New Energy Dashboard Monitors Electricity Consumption

By: Mark Tarnacki

For the moose in the lobby of the new Dion Family Student Center at Saint Michael’s College, some days are better than others.

"Knightly the Moose," so named by Facilities Department chief Dave Cutler, is an animated creature that "lives" within a new "Energy Dashboard" on a big flat screen that hangs on the wall near Einstein's Bagels, monitoring campus electricity consumption. Knightly thrives or looks distressed based on real-time energy use as measured against pre-established optimal benchmarks for different times of the day or year.

Pushing any of several buttons on the screen allows students or other Quad Commons guests to think and learn more about conservation opportunities on campus, from saving electricity to recycling to riding the bus. Cutler says he and his team have enjoyed watching students engage with the dashboard from the first day that Quad Commons opened in late August.

A purposeful emphasis on interactive education distinguishes the Saint Michael's dashboard from other more casually informational models springing up at colleges around the U.S. as they try to cultivate a "greener" community mindset, says Heather Ellis, sustainability coordinator at St. Mike's. "We wanted a 'Wow! Factor' technology piece as green technology grows on this campus," says Ellis, referring particularly to such Quad Commons features as geothermal heating/cooling, high efficiency windows and boots on the roof for future solar panels.

She's been collaborating for about a year on the dashboard project with Cutler and Nick Wheelock, the Facilities worker who runs the controls for all campus Heating/Air Conditioning/Ventilation (HVAC) operations. Wheelock explains that power comes into campus via tall pieces of equipment located by the bushes behind McCarthy Arts Center. "We have a meter tied to that which is connected to the campus energy-management system," he says. For years, that energy-management system has provided a more-technical "dashboard" to monitor operational information for in-house experts and engineers. But this is the first time the public has been offered an understandable way to keep an eye on consumption.

Cutler says the college's earliest Honeywell energy-management system was already in place when he started in 1982, with successive updated versions based on that original. Wheelock says the old system - mainly the computers required to run it - was housed during the early 1990s in the basement of Founder's Hall before moving in 2003 to a newer, still massive computer-hardware-based system in the Jeanmarie IT rooms. Now, he says, everything runs on "virtual servers" in that IT room, which saves lots of space and money with great potential for future savings as he and his team continually learn new ways to optimize the system's efficiencies. "Instead of having 150 large servers with all that hardware taking up tons of space, now they have maybe 8, so it uses a whole lot less power," he says. One of those newer servers runs the new dashboard that is viewable in the Quad Commons, while the others run the energy management system that Wheelock and his team use for the rest of campus.

"Basically we can set time schedules to turn air handlers on and off, set points for different rooms and control how much mechanical cooling we want. It also lets us know when equipment fails, when temperatures are too hot or cold," says Wheelock, who also now monitors the new geothermal system for the Quad Buildings through the system, which he can access through his computer, whether on campus or at home.

Ellis is excited to have the new dashboard in Quad Commons and also now available to anybody via their computers or smartphones.

"There's six meters connected to the dashboard including for all the four quad residence halls connected to the Commons" she says. She'll use that as a springboard for residential education programs and competitions among dorms. A "leaderboard" viewable on the dashboard tracks kilowatt usage by dorm, and kilowatts are explained in terms people can relate to - "it might say the amount you saved is the equivalent to heating this many homes or running this many computers, for instance," she says.

Since Honeywell didn't really deal in educational software packages when Cutler, Ellis and Wheelock started looking into it, Cutler and Wheelock shopped around for such a package that might be compatible and found QA Graphics, based in the Midwest. QA has helped develop the graphics and interfaces and done trouble-shooting. "We've made a great relationship and have been able to share ideas that benefit both of us," Cutler says. "We got a lot of design engineer time since we worked together on things that might be of interest to other colleges later, so we got what we wanted at no additional cost," he said. "The stars aligned and it was an excellent choice for us."

Wheelock says enabling the public educational dashboard "entailed getting meters installed and programmed and making them communicate from our system over to the dashboard software - getting old systems to talk to newer equipment and setting up another server to manage all the data to send to the dashboard." He says it would be easy in the future to add monitoring software and displays for gas or water too, even sewer usage, if the college finds funds to support it down the road.

Ellis says if too many people in residence halls leave lights on or run appliances all at once, Knightly could "almost die" in his "worst" animated scenario - one of four levels of consumption-based distress that QA Graphics developed. "His antlers will droop, his fur gets all matted and his pond and environment will look dried up and scary with storms in the sky," she says. "But lately Knightly has been happy since usage is so low - we did lots of projects over the summer to cut back kilowatt usage overall."

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