Top 6 Misconceptions About Optimizing Pharma Facilities

How HVAC optimization can help facilities managers cut water and energy use while maintaining product quality and compliance.

By Fred Woo, PE, Manager, Engineering, Optimum Energy

Pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities are energy intensive, and the HVAC system — the chilled water plant, steam and hot water plant, and air distribution — typically consumes a full 65 percent of the energy used, according to research by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

That is a strong case for HVAC optimization, which can cut a facility’s energy use and resulting costs by 20 to 50 percent sitewide, and reduce water use as well. However, misconceptions about what HVAC optimization is and what it requires often make facilities managers hesitant to pursue it. They may fear that product quality or production capacity will be compromised. They may also have concerns about IT security or believe their HVAC system is already optimized, even though it isn’t being controlled for optimum performance.

To reveal the true potential for HVAC optimization in a pharmaceutical manufacturing facility, we need to clear the cloud cover of misconceptions surrounding optimization technology.

Misconception #1: A dashboard and fault detection provide optimization

An energy dashboard and fault detection software provide only information. A true optimization solution automatically controls the facility’s HVAC system to deliver heating and cooling at the most energy-efficient levels. It takes a holistic approach to managing the system and all of its interactions, rather than addressing each piece of equipment in isolation. It also continuously measures system inputs (gas, electricity, and water) and outputs (heating, cooling, and air and water flows) so that it can dynamically adjust the system in real time. With these three elements in place — a system-level approach, automatic control and measurement — HVAC optimization can significantly reduce the amount of energy and water that a chilled water plant consumes.

When an HVAC system is optimized, you can stop throwing more energy at it to hide the symptoms of system deficiencies, because you’ll be getting the most output with the least input.

Misconception #2: A pharmaceutical manufacturing facility has too many restrictions to allow for optimization

Pharmaceutical facilities are complex environments that operate under strict constraints, but there are many HVAC optimization strategies that can save energy without compromising production.

The initial feasibility study for an optimization project should determine all the operational standards that the HVAC system must maintain, such as GMP validation in different spaces; temperature, humidity, and air change per hour (ACH) requirements; and hours of operation for each space.

In many cases, facilities are using far more energy than necessary to meet such requirements, and optimization will address that waste. Often, systems operate at fixed set points at all times, even when this isn’t necessary. ACH requirements, for example, do not need to be fulfilled 24 hours per day in facilities that are not operated 24 hours per day. A single room or piece of equipment that requires cooling may cause a whole chiller plant to run, even when it is the only load that requires cooling at a given time. In addition, some areas may have been converted for other uses without updating the HVAC operation set points and schedules, which can lead to over-conditioning of or excessive exhaust air from noncritical spaces.

An optimization provider should identify system requirements and develop a plan for addressing all needs with the lowest possible energy input. The solution could be as simple as adding an occupancy schedule and night setback setpoints to an air handler, shutting off unneeded exhaust fans, or installing a dedicated AC unit to provide cooling to a specific piece of equipment, allowing the chiller plant to shut down when it is not needed.

In the case of a chiller plant supplying GMP-validated spaces, it is important to identify the space requirements precisely. Many facilities operate with static chilled water temperature setpoints under the belief that these are needed to fulfill the validated space requirements. It may be possible, however, to vary the chilled water temperature without compromising space conditions. In addition, optimizing the cooling towers, condenser pumps, chiller staging, and chilled water pump operation could produce significant energy and cost reductions without compromising strict temperature or humidity requirements.

Misconception #3: A cloud-based optimization solution will compromise the facility’s IT security

Although new internet connections can be risky, connecting a building automation system (BAS) to a secure cloud-based optimization solution is not.

A cloud-based HVAC optimization solution collects real-time analytics and then runs diagnostics on the facility’s HVAC equipment in the solution provider’s data center. The connection can be protected with robust end-to-end security measures, including a platform that uses strong encryption and allows access only to energy-management data. With secure walls between the facility’s IT network and its BAS sensors and HVAC monitoring, hackers cannot use the optimization solution to access sensitive business data.

Misconception #4: HVAC optimization is too expensive

Doing nothing to cut energy and water use is the most expensive path, especially in regions with high utility rates and at facilities operating under mandates to reduce their carbon footprint.

An HVAC optimization project can deliver ROI in one to five years. Energy and water savings are immediate, as the system makes the chiller plant, air handlers, and boiler room operations more efficient as soon as it is switched on. And herein is the main difference between an optimization solution and a fault detection and recommendation system — optimization delivers efficiency gains immediately, while fault detection and recommendation gradually saves energy as systems learn from collected data.

The condition and age of the HVAC system will affect both the cost and the savings potential of an optimization project. The older and less controlled the HVAC system, the larger the potential savings, but also the larger the potential cost to bring the system to optimization readiness. The newer and more modern the HVAC system, the lower the cost and the potential savings.

The size of the facility and its HVAC system also affect costs. Larger and more centralized systems concentrate energy use in one place, where it’s easier to measure and optimize. A distributed system, such as one with numerous split-systems or rooftop direct expansion units, will require optimization and monitoring of each system and thus will cost more to optimize.

An HVAC system at the end of life provides another opportunity for optimization. If a system is ready for retirement, optimization along with equipment replacement provides a quantifiable financial payback that would not otherwise exist for the capital project. Replacing and optimizing a new chiller may have a 10- to 15-year payback, but replacing the chiller with no optimization may have a longer payback or none at all. This difference in payback could provide the impetus needed to secure funds to replace old equipment.

Optimizing a GMP-validated facility can be costlier due to the increased testing required for changing controls and revalidating parameters, so it is important for an optimization provider to clearly identify which HVAC systems serve validated spaces and what the requirements are. Depending on the additional testing costs, it may make sense to optimize only the parts of the HVAC system that do not serve critical spaces.

Misconception #5: If an HVAC plant consists of new, energy-efficient equipment, it doesn’t need optimization

Even the most modern equipment is efficient only if it is programmed and controlled to save energy. For example, variable frequency drives (VFDs) installed on pumps and fans can either control equipment at constant set points or be programmed to run at full speed all the time. New variable speed chillers can be more efficient than constant speed chillers, but only if their loads and lifts are managed to take advantage of variable speed operations.

The equipment must run as a system and respond to operating conditions. A true optimization solution also will continuously monitor and verify performance.

Misconception #6: Automating an HVAC system eliminates operations staff

Automating the controls of an HVAC system doesn’t replace facilities staff. This common belief often causes operations staff to resist deploying an optimization solution. In reality, HVAC optimization is a tool that enhances the work of facilities staff. It takes the guesswork out of running HVAC systems and frees staff from making manual adjustments. Ultimately, refocusing employees on work that requires human intelligence improves overall facilities operations.

Pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities face the same challenges that compel every industry to consider HVAC optimization: rising energy costs due to increased use or higher rates, corporate commitments to saving energy and meeting sustainability goals, and the challenges of operating hodge-podge systems assembled over time. Because they also consume unusually high amounts of water and energy, pharmaceutical facilities are particularly ripe for an optimization solution that can curtail resource consumption, reduce costs and improve operational efficiency.

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