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Blog: Older Buildings Represent an Energy-Saving Gold Mine

A recent article from Forbes magazine highlighted the energy-saving opportunities present in older commercial buildings—opportunities the Energy Alliance Group of Michigan (EAG) is immersed in every day.

On a recent walkthrough of a client’s 50-year-old building, EAG CEO Scott Ringlein was amazed at the accumulation of energy-intensive technology from an era when the cost of energy was insignificant. The older technology represented a collective waste of energy compared to the highly efficient technology available today.

Ringlein had been asked to perform a feasibility audit for determining the energy-saving potential of a green renovation. He reviewed not only the building, but also the energy demands of the business operation it contained.

The building operation was very energy-intensive. The owner wanted to improve his profitability by reducing the expense of energy. His goal was to reduce wasted energy in the most cost-effective manner. Of special interest was an understanding of all the potential rebates and tax incentives and the availability of Property Assessed Clean Energy to finance the project.

During the walkthrough, Ringlein discussed with the chief financial officer the five most common areas of wasted energy in older buildings. Here were the highlights:


Insulation that has been torn, compressed, saturated with moisture, never installed or has become degraded due to age creates a huge opportunity for energy to leak from a building. Upgrading building insulation can result in energy savings of 30 percent.


Heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems use a tremendous amount of electricity and fuel. HVAC and lighting account for 70 percent of the utility bill for most commercial and industrial facilities. Poorly maintained or outdated technologies use a great deal more energy than newer systems, which have steadily improved their rates of efficiency. Coupling the HVAC with a building automation system greatly magnifies those efficiencies.


Older buildings typically use lights that are inefficient because of outdated light-switching devices. Depending on the existing lighting, advances in technology can offer energy savings of up to 80 percent. Using occupancy-sensor technology as well as a building management system could help reduce commercial lighting costs by an additional 45 percent.


Poorly designed windows leak air and lose energy. They also create a greenhouse effect, which drives up the cost of air conditioning. Replacing old windows with newer models can result in up to three times the efficiency. Adding energy-efficient film to existing windows can also decrease energy waste with a minimum of expense.

Wasted heat

Chimney exhaust from older buildings contains a lot of heat and moisture, but it simply rises up into the atmosphere and is forgotten. New technology can capture a large percentage of that heat and moisture, allowing it to be recycled for other uses within the building. The water can be used for irrigation, and the heat can be used in any number of ways.

What Ringlein found is that most building owners don’t realize how inefficient their buildings have become or how wasted energy is reducing their profitability. Owners also have little understanding of the variety of technologies that are now available to improve efficiency. Their biggest concern is typically how much an energy-efficient renovation would cost, and whether the resulting savings would offset the cost. 

One of the biggest unknowns for many energy-conscious building owners is which questions they should even ask (see the report 10 Questions to Ask Before an Energy Efficiency Upgrade). Understanding all of the programs available to make energy projects easy to launch and affordable—rebates, incentives and financing—is a big part of those unknowns. Knowing what is available can often be the difference between saving energy and wasting energy.

There is huge potential for saving money and reducing wasted energy in older buildings. Understanding how much money and energy are being wasted often becomes the driving force for taking the first step to saving energy. Continued knowledge, including all of the available technology, rebates, tax incentives and financing opportunities, can ultimately see the journey through to completion.


Kerry Kilpatrick is corporate social media director for the Energy Alliance Group of Michigan. He can be reached at kkilpatrick@energyalliancegroup.org

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