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When Buildings Talk: The Story of Microsoft’s Energy-Smart-Buildings Initiative

By Mohan Reddy Guttapalem, Senior Facilities Manager, Microsoft

Every business has a story it tells about itself—a story that doesn’t typically involve its HVAC systems.

As building technicians know—in part, so other execs don’t have to—a company’s heating, ventilation, and cooling (HVAC) systems can make up 80 percent of its energy footprint. As such these systems sustain enormous potential for waste, particularly on large corporate campuses, because most HVAC systems run on so many unrelated components: coolers, heaters, chillers, dampers, and fans of different ages, from different manufacturers. Since these components use different protocols, they can’t “talk” to each other to coordinate as a single system.

In 2011, Microsoft implemented a technology solution that brought together all of these disparate systems to better manage the company’s energy footprint.

With 14.5 million square feet of office space at its Redmond headquarters, on over 500 acres, holding more than 30,000 of those unconnected components—the company knew this would be a daunting challenge.

The team was up to it. One of the members, who had driven systems optimization at other companies, wondered: What if we could lay a kind of “analytical blanket” of software atop the diverse systems, uniting them from the outside? That way, there would be minimal upgrades and no overhaul of components, no dramatic outlay of money. It would be a software that could improve and speed up the same problem-solving that was already being done manually.

What would such an “analytical blanket” entail? First, there’d be an investment in software. The team got buyoff on enlisting three energy management software providers for a pilot project, covering 13 Microsoft buildings. (These buildings stretched across 88 acres of Microsoft’s Redmond campus; hence the pilot’s name, 88 Acres.) Using existing wireless networks and internet connectivity, techs worked to integrate tens of thousands of HVAC component sensors, collecting data under a single cloud-based software layer and enabling a birds-eye view of all HVAC systems.

Early tests convinced execs that it made fiscal sense, and Microsoft’s Real Estate & Facilities managers agreed it made functional sense. Slightly harder to sell were the HVAC techs, whose pride in their buildings made it hard for them to welcome a tool whose job was to shine a light on every little thing that was wrong within their systems. However, as the pilot evolved and revealed what it could do, they began to see how this Energy Smart Buildings technology—known as ESB—freed them to spend less time data-gathering, and more time engineering.

But not until they flipped the switch did the company comprehend the full value of what it had unleashed. In an instant, the central dashboard lit up with real-time faults, potential problems, and notable wastes of energy. In one building, the software reported a pressurization problem in a chilled water system—an issue that took less than five minutes to fix but would’ve wasted $12,000 a year had it gone undetected.

It didn’t take long for ESB to prove itself as a substantive way for companies to reduce their energy consumption. Indeed, the results from the early pilot compelled Microsoft to adopt the solution across its 118-building Redmond, Washington campus, saving the company $700,000 the first year.

Since then, through more than 500 million real-time transactions per day from over 2 million connection points on some 50,000 pieces of equipment, technicians using Azure generated Business Intelligence dashboards have been able to triage problems, some 40 percent of the time making corrections remotely using the cloud. A daily “Top 500” chart presents the day’s faults, grouped by cost and priority. Business and employee impacts are highlighted. Costs are calculated for leaving each fix unresolved. Technicians can survey the system as a whole, or zoom in on one building, floor, even piece of equipment.

The reduction in energy consumption has been so conclusive—20% reduction to date—Microsoft implemented its ESB platform at its campuses in Silicon Valley, CA and Los Colinas, TX. ESB has been deployed globally, most recently in Shanghai and Beijing.

As news of Microsoft’s success with ESB has spread, companies from around the world and across many industries have reached out to learn about applying this technology in their workplaces. It’s particularly compelling once organizations hear that the money Microsoft spent fixing ESB-revealed inefficiencies were recouped within two years. What’s more, while Microsoft’s position at the cutting edge of this new technology meant lots of time and multiple iterations, subsequent implementations have been dramatically streamlined.

With ESB in full global deployment, the team is now leveraging the same technology to optimize workplace productivity, by keeping workplaces operational and comfortable. This is done through predictive analytics: applying billions of points of machine condition data to point up failures before they occur, thus solving heating and cooling problems long before employees are bothered by them.

This predictive approach is transforming how Microsoft manages its building systems, from elevator maintenance to chiller plant management and beyond. It transcends the old reactive model, where occupants complain, then techs respond, diagnose, and repair. Now, with problems headed off before occupants feel discomfort, energy and workforce costs are saved—and employee comfort remains uninterrupted.

Commercial buildings currently consume an estimated 40 percent of the world’s energy. Reducing their carbon footprint will increasingly become every business’s mandate—not only from governmental bodies, but as ethical citizens. Microsoft’s implementation of ESB to manage building operations has had a resounding impact on the company’s energy consumption and is contributing to the company’s sustainability goals.

And that explains why Microsoft likes telling stories about its HVAC systems.

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