20-40%” could be achieved if Article 8 was implemented more consistently. Best of all, most of these savings don’t require fancy technologies or costly implementation. “This is because so far even basic low-invasive measures that require low investment have been rarely implemented,” the study points out, citing room temperature controls that empower consumers to act on feedback from heat consumption.
Another suggestion includes modifying Energy Performance Certificates (EPC) to distinguish the insulation of walls and windows from the energy performance of TBS. For this purpose, the European Commission proposed to include a “smartness indicator” to rate the readiness of a building to adapt its operations to the needs of the occupants and of the grid.