Tom Tribble sees his work as a Building Manager in the same light as the scientists he works closely with every day see theirs. As the Senior Facilities Manager for the Lab for Integrated Science and Engineering (LISE), the Physics complex, and Northwest Labs, Tribble manages 1,000,000 square feet of space and just like the physicists and engineers he is constantly trying to push the boundaries of what is possible for energy conservation.
A licensed Professional Engineer and graduate of the United States Merchant Marine Academy, he uses this background to engage in technical discussion with contractors and researchers, always on the lookout for a way to save energy and mold an atmosphere of sustainability in the buildings under his care. “I’m not just doing this for a pat on the back,” Tribble says. “It helps to understand the science involved, so that we can reach genuine understanding with both the scientists and the tradesmen who are trying to respond to their issues.”
Targeting Inefficiencies to Save Energy, Money
Nowhere is this clearer than in LISE, one of Harvard’s flagship science research buildings. Two and half years ago, LISE's annual energy budget was $3.5 million. By eliminating inefficiencies, the Building Operations team has already saved $1.0 million. Much of this came from the clean rooms, which are research spaces that maintain an extremely high level of air purity for scientific experiments. After talking with scientists in the building, it became clear that among other issues there was currently far more clean room recirculation air than needed.
Experimentation showed the air was actually being recycled much more quickly than needed to maintain the required air purity level. We looked at the data from the particle-count sensors and realized we could run with 25% of the “as commissioned” fan speed for most of the twenty-four hour daily operation,” Tribble says. Because fan laws relate power to flow rate exponentially this actually saved more than 75% of the power used. More than $100,000 per year was saved by calibrating the particulate counters measuring how clean the rooms were and connecting them into the feedback loop for the fan speed control, and another $300,000 by reimagining the way humidity control was handled.
Thinking Outside the Box
This thinking outside the box is what Tribble sees as the most important aspect of his job. He explains, “What I do is I assess a situation and try to challenge the fundamental assumptions most of us make about engineering and mechanical systems. Why should we believe the building was constructed exactly to design specifications? Why don’t we put up sensors and look at what is actually happening?” More often than not Tribble’s hunches are right, and he finds a gap in performance, a potential energy savings so obvious it is often overlooked.
While energy conservation is nothing new to Tribble, who has also managed facilities for UC San Diego, the larger concept of sustainability is something he’s still learning about every day. “With sustainability, you’re not just focused on a clear bottom line in terms of an energy budget,” he says. “You’re focusing on the whole picture and on the use of every one of your resources. It requires constant improvement to keep up with new technology, and it requires collaboration and working with others to share what’s working and what’s not. That makes it challenging, but it’s something I’ve really enjoyed doing over the past few years and I think there’s still a lot of room to improve.”